Egypt's ministers held to account
Gamal Essam El-Din, Thursday 18 Feb 2021
A majority of MPs say they are dissatisfied with the policy statements cabinet ministers delivered before the House of Representatives

Over the last month 28 cabinet ministers have delivered policy statements before the House of Representatives. The only ministers who have not appeared before MPs are the ministers of interior, defence and justice. While the latter is scheduled to address MPs when parliament reconvenes on 28 February, it is not yet clear whether the ministers of interior and defence will do so.

Ahmed Al-Sigini, head of parliament’s Local Administration Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli had invited the heads of parliament’s 25 committees to a meeting on Tuesday evening.

“The invitation, the first of its kind, reflects the prime minister’s concern about the response of MPs to the policy statements delivered by cabinet ministers,” said Al-Sigini. “He is aware some cabinet ministers were criticised by MPs and wants an open dialogue on this issue.”

The outcome of the meeting was still not known as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.

Al-Sigini said MPs believe some cabinet ministers should be replaced in a cabinet reshuffle.

Shawki Al-Sayed, a political analyst and former Shura Council member, told the Weekly that “people do not want a parliament just focused on passing laws.”

“They want a parliament that listens to their concerns and addresses injustice, and a government that accepts criticism.”

Minister of Information Osama Heikal was the cabinet minister who came under the most sustained attack.

An eight-page report issued by the Media and Culture Committee accused Heikal of poor performance and financial negligence. Released on 10 February, the report was scheduled to be discussed on Sunday but Heikal asked Speaker Hanafi Gibali to delay the discussion to give him time to compile a detailed response.

“A majority of committee members decided at the end of their discussion to reject the Minister of Information’s policy statement delivered on 19 January. They insisted that Heikal had failed to achieve the objectives of his ministry and had violated administrative and financial regulations,” said the report.

The report questioned the constitutionality of Heikal serving as minister of information and chairman of the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), and suggested this violated both Article 166 of the constitution and Article 79 of the joint-stock companies’ law.

‘“It is deplorable that since coming to office in December 2019 the minister of information has failed to improve the financial performance of the EMPC. The only thing he seems to have done as head of EMPC is to raise his salary to LE100,000 a month,” said the report.

“The minister’s aggressive statements against Egyptian journalists and media workers, accusing them of poor performance, have been exploited by hostile television channels broadcasting from Qatar and Turkey to attack the Egyptian state,” the report continued.

“Heikal was guilty of another error of judgement when he claimed that the Ethiopian media had bettered the Egyptian media in its coverage of GERD negotiations in Washington last year.”

According to the report, Heikal’s statements fanned tensions between the minister and Egyptian journalists and media institutions.

“These conflicts undermined the ability to forge a national media strategy capable of defending state interests in the face of hostile foreign media outlets,” claimed the report.

It added that “Heikal should have coordinated with local media institutions to settle the debts of the National Press Organisation and the National Media Organisation and improve the performance of National Radio and Television.”

MPs also criticised Heikal for failing to formulate a national media strategy capable of fighting extremist ideologies and containing malicious rumours against the state.

The report concluded by saying it was up to senior politicians to decide whether the Information Ministry be scrapped.

Deputy chairman of parliament’s Media and Culture Committee Tamer Abdel-Qader said in a TV interview that the Information Ministry was “redundant and a waste of public funds”.

Minister of Public Enterprise Hisham Tawfik faced criticism from MPs affiliated with the Committees of Industry, Labour, and Economic Affairs.

In a meeting last week, the Industry Committee accused Tawfik, who delivered his statement before MPs on 21 January, of “pursuing a policy of liquidation” against public sector companies, including the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company.

MPs said Tawfik had ignored their views, and those of the public, by insisting to pursue policies that will fuel social unrest and increase unemployment.

MPs have demanded a fact-finding commission be formed to investigate Tawfik’s privatisation policies.

Chairman of the Industry Committee Moataz Mohamed said the figures cited by Minister Tawfik in his policy statement should all be verified by the commission. “The figures on the Iron and Steel Company in particular will be checked,” he said.

The policy statement delivered by Minister of Planning Hala Al-Said on 8 February went down poorly with the Budget Committee which issued a report saying the government has yet to adopt a rational policy vis-a-vis foreign borrowing. “Foreign debt rose from $60 billion in 2014 to more than $110 billion in 2019, and it is still rising,” said the report.

The report dismissed Al-Said’s claim that the poverty rate had fallen from 32.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 29.7 per cent in 2019-20.

“Reports issued by the Institute of National Planning said the implementation of the 2016-2019 economic reform programme had left 44 per cent of the population of Egypt living under the poverty line,” pointed out the committee.

The ministers of agriculture, petroleum, local development, housing, education, religious endowments, and supply and internal trade were summoned to meetings on Monday to discuss the policy statements they had delivered over the last three weeks. On the same day Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli met with MPs affiliated with the local Administration and Housing Committees to discuss new building and urban planning regulations. MPs blame the proliferation of illegal buildings on the government’s lax implementation of existing laws.

Madbouli said the government is serious in cracking down on illegal construction and that the new construction code will be strict, covering everything from height to the painting of façades.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February , 2021 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly