Billionaire's death sentence belies Egypt's turmoil

In Egypt, the perception that thieves and fraudsters dominate the government is as pervasive as it is abiding.

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CAIRO // When Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a well-connected billionaire industrialist, was sentenced to death several months ago for hiring a hit-man to murder a famous Lebanese singer in her Dubai apartment, Egyptians were surprised. Not because Mustafa had planned a murder, but that the political machine had allowed one of its own to face justice.

But if Mr Mustafa's conviction had critics of Egypt's regime wondering if justice had finally become blind, a string of scandals this parliamentary term involving prominent members of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has added to a pattern of high-level intrigues that government opponents say proves the rule rather than the exception. And in Egypt, the perception that thieves and fraudsters dominate the government is as pervasive as it is abiding. Last year, Transparency International (TI), a global organisation dedicated to monitoring corruption, placed Egypt at 115 in a ranking of 180 nations on its annual Corruption Perception Index, which evaluates governance practices through citizen surveys.

TI gave Egypt a score of 2.8 out of 10 - a number that has not wavered substantially since surveys of the country began in 1998. "Egypt has the highest rates of corruption according to a lot of statistics," said Saad Aboud, the head of the opposition Karamah Party, a small, unregistered political group. "The National Democratic Party holds the lion's share in this marriage between money and power. Businessmen are the ones who are controlling the political life in Egypt and they are the ones in control of decisions in parliament and most other agencies."

But whether corruption is indeed as prevalent in Egypt - particularly among elites in government and business - as the majority of Egyptians believe is difficult to measure. Evaluating corruption on a country by country basis is not a scientific process, said Christiaan Poortman, Transparency International's director of global programmes. Nevertheless, recording the perceptions of individual citizens can open a small window into the extent of fraud within the highest levels of governance because low-level bribe-taking and fraud reveal systemic problems higher up the political food-chain, said Mr Poortman.

The case of Yehia Wahdan is only a minor example, said Sobhi Saleh, a parliamentarian for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. During this year's parliamentary session alone, Emad el Geldah, an NDP politician, was charged with taking bribes in three separate courts. Another NDP parliamentarian, Hany Sorour, was implicated in a scandal to import defective blood transfusion bags for the Ministry of Health. Il Hamy Ageena, also from the NDP, resigned after accusations of forgery surfaced in the media. And of course, the case of Mustafa, who is an NDP representative in Egypt's upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, is the most famous scandal this year, said Mr Saleh.

But others maintain that low-level corruption does not necessarily reveal improprieties in the highest reaches of power. Poverty, lack of education, the government's ambitious economic privatisation programme and the weakening of social services - such as health care and public schools - that were once guaranteed have all conspired to paint a vivid picture of ruling politicians who care little for the average Egyptian, said Hassan Saber, a telecommunications engineer who was drinking a post-iftar tea at a downtown cafe one recent evening.

"People feel corruption, they touch it in their daily interactions with the government," he said. "But as for parliament and [higher] authority, it's not corruption. My opinion is that poor people are shaping their perspective from their daily interactions."