Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Corruption Watchdogs Bite Selectively

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jul 8 2010 (IPS) - Anti-corruption watchdogs have shown their teeth, but Egypt’s fat cats appear safe from prosecution as long as they stay in favour with the regime.

“The state investigates corruption but usually only after officials are out of office, and only with the green light from above,” says anti-corruption expert Ahmed Sakr Ashour. “We need (to prosecute) these officials while they are in office and abusing power.”

On the surface, Egypt would appear to be making progress in combating corruption. In recent years state investigations have netted corrupt government officials and leading businessmen including prominent members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

The latest big catch is Ibrahim Soliman, a former housing minister and NDP parliamentary representative, who stands accused of profiteering and misappropriating public funds during his tenure as minister. State prosecutors are examining evidence that suggests Soliman amassed enormous wealth while selling large parcels of land to his cronies at a fraction of its value.

The Administrative Control Authority (ACA), the government’s corruption watchdog, also provided evidence in the case of a senior transport ministry official accused of taking payoffs from contractors. In another case a dozen MPs stand accused of accepting bribes from patients to receive state-financed medical treatment.

Critics, however, claim the government’s anti-corruption campaign is merely window-dressing. They say the state is the main perpetrator of corruption and gives its tacit approval to political and financial malfeasance that serves the ruling elite.

“If you take the number of corruption cases exposed, investigated and prosecuted, it would appear that the state is doing its job,” Ashour told IPS. “But what’s left are the policymakers, especially top businessmen and monopolists who have penetrated the ruling party and are financing it and hold a great deal of influence. They are in the parliament and some are even in the cabinet.”

Several NDP heavyweights widely perceived to be corrupt appear untouchable. Journalists who publish allegations against them are routinely taken to court on libel charges and fined or jailed.

“I don’t believe there’s a genuine policy of fighting corruption,” says Negad El-Borai, a lawyer and civil activist. “There are a few cases, but what we’re seeing is an internal fight between some tycoons inside (the ruling party), and because they know each other well they also know each other’s dirty laundry.”

Egypt’s score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) stood at 2.8 out of 10 in 2009, ranked 111th out of 180 countries.

The Berlin-based watchdog said in a report released last March that the essentials for good governance were in place, but weak enforcement and political interference were hampering Egypt’s efforts to combat corruption.

“Anti-corruption agencies are generally seen as effective, but need to be shielded from political interference that has blocked their investigations in a number of cases,” the report said.

Civil society and journalists working to uncover corruption in Egypt are hampered by the government’s reluctance to disclose information and records. Laws prohibit unauthorised dissemination of official documents or reporting on the undisclosed assets of government officials. Journalists who expose corruption risk imprisonment.

Two draft laws that would allow citizens to scrutinise the performance of senior government officials and hold them accountable for wrongdoing have been held “in the freezer” for months, say their architects. The government has also shelved an information disclosure bill that rights groups say is essential to investigating graft and corruption.

“We’re fighting ghosts,” says Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). “It’s clear there’s corruption. You can smell it, touch it and feel it — everything indicates that there are big fat cats, but (citizens) have no power to catch them or bring them to court.”

It is estimated that some 40,000 cases of graft and corruption are filed each year. Yet the vast majority of the cases that make it to court — and nearly all the ones in which sentences are handed down — are initiated by the government.

“From time to time the government hands a corruption case to the courts to make it appear that it is cleaning house,” says Abu Seada. “It seems only the government can decide who is corrupt and which cases will go to the courts.”

Abu Seada fears the government may be using anti-corruption campaigns to neutralise political opponents such as former presidential contender Ayman Nour. Nour was imprisoned in 2005 on charges of forging signatures on the petition he used to create his political party.

“The state has accused opposition figures of indulging in the very same type of corruption that it practices,” says Ashour. “Serious political corruption involving the favouring of certain parties and candidates, (rigging) vote counts and campaign finance irregularities is well documented in Egypt.”

The Egyptian government refuses to acknowledge that certain individuals are immune from prosecution. Mohamed Quweita, an NDP parliamentary representative, recently told parliament that ongoing investigations into the alleged malfeasance of several senior NDP officials is proof that the government is committed to and transparent in rooting out corruption.

“It means that the government doesn’t cover up corruption,” he said. “It shows that those guilty of wrongdoing will have to answer to the courts, no matter how high their position in government.”

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