Corruption in Egypt

Fighting Bribery out of Self-Interest

The fight against corruption in Egypt mostly only serves individual interests. An audit office exists, but it is not independent. There are, however, sings of change. Frederik Richter reports from Cairo

The fight against corruption in Egypt mostly only serves individual interests. An audit office exists, but it is not independent. There are, however, sings of change. Frederick Richter reports from Cairo

photo: Irin News
Egyptian civil society has become more involved in fighting corruption. The picture shows a demonstration of the Kifayah movement

​​For years there were rumors, then suddenly Mustafa Bakri knew everything. The editor in chief of the independent weekly newspaper Al Osbou published a series of articles about Ibrahim Nafie, who was until July of this year the head of the state press agency Al-Ahram, in which he listed in embarrassing detail the state money Nafie had pocketed. Nafie took in a half million dollars per year, disguised as commissions for the sale of advertising.

Over the course of his more than 20 years in office, he is said to have accumulated 70 million dollars. Corruption is rampant in Egypt, Nafie just happens to be a prominent example that came to light this year. "Everywhere in the third world corruption is a function of power and authority, on the one hand, and yet without accountability, on the other," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American sociologist and one of the most renowned critics of President Hosni Mubarak.

Incredible power without accountability

"It reaches the highest levels in Egypt, with a president who has incredible power without accountability and he has authorized his aids to direct certain areas without much accountability."

Ibrahim Nafie was in fact a close confidant of Mubarak and simultaneously his mouthpiece at the state press agency. So the state banks turned a blind eye. Now Nafie has stumbled and his fall tells a lot about why the fight against corruption in Egypt is not making progress.

An insider at Al Ahram suspects that Safwat Sherif, a political heavyweight in Mubarak's NDP party and also one of Mubarak's long time confidants, supplied Mustafa Bakri with the necessary information and documents. Until the summer of 2004 Sherif was information minister, he had been in power as long as Nafie, and he had a few scores to settle.

photo: Saleh Diab
The investigative journalists in Egypt are doing a great job, says Saad Eddin Ebrahim

​​This is how most corruption scandals come to light: rivals vying for power and money use their knowledge of their competitors' transgressions. On the other hand, the article appeared in the midst of the presidential election campaign in September.

Thus the fight against corruption in Egypt mostly only serves individual interests. An audit office exists, but it is not independent. "This office has disclosed several large corruption cases," says Ibrahim. "But they always need the green light from the president himself. In each case it later came out that they had known about the violations for a long time, but the timing of the disclosures seems to have been politically motivated."

Corruption in Egypt is so omnipresent that no entrepreneur, official or citizen can avoid it. It has become a fixed part of the economy as well as everyday life. Everyone is involved, many profit from it. So is anyone really interested in fighting corruption? Saad Eddin Ibrahim counters the notion: "Not everyone has authority which they can abuse. And the most well known people, political leaders, fight against corruption."

The Al Ahram company

One of the few of these well known people has his office so deep in the towers of Al Ahram that the light of day doesn't fall there. On his desk are newspapers and books piled so high that it looks like a fortress. The desk is occupied by Ahmed El Sayed El Naggar, editor in chief of Al Ahram's annual strategic economic report for political and strategic studies.

In the first issue published in 2000, El Naggar documented the corruption scandals surrounding the privatization of the Egyptian state economy in the 1990s. Businesses were sold off for less than the price of the land they possessed. He had already written about Nafie's commissions early in 2004. As a result, he was prohibited from writing for the agency's daily paper.

"I have no documents, therefore I can't say anything," El Naggar says today in relation to the accusations against Nafie. He now puts his trust in transparency and documentation and is waiting for the results of the judicial investigation.

During the twenty plus years of Ibrahim Nafie's time in office, Al Ahram never produced a single statement of their accounts. Yet it is said that the press agency is a conglomerate with around thirty companies. One produces office materials, another pharmaceuticals, a travel agency is said to be among them.

Al Ahram nonetheless has approximately 570 million euros worth of debts, and the two other big press houses, Al Akhbar and Al Gomhorreya, together have accrued an equal amount of debt. In early November the Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif asked the new heads of the three press agencies to attend a crisis session.

Corruption index ranking

On the corruption index compiled by Transparency International (TI), Egypt weighs in at 3.4 points out of 10, which means it ranks 70th. TI has no formal chapter in Egypt, but only a loose network of individuals and groups that feel responsible for the work of TI.

Helmy Aboul Eish, former director of SEKEM, tried two years ago to bring together twelve organizations. After about six months, he gave up. Aboul Eish says that the groups were trying to use the fight against corruption for their own political agenda and personal interests.

Now another attempt is underway. Hossam Badrawi, a known businessman from the reform wing of the governing NDP party, wants to formalize TI's presence in Egypt in the coming weeks. He admits that the fight against corruption in Egypt often serves personal interests. For this reason he wants to invite representatives of the opposition parties. "The principle is to have people there from different directions and groups, not just from one organization."

Pseudo-clarification

But Ahmed Sakr Ashout, professor for management at the University of Alexandria, is skeptical. He is listed on TI's homepage as a contact person for Egypt. He fears that the government wants to use Badrawi to control the fight against corruption, so that no independent groups can force the issue.

"It is very difficult to distinguish between people who have a genuine interest in fighting corruption and those who want to use the issue for their own political purposes." He hopes that Badrawi doesn't get much further than Aboul Eish did, because this would hurt the movement.

In fact, Aboul Eish and Badrawi are both close to the government. Both are being discussed as candidates for minister posts. Aboul Eish recently became the managing director of the EU-financed Industrial Modernization Center, which works closely together with the ministry for industry. There are also indications that the fight against corruption is gaining more importance in the government. During an economic conference in October, five ministers sat on a podium before the public and openly told one another stories about cases of corruption from their everyday lives.

Corruption is expensive for Egypt. According to a study by the University of Passau in Germany, there is a close connection between corruption and direct foreign investments. If a country is able to add on another point on the TI index, it can bring in 15% more investments. But the influence of the reformers in the cabinet and in the NDP is limited, and this insight has still not been picked up on by everyone.

Minister censored by television station

Minister of industry Rashid recently complained in the Al Ahram Weekly that prior to an interview with Egyptian state television, he was told not to mention the word corruption. "I am being censored by my own television station!"

Nonetheless, Saad Eddin Ibrahim sees progress. Egyptian civil society has become more involved in fighting corruption. In addition, the independent press has greater freedoms now. "Their investigative journalists are doing a great job."

The most effective means in the fight against corruption are democratic elections. Regardless of who it was that sent Mustafa Bakri the information about Nafie, his articles constituted part of his campaign for the journalists' union in September.

The agitator El-Naggar was elected to Al Ahram's administrative council in October, in part because he gained a reputation among his colleagues as a proponent of transparency. He wants to use his new office to gather information about the sea of corruption. "I want to find out what all belongs to Al Ahram."

Frederik Richter

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from German by Christina M. White

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