Egypt faces uphill battle against corruption

Maram Mazen
Bribery and corruption have been rife in Egypt, where a traffic policeman can look past a violation if a crumpled bill finds its way into his pocket

When Egyptian real estate developer Hassan tried building an apartment block without paying bribes, officials stalled the project, going so far as to suggest there were ancient relics beneath the lot.

Hassan buckled and found a middleman to disperse the bribes.

Bribery and corruption have been rife in Egypt, where a traffic policeman can look past a violation if a crumpled bill finds its way into his pocket.

The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has decided to crack down, with each month bringing news of stings ensnaring a corrupt official.

Corruption "breaks people's morale, and gives them a feeling that there is no hope," Sisi has said.

It was one of the main causes of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

But critics say that despite the crackdown, more work has to be done to fight corruption.

"The only thing that changed is the faces" said Hassan, a pseudonym.

Since 2015, the Administrative Control Authority (ACA) has prosecuted several high-profile cases, including an agriculture minister forced to resign and later sentenced to 10 years for taking bribes.

In January, a senior judge hanged himself in custody a day after his arrest for alleged corruption.

- Crossing the line -

"The ACA's efforts were very fruitful and there is a noticeable decline in corruption incidents" reported in the media and in government statements, said Walaa Gad al-Karim, Partners for Transparency's general manager.

The ACA declined several interview requests.

Analysts including Gad al-Karim say high profile stings alone cannot end corruption.

A legal overhaul is needed, they say, including guarantees of freedom of information, protections for whistle blowers and autonomy for agencies tasked with battling corruption.

"There is a very strong anti-corruption political discourse as the president is always talking about fighting corruption, but we need this to be translated into legislation faster," said Gad al-Karim.

Egypt scored 34 on Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perception Index, dropping two points from the previous year. A score of zero is highly corrupt while 100 is very clean.

The decline was partly because of "restrictions on civil society and public scrutiny over corruption," said Kinda Hattar, TI's regional advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.

Hisham Geneina, the former head of the Central Auditing Authority (CAA), has become a cautionary tale for officials who are too outspoken on corruption.

He was fired and then sentenced to jail after publicising a study based on 2012-2015 reports that calculated the cost of corruption at about 600 billion pounds (about $33 billion).

It was reduced to a suspended sentence on appeal.

"Geneina crossed an important red line, which stipulates that the independence provided to the CAA has always been conditional on the confidentiality of their data," said Osama Diab, an anti-corruption researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

A July 2015 decree in which Sisi gave himself the right to sack oversight institutions' heads and members, "adds to their direct subordination to the executive authority," the EIPR said in a 2016 report.

- Cost of corruption -

Corruption costs the country a lot of money, and occasionally lives.

Losses to state coffers from selling state land at below-market prices translate into losses in state services, said Gad al-Karim.

"Egypt is known for buildings that collapse on its residents where buildings weren't done in accordance with proper specifications," said Hattar.

The low salaries of civil servants and policemen contribute to the phenomenon.

Many of Egypt's civil servants make 1,200 pounds monthly, the public sector's minimum wage.

The average low ranking policeman, the sort Egyptians are more likely to interact with on a daily basis, makes less than 3,000 pounds, an officer told AFP, although Egyptian media has reported higher salaries for them.

"Three quarters of my colleagues have problems in their homes because their wives believe the media," said the officer, who requested anonymity.

When Danya, also a pseudonym, was pulled over with an expired driving licence, and paid a 500-pound fine, a police officer told her: "If you had paid the policeman back there 50 pounds you wouldn't have had to pay the 500".

Hassan said he would pay higher fees to compensate underpaid officials, "if this money will actually go to the government."