Corruption on rise, but Egypt vows to fight it

A former minister's arrest for embezzlement and tenders for public contracts being put on the internet are seen as positive steps.

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CAIRO // Despite a growing body of laws meant to curb graft, corruption in Egypt is on the rise, according to a report by a global corruption watchdog organisation. The 2009 National Integrity System Study, which was published on Saturday by Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation, said that although the Egyptian government has demonstrated a growing resolve to fight corruption, the power of anti-graft laws and organisations remains limited.

"Corruption is now sensed by all sectors of society including the government," said Omnia Hussein, the programme co-ordinator for TI in Egypt. "What's interesting is the amount of laws and regulations. The gap is sometimes tremendous between the existing law and the enforcement of the law - and people's awareness of the law." The analysis, which TI officials said is the most thorough survey to date on corruption and transparency in Egypt, points to interference by the country's powerful executive in anti-corruption bodies, some of which lack the independence necessary to effectively monitor and fight political malfeasance.

The team of experts and academics who compiled the report also cited conflicts of interest in awarding government contracts, lack of awareness and effectiveness of laws to protect whistle-blowers, and rampant petty graft among law enforcement officials. Although human rights organisations welcomed the report and its conclusions, some said the ubiquity of graft and influence-peddling demonstrates what many Egyptians already seem to understand: that closed political systems almost inevitably lead to cultures of political impunity.

"The report paints a picture that is very similar to most other reports on other areas of governance and human rights and political liberties in Egypt," said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "Even though the laws are not perfect and the institutional framework in charge of enforcing these laws could be improved, the bulk of the problem remains a direct result of the lack of political will on the part of the government to address areas of concern such as corruption. But you can say the same about torture or civil liberties or due process."

Despite what he called a "culture of impunity", Mr Bahgat acknowledged that the government at least now appears to be taking corruption somewhat seriously. In January, for example, a former housing minister and member of parliament was charged with embezzlement and awarding public land to friends and family members. Abdel Fatah al Gibaly, a political analyst at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the transparency and integrity committee in Egypt's ministry of administrative development, said the TI report failed to appreciate the effect of the government's more recent anti-corruption moves.

Among them, he said, are recent laws that have opened the state budget to public scrutiny and decrees that require public tenders to be published on the internet. "If you take presidential elections, for example, before it was one man named by parliament and elected by the people. Now it's open to all the parties," Mr al Gibaly said, referring to Egypt's first multi-candidate elections in 2005. "I think that's a big step in our system. And of course, that is not sufficient, but I think that we are in the process."

But if corruption is indeed worsening in Egypt as the TI report claims, it could mean bad news - or, perhaps, business-as-usual - for Egypt's political opposition. Observers blamed a lack of transparency and accountability for widespread irregularities during parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005. Egyptian politicians are once again preparing for legislative elections this spring for the upper house of parliament and in autumn for parliament's lower house. Presidential elections are slated for next year.

Despite its criticism of government meddling, the report's authors singled out Egypt's judiciary as a uniquely trustworthy institution that "enjoys widespread respect from the public". TI's evaluation noted that despite the public's respect for the fairness of the judiciary, judicial bodies are no longer charged with monitoring election results as they were before 2005, when Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, amended the constitution. The judges' role in observing elections was replaced by a Presidential Election Commission (PEC), which the reports' authors lauded for its staff of mainly judges and former judges and its independence from Egypt's ministry of interior.

But activists said the removal of the judiciary as the primary election watchdog was a backward step for political freedom. The PEC is chaired by the chief justice of the supreme constitutional court, said Mr Bahgat, a post that is appointed by presidential decree. Neither the new election monitoring system nor the former one could be called independent, said Hossam al Hamalawy, a left-leaning blogger and activist.

"It's important to note that even with the old system, where supposedly the judiciary was in charge of supervising the elections, we have all seen such supervision being violated and the judges were powerless in front of it," Mr al Hamalawy said. "Even if we get so-called independent judges, the system itself is not independent." TI's most well-known barometer of corruption - the "corruption perception index" that assesses graft problems in 180 nations based on citizen surveys - ranked Egypt at 111 out of 180 countries in 2009.

The index has been criticised for relying solely on the perceptions of survey-takers. For example, a survey last month by the Center for International Private Enterprise, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation, found that although many Egyptians believe corruption to be a common part of everyday life, fewer than four per cent of the 1,800 Egyptians surveyed reported paying a bribe for common government services in the past two years.