Corruption has plagued successive Egyptian Presidents from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Although each one has attempted to maintain a strong front against corrupt practices, allegations of graft and bribery have repeatedly marred both the government and its associated entities. Today’s insight considers corruption in Egypt vis-à-vis President Sisi’s rule; where gradual encroachment upon the state’s accountability authorities is handing the President questionable levels of oversight.
- Since coming to power in June 2014, President Sisi has taken step after step to centralise control and curb the ability of independent entities. This usually occurs either under the pretence of “abiding by the constitution” or by playing the “national security” card.
- In particular, the government has sought to erode the independence of Egypt’s accountability authorities by way of legal manipulation. Most recently, the Administrative Control Authority was brought under the President’s remit in a move which stifles the fight against graft and bribery.
- The result is that no entity can properly scrutinise the government or independently investigate its behaviour, thus removing key oversight functions.
“The Buck Stops Here”
Over the past four years, Sisi has presented himself as a bulwark against those engaged in corruption. Most recently, after announcing his candidacy for the 2018 elections, he vowed to “not allow them [the corrupt] to approach this seat” by once again using the issue as a way to justify his current – and future – Presidential mandate (Mada Masr, 19 January 2018).
In reality, an entity called the Administrative Control Authority (“ACA”) exists in Egypt to tackle graft and bribery. As such, the executive merely has to allow the ACA to perform its functions without undue interference; anti-corruption efforts should come as part of a continuous campaign, as opposed to being an isolated political achievement attributed to a certain Head of state. On the surface, Sisi and the ACA want the same thing. However, recent developments hint at underlying frictions between the executive and accountability bodies, who are ostensibly on the same side of the anti-graft campaign.
In October 2017, the Egyptian Parliament approved a set of amendments to the law that regulates the ACA (Ahram Online, 9 October 2017). Of course, as the country’s chief anti-corruption body, any changes to the ACA’s legal basis should serve as a particular area of focus for those interested in the integrity of Cairo’s top brass.
In light of these changes, Prime Ministerial oversight of the ACA has been replaced with Presidential oversight. In the current set up, this means that Sisi – as opposed to Sherif Ismail – now monitors the progress of the ACA. Perennial mismanagement within the cabinet is a plausible excuse for such a move; compounded by the allegations of high-level graft in the Ministry of Agriculture, which toppled Ibrahim Mehleb’s cabinet in September 2015 (Al Monitor, 9 September 2015).
Additionally, the Head of the ACA is obliged to submit an annual report to the President, Parliament, and cabinet. In theory, this allows for greater scrutiny and oversight from Egypt’s institutional apparatus, thereby making the ACA more accountable to the ‘democratic’ government. Such a practice is designed to empower the system over any one individual and is a welcome development in most contexts.
Finally, the President has the right to name the Chairman, Deputy Chairman, and board members at the ACA. Although questionable, the Presidency in Egypt has traditionally been vested with more power vis-a-vis other governing institutions, and so its encroachment on the accountability authorities is not exactly the biggest surprise. In other words, whilst it clearly does not represent best practice, executive power over the ACA is not de facto responsible for the failure of anti-corruption efforts.
That said, these amendments appear to do more by way of empowering the Presidency than they do of boosting the fight against corruption. Sisi’s modus operandi has been to accumulate control at all costs, and reforming the ACA law seemingly falls in line with this.
Although there may be a case for creating further checks and balances on the Prime Minister and cabinet, for example, bringing Egypt’s anticorruption bodies under Presidential control merely papers over the bigger problem. Defenders of the legal amendments miss the point that neither the PM or the President should have greater access to accountability bodies and their investigations – this introduces a highly politicised conflict of interest.
Moreover, the context of institutional interaction in Egypt also negates the idea that submitting reports to Parliament and the cabinet allows for wider scrutiny. Parliament is widely believed to act as a rubber stamp for the President and is filled with the same regime loyalists who won seats in the 2015 elections (Stratfor, 29 June 2017). Similarly, the President exerts huge pressure over the cabinet and can effectively force the PM into resignation or oust influential ministers who do not play to the President’s tune.
Previous investigations by Mada Masr – a well-respected publication covering Egyptian politics – found that the ACA has been unable to act independently since 2015. Staffed with former members of the military and security services, the ACA is beholden to the current political elite in that it draws tacit support from the Egyptian Armed Forces (“EAF”).
It is perhaps no coincidence that this coincides with the appointment of Mohammed Erfan Gamal as Head of the ACA in April 2015. Sisi is surrounded by allies, most of whom either graduated from the military academy, supported his rise in politics, or represent no threat to his power.
Legal Manipulation At Large
Undercutting the ACA by altering the law is part of a wider trend of legal manipulation employed by the current administration.
In July 2015, a law was passed (with no sitting Parliament at the time) that allowed Sisi to remove the heads of supervisory bodies. On the grounds of “harming national security”, the President received powers to dismiss the Heads of independent and supervisory bodies as he sees fit. This played out publically during the removal of Hisham Geneina from office; a man heralded with integrity, who was part of Sami Anan’s Presidential campaign before authorities arrested the latter in January.
Subsequently, Sisi has actively sought to thwart the independence of the Judiciary. In March 2017, he ratified laws proposed in parliament that allow the President to appoint the Heads of the Egyptian State Council, the Court of Cassation, the Administrative Prosecution Authority, and the State Lawsuits Authority (Al Monitor, 3 March 2017). As a result, he can reject nominations put forth by senior Judges and chose his own man; a break from the previous system of autonomy within the courts.
It is also worth highlighting that Egypt is approaching a one-year anniversary under emergency rule. First implemented after the Palm Sunday bombings of Coptic Churches, the real intentions of enacting emergency law can be rightly questioned in line with the wider context of government action. Three more extensions have come to the initial emergency decree; in June and October last year, and January this year. With each extension, Sisi’s rule becomes increasingly reminiscent of politics a la Hosny Mubarak.
Of course, all of this is not to say that the President is guilty of corruption or necessarily implicated in duplicitous practices himself. Rather, it demonstrates that he actively restricts the independence of the institutions that push for accountability and transparency.
By providing patronage to internal clients, who largely skirt around the issue of corruption, Sisi makes it harder for the government to be held to account. An unchecked government could feasibly commit any number of financial crimes without fear of consequence, which is the ultimate worry for foreign and domestic actors in Egypt today.
Note: Available in the Shadow Governance Intel Store is a Profile on ACA Chairman, Hisham Badawi.