CAIRO: Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif played down the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to his government s economic reform agenda at a gathering of politicians, diplomats, businesspeople and civil society members on Monday evening.
I don t see them as a challenge at all, says Nazif in a debate organized by Egypt s International Economic Forum. In fact, I don t see them [at all], in the sense that: what do they really stand for? I mean, we hear about the Muslim Brotherhood. It sounds like a cliché; it sounds like a brand. But where is that brand?
Nazif questions the Brotherhood s stance on a number of economic and social issues, ranging from privatization and subsidies to women s rights. How does it stand on any of the issues that we re talking about? asks Nazif. There is no color that we see except a banner that says, Islam is the solution.
The prime minister adds that even the Brotherhood s promotion of Sharia law is unclear and does not form a complete political and economic agenda. Sharia is a process of delivering what has come in a religion into real life, explains Nazif. You can do it with the logic, resources and knowledge of a thousand years ago, and you can do it with the process, logic, technology and knowledge of today or of the future. That s the challenge.
The success of the Brotherhood in the latest parliamentary elections was the result of the absence of a viable secular opposition, according to Nazif, rather than the Brotherhood s political and social agenda. There is no country in which 100 percent of the people like the government, says Nazif, admitting that dealing with dissident feelings is a challenge and that the debate with respect to an appropriate opposition is ongoing.
While reiterating that efforts are underway to replace the state of emergency with specific legislation, Nazif emphasized the need for the government to retain special powers. There is a priority to making this country safe and stable, says Nazif. The only reason we have a state of emergency in place is to make sure that we can combat terrorism. This country has been and still is on the front line in the war against terror.
The state of emergency, which has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat 25 years ago, allows the government to detain people without trial indefinitely, but the prime minister denied that it has been used to restrict political opposition and civil liberties.
The President has said several times and he has put his word on it: I would challenge anyone who can bring one case in which the state of emergency was used for political suppression, says Nazif.
On the economic front, government subsidies and the privatization of the pharmaceutical industry dominated much of the debate. There is a general consensus that the current system of subsidies, particularly fuel subsidies, needs to change.
Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali explains that fuel subsidies are regressive, benefiting the rich far more than the poor on a proportional basis. This is demonstrated by the fact that the richest 2 percent of the population receives on average LE 1,700 per person in fuel subsidies, compared to an average of LE 300 per person for the poorest one-fifth of the population.
Nazif adds that the public needs to reassess its priorities in terms of the government s budget allocation. For example, some LE 40 billion are spent on fuel subsidies, compared to LE 30 billion on health and education. The elimination of subsidies, however, needs to be selective and gradual, according to Boutros-Ghali, in order to minimize their inflationary impact.
Improved targeting of subsidies is also a main concern of the government. It has taken the door-to-door approach of seeking-out poor households that are in need of subsidies from the government. The Ministry of Social Solidarity was recently created to accomplish this task, and it will issue a social solidarity card to individuals and households it identifies as poor. Nazif says that the new ministry s subsequent task will be to decide which products to subsidize.
Several representatives of private pharmaceutical companies were present at the debate and deplored the government s lack of progress on privatizing and liberalizing the pharmaceutical sector. Boutros-Ghali and Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin explain that a regulatory framework for the sector, which would include price controls, is necessary prior to the privatization of the industry.