FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Egypt: Marinated in Corruption

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Who shall doubt “the secret hid

Under Cheop’s pyramid”

Was that the contractors did

Cheops out of several millions?

Or that Joseph’s sudden rise

To Comptroller of Supplies

Was a fraud of monstrous size                                                                   

On King Pharaoh’s swart civilians?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Rudyard Kipling’s caustic verses denouncing the corruption of state officials sound as sharp and relevant today as they did in 1886. He drew examples from ancient Egypt, though his experience was in British-ruled India where things were supposedly better run. But Egyptians today should see nothing much to complain of in his picture of Egypt, ancient and modern, as a corrupt and parasitic growth siphoning off wealth into the pockets of the few.

 

The cynicism of Egyptians about the greed of their rulers knows few limits. A foot-and-mouth epidemic has been spreading through the countryside. Ruined farmers are dumping dead cattle outside official buildings to protest against the failure of the government to help. In Cairo, people have largely stopped eating meat; butchers’ shops are empty. I went into one in the Abdeen district of central Cairo last week where Islam Manas and Abu Galal were cutting thin steaks from a joint of beef, but there were no customers. They put all the blame on the authorities, Mr Manas saying that “the government is pumping out a lot of propaganda about the epidemic so officials can make money out of selling fish and chicken”. Other butchers assumed that the state’s only reaction to this minor crisis would be to seek to profit from it.

Presumption of official wrong-doing and self-interest is pervasive. I also talked to bus drivers who are on strike across Cairo. At the Moneib bus station, Khalaf Abdul Kader, who has worked on the buses for 16 years, suspected that one reason why the state bus company did not want any reform was that its officials were fearful of having to account for how they have been spending the company’s revenues in past decades. He said the strikers wanted not only better benefits, but “we want some respect from our employers”.

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 subsidized 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 subsidized 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: cigarettes are smuggled in from abroad and sold at rock-bottom prices. This is reported to cost the state $663m a year. The export of rice has been banned, but half the annual crop – some 600,000 tons – is smuggled out of the country. Importers in the Gulf say they can still buy Egyptian rice, but they have to deal with gangsters to get it.

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.”

Egyptian liberals often depress themselves with talk of the triumph of the counter-revolution, the success of the deep-laid plots of the military to retain power, or the coming enforced Islamicization of the country under the brotherhood. Certainly, nothing is settled in Egypt and nobody knows how much power anybody holds or will hold infuture.

As crime and violence increases, the supreme council has encouraged xenophobia by persecuting foreign NGOs and presented itself as a bulwark against chaos. These tactics have had some success, but the military appears to be making up its strategy as it goes along. For instance, Egyptians are suspicious of foreigners, particularly Americans, so the persecution of NGOs was going well until the council lost its nerve under US pressure, allowing American NGO members, previously forbidden to leave Egypt, to go home. Violence has increased since the January 2011 revolution but, outside North Sinai, Egypt is remarkably peaceful.

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 militarized 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.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 22, 2017
Diana Johnstone
All Power to the Banks! The Winners-Take-All Regime of Emmanuel Macron
Robert Fisk
Hypocrisy and Condescension: Trump’s Speech to the Middle East
John Grant
Jeff Sessions, Jesus Christ and the Return of Reefer Madness
Nozomi Hayase
Trump and the Resurgence of Colonial Racism
Rev. William Alberts
The Normalizing of Authoritarianism in America
Frank Stricker
Getting Full Employment: the Fake Way and the Right Way 
Jamie Davidson
Red Terror: Anti-Corbynism and Double Standards
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, Sweden, and Continuing Battles
Robert Jensen
Beyond Liberal Pieties: the Radical Challenge for Journalism
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Extravagant Saudi Trip Distracts from His Crisis at Home
Angie Beeman
Gig Economy or Odd Jobs: What May Seem Trendy to Privileged City Dwellers and Suburbanites is as Old as Poverty
Colin Todhunter
The Public Or The Agrochemical Industry: Who Does The European Chemicals Agency Serve?
Jerrod A. Laber
Somalia’s Worsening Drought: Blowback From US Policy
Michael J. Sainato
Police Claimed Black Man Who Died in Custody Was Faking It
Clancy Sigal
I’m a Trump Guy, So What?
Gerry Condon
In Defense of Tulsi Gabbard
Weekend Edition
May 19, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Getting Assange: the Untold Story
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Secret Sharer
Charles Pierson
Trump’s First Hundred Days of War Crimes
Paul Street
How Russia Became “Our Adversary” Again
Andrew Levine
Legitimation Crises
Mike Whitney
Seth Rich, Craig Murray and the Sinister Stewards of the National Security State 
Robert Hunziker
Early-Stage Antarctica Death Rattle Sparks NY Times Journalists Trip
Ken Levy
Why – How – Do They Still Love Trump?
Bruce E. Levine
“Hegemony How-To”: Rethinking Activism and Embracing Power
Robert Fisk
The Real Aim of Trump’s Trip to Saudi Arabia
Christiane Saliba
Slavery Now: Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia
Chris Gilbert
The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project
Howard Lisnoff
Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Brian Cloughley
Propaganda Feeds Fear and Loathing
Stephen Cooper
Is Alabama Hiding Evidence It Tortured Two of Its Citizens?
Sheldon Richman
The Real Danger From Trump is Ignored
Jay Moore
Learning from History: Resistance in the 1850s and Today
Matthew Stevenson
Down and Out in London and Paris With Macron, May, Trump and Gatsby
David Jaffee
Rolling Back Democracy
Fred Gardner
Irrefutable Proof: Russian Election Meddling Documented!
Jess Guh
Neurology Study Reveals What We Already Know: People of Color Get Worse Healthcare
Joseph Natoli
A Culture of Narcissism, a Politics of Personality
David Rosen
Politics and the Agent of Social Change
Ian Almond
The Secret Joke of Our Democracy: Britain’s Elephant in the Boardroom
Andre Vltchek
Revolution Vs Passivity
Erik Rydberg
Stop the Jordan Cove LNG Project #NoLNG
Vijay Prashad
When Israeli Fighter Jets Almost Killed Nehru
Christopher Brauchli
The Certified Trump
Chuck Collins
Congress Wants to Cut Your Health Care — And Billionaires’ Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail