Missed opportunities on the road to development

Menan Khater
11 Min Read
Egyptian workers leave the Masr spinning and weaving factory in Mahalla on April 8, 2014 (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Khaled)

In his first televised interview commemorating two years as president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi highlighted the government’s achievements in several areas ranging from problems among the youth demographic to mega economic projects.

The presidency’s media office had also delivered a lengthy report last week underscoring the government’s achievements over the past two years. The report mentioned success in a wide range of fields, widely considered a key milestone following the two uprisings witnessed in Egypt over the past five years.

Despite these propagated achievements, there is still untapped potential represented in different segments of society who could have contributed further achievements but instead were “oppressed”.


Absence of a student union


When the first student union elections were scheduled in October 2015, after a two-year suspension, student unions across public universities anticipated a rewarding comeback in which their roles would be activated once again.

The process started by electing a student union board and president for each university separately and then by choosing a president and vice president for all the student unions under an entity called the Federation of Egyptian Student Unions.

It was not until the elections were over at each university, that things took a turn for the worse in December 2015. The Ministry of Higher Education decided to reject the voting results in order to repeat the entire process on claims of forgery.

The ministry later referred the case to the State Council to look into the legality of repeating the electoral process in late January but the legislative committee terminated it, saying it is not specialised. Following this decision, the ministry did not make further actions to reach out to the students in order to resolve the issue, according to the candidate students.

Abdallah Anwar, the elected president for the federation before the results were revoked, told Daily News Egypt: “the ministry did not meet with us as they considered us an informal federation”, referring to the fact that nothing has been officially proved against the federation.

“We requested many meetings with the ministry. There was no direct response, and we only heard their statements through media outlets.”

As final exams approached, the issue was no longer discussed, neither among the students nor with the officials. Meanwhile, the sub-unions at each university have been working independently.

However, the absence of a single, representative entity for those unions has left a huge gap in the services provided for students. According to Anwar, the federation’s role is represented mostly in integrating the functions of all unions and generalising policies across all universities, even when it comes to entertainment.

Those policies are not limited to the rights and freedoms of the students but also to other crucial issues that need centralised actions of assistance such helping students gain access to healthcare and other services, or mobilisation against incidents like sexual harassment on campus, Anwar further noted.


Underestimating the rights of workers


The security unrest that followed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013 has taken its toll on the economy and investments in the country. Over the past two years, the government has been mobilising for foreign investments, and establishing mega projects. In March 2015, Egypt hosted a global economic summit where it has signed deals during the conference worth up to $40bn.

Nevertheless, the country has been wrestling with a surge in employee strikes across different sectors that were first ignited by the civil service bill, while the majority of other strikes were commonly triggered by low-wages.

Unlike workers’ previous battles with the government, the recent strikes witnessed an unprecedented crackdown. Two weeks ago, the military prosecution ordered the detention of the 13 workers in Alexandria who staged a protest demanding late payments be dispensed.

Wael Tawfik, coordinator at the Tadamon coalition, criticised these official policies in dealing with workers rights, believing workers are the seeds of the country’s sought-after economic growth.

The Tadamon coalition is a local workers’ coalition that was initially launched to mobilise against the civil service bill but was then expanded to advocate for broader issues related to workers rights.

“The government is dealing with investors as if they are producers […] the manpower has a greater priority over funds in the production cycle,” Tawfik told Daily News Egypt. “However, the state has an inverted perception of this fact, as they constantly underestimate workers’ rights.”

Tawfik commented on the recent referral of workers to military court as an absurd act from the alliance of business owners and government officials against workers and their rights.

According to Tawfik, certain legislative measures needs to be undertaken to empower workers and maximise their working capacity, but more importantly there needs to be a mechanism for enforcing those legislations. Those legislative reforms are represented in having a unified workers law and ensuring the right of workers in protesting for their commonly acknowledged rights.


Non-specific climate change targets


World leaders came together in December 2015 to sign the historic Paris agreement on climate change. Several articles of the agreement urged signing countries to submit their intended contributions (INDC) based on local conditions and resources.

Egypt suffered from an acute natural gas shortage in 2013 which urged the government to start developing a new energy mix. This new mix includes 15% of fossil coal use and 5% nuclear energy—not very environmentally friendly. However, the new mix states that there would be an increase in renewable energy use by up to 33%.

“The government has managed to identify the exact percentage of coal use while Egypt’s [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution] INDC did not include any numbers or figures,” said Mariam Allam, one of the speakers at the Cairo Climate Talks forum held on 31 May.

The global momentum towards addressing climate change issues had other fruitful outcomes like the Green Climate Fund, in which developed countries are expected to provide financial assistance to vulnerable countries on climate change impact. Egypt’s needs, represented in the submitted INDC, did not utilise such an opportunity.

Despite the variation between countries’ economies, a wide range of those who submitted the INDCs similarly detailed objectives with clear timeframes—even countries that are witnessing security challenges like Yemen, according to published INDCs on the UNFCCC website.

Egypt pledged on “improving energy efficiency, utilising solar energy for water heating, and using renewable energy for power generation” for its INDCs among mitigation measures, not mentioning a timeframe or exact percentages. The INDCs also stated Egypt’s need for $73bn as a total estimate to undertake mitigation measures, without specifying their allocations.

Magdy Allam, secretary-general of the Union of Arab Environment Experts, previously told Daily News Egypt that the country needs to undertake further short-term measures, which include modifying the INDC and allocating $3bn annually for adaptation projects.


Criminalising reporting


In a scheduled meeting between Al-Sisi and a group of public figures representing various political and social factions in mid-April, the former referred to media outlets as channels to deliver official statements.

Over the past two years, Egyptian authorities opted to treat journalists who criticise officials’ performance as criminals and have restricted their work with arrests, threats, and censorship, instead of utilising the positive power of reporting in garnering support and unmasking deeply-rooted dilemmas, such as corruption.

“This is the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour told Daily News Egypt, reflecting on past documentations of press violations recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) inside the country since 1991.

Egypt was ranked the second-worst jailer of journalists worldwide, second only to China, and worse than any other Middle Eastern country, including Iran, which came third, according to CPJ figures. The worsening condition of journalists in Egypt was further triggered in recent months by increasing arrests and the infamous storming of the Press Syndicate in early May.

“The unprecedented crackdown against the syndicate is an indication that the government is moving from simply silencing journalists to silencing those who defend journalists,” Mansour added.

Worldwide condemnations from world leaders, UN bodies, international press and the human rights and press freedom community will undoubtedly factor into the Egyptian government’s attempts to reconcile with the world and its desire to attract investment, aid, and tourism, according to Mansour.

“But most importantly, it shows how the government has expanded its declared war on terrorism to include civilian and peaceful actors, including journalists who are subjected to a government crackdown for simply doing their job,” he said.

The international watchdog has sent several letters to Al-Sisi and the Egyptian government since the presidency received their delegation in February 2014, but they did not receive any responses to those letters.

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Politics and investigative reporter for Daily News Egypt. Initiator and lead instructor of DNE's special reporting project for university students 'What Lies Beyond.' Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/menannn1
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