Sunday, April 1, 2012

Corruption fills the air as Egypt prepares to vote

World View: Citizens here expect their leaders and officials to want bribes, and they're almost never wrong

By Patrick Cockburn

Sunday 01 April 2012

"....Official corruption played a central role in provoking the uprisings that swept through the Arab world last year. In Egypt, the incompetence and dysfunctional nature of the state seems worse than elsewhere. For instance, one-third of the Egyptian budget is spent on subsidies, but Magda Kandil, the executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, says they "are the biggest source of social injustice". Subsidies such as bottled butane gas, a necessity for cooking in districts without main gas, is heavily subsidised but the money disappears into the pockets of middlemen so gas is still expensive. Bread, though cheap, is often inedible because the government doesn't inspect bakeries. Heavily subsidised cheap fuel means streets clogged with vehicles and some of the world's worst traffic jams. And so underpaid are officials that they cannot survive without bribes.

What makes Egyptian corruption so striking is the extent of open and degrading inequality compared with other countries in the region. Some 45 per cent of the 85 million Egyptians scrape by on less than $2 (£1.25) a day, while a small layer at the top live in palaces and work in air-conditioned glass towers. It would be difficult for anywhere to be more corrupt than Iraq, but at least it has $100bn in oil revenues. Iraqi soldiers and primary school teachers take home a reasonable salary, however much their leaders steal.

Corruption in Egypt is spreading fast into new and profitable areas.....

Can this system of special deals, privileges and corruption be dismantled or even reformed? The question goes right to the heart of Egyptian politics. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which, in so far as anybody is running Egypt, is in charge, wants the military to retain the perks it has accumulated since Nasser seized power in 1952.

Probably the Muslim Brotherhood will let it do so, so long as the army loses its political supremacy. This may well happen. Professor Khalid Fahmy, chairman of the department of history at the American University in Cairo, says that the weakness of the council and the army is that "[they] do not have a political partner like South American military regimes, which are allied to big landowners or big capital. The military needs the brotherhood more than the brotherhood needs them.".......

The struggle between the council and the brotherhood is increasingly intense as the latter tries to get rid of a military-appointed government. The brotherhood, which won a plurality in the parliamentary election, has now decided it will run its own candidate for president in May. A new constitution is being drawn up. The army will fight to retain its authority, but the crucial dates in the political calendar revolve around elections or actions by elected bodies. The good news for the brotherhood is that the militarised police state that has misruled Egypt for 200 years, should not be a hard act to follow.

Whoever rules Egypt in future will have to deal with the legacy of a racketeering state in which education and health are in a state of collapse. Egyptian officialdom is unlikely to become honest, or even competent, overnight. Good times may not be around the corner, but the old police state that treated Egypt as if it were a conquered country has probably gone for ever."

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