The staggeringly stupid fallout of the US-Egypt aid debacle

A must-read column by DNE's Rania al-Malky on the stupid scheme to raise "Egyptian aid" to replace the foreign kind:

If one year after Egypt's downtrodden and destitute people toppled Mubarak with thunderous, unrelenting calls for bread, freedom and social justice, those very Egyptians are being coerced into donating part of their paltry salaries to support a government they did not choose, then it's safe to say that the 'revolution' has failed.

Love for one's country is one thing but bailing out a decrepit failed economy that has been systematically mismanaged for 30 decades, and especially so in a year of crisis, by appealing to the nationalist sentiments of people who can barely feed their families, borders on the criminal.

. . .

There have been mixed reports on whether the ‘donations’ by government employees will be voluntary. A leaked circular from the Tax Authority, incidentally headed by the wife of SCAF’s number two General Sami Anan, implied that those who refuse to abide by the ‘voluntary donation’ will end up with their name on some blacklist. Although the said Tax Authority chief Munira Al-Qady had denied in an Al-Ahram interview that the signature on the letter was not hers, and that in fact, she had identified the employee who both drafted the letter and forged her signature, she initiated no disciplinary or legal action against him, sufficing with moving him to a different department. She then drafted a second letter emphasizing that donations will only be deducted from salaries following the consent of employees.

The story just doesn’t gel.

Similar complaints by government employees in various fields have also been reported, with one school teacher from Mansoura telling Daily News Egypt that she was told that the salary cut will be made anyway and that those who did not wish to donate will have to present a written request for reimbursement. Another from Kafr El-Sheikh province said that not only will she be forced to make the donation, she will also not be compensated for supervising the Shoura Council elections for which she was promised LE 500.

To add insult to injury, and in violation of the law, there have been no announcements on where that money will be spent and who will be overseeing that spending, only some vague reference to the fact that it will not go into the state treasury, as if to assure the public that it will not be misappropriated.

It reminds me of when, in the late 1980s, King Hassan II on Morocco decided he would build the world's largest mosque in Casablanca. To finance the project  — he didn't want to pay for it himself despite being a billionaire — there was a fundraising scheme that called on all Moroccans to pay "a symbolic Dirham". In practice, civil servants were coerced into giving up sometimes over a month's wages and many businessmen were forced to give tens of thousands. The mosque is still there, but of course East Asian and Gulf countries have since built bigger ones, and have experienced either economic takeoffs in the meantime or were rich to start with. Morocco is still a struggling, poor country with a fragile economic fabric.

On another point: much of the fabric of Egypt's civil society, especially when it comes to human rights associations, was foreign-funded. That kind of political work scared off the business moguls who wanted to do little outside of things like poverty relief.

And finally: the idea that Egypt is dependent on US aid is a red herring. At about $250m a year from USAID, civilian aid to Egypt from Washington is small. It used to be more important, and to be honest Egyptians are pretty ungrateful about the work that was done by Americans in the 1980s and 1990s: without it, you might have had cholera epidemics in a Cairo that could no longer handle its sewage and treat its water, or today you might still wait years for a new phone line, a situation that stopped after a massive, partly US-funded, overhaul of Egypt's telecom infrastructure that paved the way to make Egypt a success story for internet penetration. The Egyptian government ruined itself in the wars with Israel, and seems to have never quite recovered from them (stupid policies and runaway population growth did not help either).

I've always felt that Egypt's problem is not money — it's much richer than Morocco, for instance, with a more cohesive population (one reason that infant mortality rates are much lower in Egypt and Morocco, for instance). It's governance. And for the current, temporary government to be calling for donations at the same time as it grants more exemptions on real estate taxes is pretty criminal — especially when most of the aid goes to the military and is completely unnacountable.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.