As President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi assumed a second term in office earlier this year, Egypt continues to undergo economic reforms in the hope of boosting investments. But bureaucracy and corruption remain persistent issues.
The government is implementing different means to counter such issues facing investors. The Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation has been restructured in a way to make paperwork easier. State officials have also been facing accountability over crimes of corruption.
The Administrative Prosecution Authority (APA) is a government body that is actively pursuing the elimination of corruption. The judicial entity has opened a series of investigations into corruption allegations, aimed at holding responsible those whose illegal actions lead to serious accidents with human and material losses.
In a recently issued report, the APA’s investment cases unit announced it recovered nearly EGP 16 bn of state funds, mostly from pursuing payments for state-owned lands which were previously either allocated for free to investors or sold at very low prices. The unit has also contributed to reducing the hassle of long-term dispute resolution.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, the APA’s spokesperson, Mohamed Samir, explained how the authority’s role is expanding to seek more transparency on cases that relate to every aspect of Egyptians’ political, social, and economic lives.
Samir, who also teaches political science and constitutional law, is a strong advocate of female equality in Egypt. Amid issues facing the appointment of women in the judiciary, Samir argued that male domination and the misuse of a religious narrative prevent the protection of women’s rights.
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that change is going to come, by the force of law and the constitution. In fact, he proudly states that the APA has a 43% female employment rate, including both the current and former presidents of the entity.
How do you view the securing of a second presidential term and what are your expectations?
The first presidential term was marked by several challenges on top of which came fighting terrorism and facing corruption. It was the foundation phase of the post-30 June state. I expect more stability to come, especially after the painful medicine of economic reform policies. What we hope for in this phase is more legislation touching upon the socio-political situation such as laws organising the work of judicial institutions like ourselves, we wish to see more women guarantees for women rights, fighting discrimination, transparency, enhancing the role of the media, and information exchange. In short, more support for media and freedoms.
The APA is investigating two recent incidents; the floods in New Cairo and the blaze at the new Grand Egyptian Museum. What are the latest updates on those cases and would you say they come amid a series of failures caused by corruption and negligence?
These are accidents which grabbed the attention of public opinion. Indeed, the APA is conducting investigations. With regards to the first one, a technical committee is trying to answer a number of questions on infrastructure problems, including emergency measures during rainfall and establishing whether the infrastructure initially met the required standards. Through investigations, the APA is not only seeking accountability but also means to prevent the repetition of such crises.
As for the Grand Egyptian Museum, we already stated that there were no human losses. But there could have been, which is why it is important to find out if the blaze was cause by negligence. This museum contains things of huge value with unique pieces that do not exist elsewhere.
We regularly work on preventative measures through our annual reports or recommendations in large-scale investigations. Some may be implemented and others not, maybe due to budget problems, which leads to redundancy of events, but we are monitoring and connecting with concerned entities to minimise the pattern of accidents. I must point out it is an additional task since our job initially comes after accidents occur.
How responsive are state entities to your initiative?
Several ministries make amendments in their systems based on our advice. Our annual report, coming out soon, will detail which did and which did not.
A recent report released by the APA’s investment cases unit traces conflict resolutions achieved between investors and the state. What could you tell us about the wider investment atmosphere in Egypt?
Bureaucratic routine and corruption are two major obstacles facing foreign and local investors in Egypt. The unit was established to solve issues of investors, for whom time equals money, in the shortest time periods possible, even maybe within a day or two.
The advantage of having the unit for investors is that it enjoys non-judicial powers that move faster than traditional judicial investigations. Its role is to contact all parties of the conflict. The unit is also tasked with following up on the implementation of decisions issued in favour of investors.
We found that when pressured by such judicial monitoring, government entities tend to be more responsive.
Where does Egypt stand on fighting corruption and why do we regularly hear about officials getting arrested on charges of bribery and embezzlement?
I would say that we witnessed a turning point in corruption cases in 2011, which significantly increased due to people’s eagerness to speak out and report violations, our statistics show. People were driven by holding the regime and any public employee accountable.
It also took real political will to fight corruption; the current regime decided to take drastic measures against corruption and clearly demanded that no official gets away with it. This was after realising how much money corruption costs us.
I am not saying there isn’t widespread corruption, but we are exposing it and we are making greater efforts to combat it, hoping for public awareness and trust in the judicial system.
Do you think people’s awareness is changing? For example, would citizens not pay a bribe and have their paperwork finished faster, instead take the time to report it and wait for their legal rights?
I agree. How would I convince someone not to pay a small bribe and have their license issued and wait instead for one or two months until we investigate the complaint? This is why there is a clear and only alternative: less human involvement in the process.
Automation is not an impossible dream. It has already started in the Investment Ministry and the APA is working on introducing the system as well. The corrupt will naturally resist automation and there is a lack of awareness among some high-ranking officials. People think putting a database on the cloud is unsafe.
It will take time, but it will happen. It is not an option anymore for any country not to have automated systems.
Automation is the most efficient administrative reform needed in public sector services.
Is tax evasion a problem in Egypt?
Of course. It seems like the only people properly paying taxes are those getting their salaries from the government. Some businesspersons are experts in scheming their finances and bribing tax officials.
Again, automation is the solution. The less we depend on cash and rely on banking transactions, the better we can limit tax evasion, which is a federal felony.
There’s also a problem in reporting tax evasion because, usually, all parties are guilty.
As a political science expert, I would say that parliament was formed in critical times. I personally think parliament did not achieve the people’s ambitions after two revolutions. We are still in need of turning constitutional texts into law.
I understand why randomness and a chaotic political scene take time to stabilise after revolutions. We are still experiencing the democratic system and taking our time to learn.
What do you think of some members of parliament calling for the amendment of the constitution to extend presidential terms or length of terms?
I think this would damage the regime. I don’t think it is a right decision to extend presidential terms and I don’t think that’s what the regime wants. I think the president bears a great share of responsibility and will continue to do so in this phase. We earned good things with our constitution, let’s not ruin them.
Maybe extending the length of a term from four to six could be discussed, but not now. This would not only be a way to earn people’s trust, but also to prove that we truly are seeking democratic rule.
Could you tell us about the APA’s role in women’s rights issues?
The APA investigates cases related to women’s rights. We have brought a mosque official in for interrogation after we found out he allowed the marriage of 27 minor girls. This is a very serious issue where people lack awareness, instead committing a series of crimes against these young girls.
We have also worked with the Ministry of Education and succeeded in changing a rule to give more authority for divorced women who have child custody over their children’s education system.
The APA is further working on sexual harassment in workplaces inside public institutions. I must also point out that there is a major problem of harassment of female students in schools and we are encouraging parents to report that.
Why is the appointment of women in some judicial institutions still a problem despite the constitution and laws?
Unfortunately, the percentage of women working in the judiciary is only 0.5%, meaning that it is a very male-dominated field. No women are appointed at the State Council or the general prosecution.
There are no legal obstacles, women have that right, and even in the face of some conservative religious rhetoric, these arguments have been countered.
It remains a problem of mentality where women are stereotyped to either domestic roles or certain jobs. Saudi Arabia, which recently sought to have female prosecutors, is almost certainly going to advance ahead of Egypt in women rights.