Faced with a deteriorating economy and growing public disillusionment, the challenges facing Egypt’s new parliament are far from enviable. Although the list is long, there is one issue that stands out as a key priority: tackling elite corruption.
The rise and entrenchment of corruption
Although precipitated by the melding of power and wealth that occurred under Anwar Sadat’s policy of al-infitah, elite corruption found its institutional form under neo-liberal economic policies championed by Gamal Mubarak. Surrounded by a small clique of businessmen and economists, the president’s son oversaw the professionalization of corruption in Egyptian life. Within the space of a decade, a mesh had been formed between the regime and the country’s business and financial tycoons. Despite outward indications of economic growth, in reality it was the few who grew rich at the expense of the many.
Egypt’s revolution was fuelled by searing anger at the destruction wrought by elite corruption. Although the SCAF – an institution that many see as deeply implicated in such activities – has engaged with this fact at the rhetorical level, its legislative agenda offers little reassurance that it genuinely intends to combat corruption. In late February, the military council quietly released two amendments to the country’s 1997 investment law. These allow investors accused of corruption and embezzlement to return assets at the same value as at the date of extraction in exchange for freedom from prosecution. The amounts in question will be decided not by the courts but by a committee handpicked by the Ministry of Justice. Legal experts fear these amendments create yet another way for regime figures to afford special treatment to their own, circumventing formal judicial channels in favour of unaccountable centres of scrutiny. That this strategy may well be unconstitutional matters little. Crucially, it reveals a clear absence of political will to scrutinise the corruption that has left Egypt in dire economic straits.
Freedom of information
Although elite corruption has been no secret, the accused have consistently avoided jail-time due to lack of firm proof. Successful prosecution require specific evidence, something that is particularly hard to come by given the opaque nature of many business deals.
There are now clear calls for freedom of information (FOI) legislation to combat this problem. If effectively implemented, this would represent a formidable weapon in the arsenal of anti-corruption campaigners. Not only would it help uncover past transgressions, but it would also lay the foundations for a more transparent political system as the country moves forward. A successful bill could be augmented by legislation detailing the sort of information that government ministries should release, a practise that is commonplace in many countries.
As detailed in a recent Chatham House meeting report, a number of civil society groups have presented draft FOI bills to parliament. However, the passage of these proposals has been hindered by the new legislature’s hesitance to accept that it should not hold a monopoly over the drafting of laws. This attitude is particularly short-sighted given the institution’s lack of technical expertise, and MPs would do well to accept the help on offer from outside experts. Efforts to tackle elite corruption will benefit from engaging those operating outside the formal political arena, since these groups are unlikely to be impeded by the obstacles facing those inside the system.
Effectively addressing corruption will not be an easy process, but the passage of a freedom of information bill would represent an important step on the road to a more transparent future.