CAIRO: In an eventful week Egypt witnessed two major strike actions and the Prosecutor-General suddenly ordered the release of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour.
The Pharmacists’ Syndicate’s tête-à-tête with the tax authority was triggered by the latter’s decision to overturn a 2005 agreement whereby pharmacies would pay a fixed tax of 15 percent. Without prior warning the authority told the syndicate that pharmacies will have to present their full accounts and pay their taxes in retrospect according to the authority’s assessment.
The syndicate lashed back by announcing a country-wide strike in which close to 95 percent of Egypt’s 45,000 pharmacies closed shop between 10 am and 6 pm for two days, collectively costing them an estimated LE 12 million per day.
A strike of this magnitude involving such a vital sector is unprecedented in Egypt. Yet despite the pharmacists’ right to protest the government’s audacity in reneging on an agreement without the courtesy of discussing the issue with those whose businesses are at stake, I don’t believe that the essence of what the authority did was wrong.
Why should pharmacies not be subjected to the same laws as other high income-generating businesses as long as the government promises to abide by the clause waiving the new regulations in the case of small and medium enterprises whose net profits do not exceed LE 20,000 annually?
Following a war of words between the head of the tax authority and the deputy chairman of the syndicate, the issue was resolved within two days with the authority agreeing not to demand taxes in retrospect and the syndicate promising to abide by the decision of a joint committee starting the 2008 tax year.
But during the two strike days, citizens everywhere had no access to life-saving medication in some cases. It was heartbreaking to watch TV interviews with old men and women who have enough to worry about as it is, unable to secure the basic right of access to medicine.
Although the other strike involving the trailer truck drivers and owners was not as directly detrimental to the masses of Egyptians, it did have an instant effect on a cornerstone of the Egyptian economy, with overland transport accounting for a third of commercial transport.
The truckers, who protested a new traffic law ban on trailers by 2011, say that this will cost them their livelihoods, while legislators were concerned with eliminating the alleged 30 percent of road accidents caused by these lorries every year.
Following a four-day strike, both sides agreed to renegotiate next June the time frame within which the law will be implemented.
And no sooner were these two issues “resolved (albeit temporarily) we were shocked to learn of the release of the persona non grata of the decade Ayman Nour from prison just four months before he was due to complete his five-year term. (Nour had allegedly forged powers of attorney required to get official approval to set up Al Ghad Party.)
Within hours, the wily, media savvy ex-journalist, ex-member of parliament, ex-head of Al Ghad party, ex-presidential candidate and now ex-convict Nour appeared on two of the most popular daily talk shows (Orbit’s “Al Qahira Al Youm and Dream’s “Al Aashera Masaan ) looking as smug as ever with his orange tie and signature hairdo.
The bizarre way in which he was released ties in perfectly with what the Egyptian government – add to that the legal system in his case – handles issues of public interest: with shock and awe, without transparency and completely haphazardly.
According to Nour, he was told that he had visitors, was escorted in a vehicle to his apartment building in Zamalek, asked to leave the vehicle and told that he has been set free. Just like that.
The fact that the Prosecutor General’s statement said that Nour was released on health amnesty was ultimately puzzling since the very same Prosecutor General had previously turned down numerous health appeals on his behalf.
Nour has always been a diabetic and has always suffered from heart disease, so why now? And if Nour was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted, wouldn t it be illegal to release him before he completes his term, especially since a medical committee had decided that his health condition was not critical?
Speculation as to why he was let go has been rampant: some say Nour cut a deal with the government; some say President Mubarak wanted to turn a new leaf with the new US administration so Nour’s release (whose imprisonment had strained relations with the US over the past four years) was a sort of “preemptive goodwill gesture; while others say that President Mubarak was responding to clear signals from Washington.
Whatever the case may be, it can’t be a coincidence that Nour was released less than a fortnight before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her first trip to Egypt for the Gaza reconstruction conference, and just under two months before President Mubarak is scheduled to make an official visit to the US.
If anything, the main events this week (whether strikes or the ad hoc release of political opponents) and the way the government has dealt with them, prove one key truth: that Egypt lacks a transparent, legal system whereby individuals or even professional syndicates can express their grievances and reach a settlement before problems boil over to everyone’s detriment – including the image of the regime whose actions often appear to be the antithesis of democracy and the rule of law.
Why can t we stop shooting ourselves in the foot?
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.