Would a new law for civil service finally reform Egypt’s notoriously bloated, inefficient government administrative apparatus in which six million employees swallow 25 per cent of the government budget?
It would indeed be difficult to find as many as half a dozen of Egyptians who do not bitterly dread the day when they would need an official service from a public servant. This would more often than not be an arduous process that involves huge complications in terms of red tape; redundant demands; innumerable trips to the office in concern; shoddy, incompetent, indifferent service; to say nothing of the outsize time unduly wasted on that account from one’s own business. Many resort to greasing the hands of public servants by offering bribes; sadly, it usually works to get the service accomplished.
The government administrative apparatus in Egypt is notorious for its inflated number of workers, their poor distribution, low productivity, inefficient methods of evaluation, and consequent inadequate reward and punishment. All of which leads to poor response to the expectations of the different stakeholders dealing with the system and, more importantly, calls for reform. Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi put it aptly when he recently said that Egypt’s economy, which is struggling to recover from the damage suffered in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, is in “critical” condition and that reform can no longer be delayed. The Planning Ministry has worked with the Finance Ministry to draw a new law for civil service that is hoped to work to streamline the country’s mammoth civil service apparatus and render it a boon to citizens rather than a scourge.
Law under fire
The new law, however, has come under fierce fire from civil servants. On 10 August, at least 2,000 tax and customs workers demonstrated in Downtown Cairo against the law calling it unfair and unconstitutional, and urging President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to scrap it and fire his finance and planning ministers. Police stood guard but did not disperse the rally since the organisers had obtained the necessary official permit beforehand.
The protestors complained that the law does not apply to all civil servants indiscriminately; sectors such as doctors and teachers are exempt since they are governed by laws and regulations that cater to the special character of these professions. The tax and customs workers demanded equal treatment; they too should be exempted from the application of the new law.
The majority of government employees expressed unhappiness with the new law, claiming it would reduce their take-home salaries at a time when inflation in Egypt runs as high as 11 per cent. “If this law is enforced,” protestor Muhammad al-Shahat said, “it would encourage us to accept bribes.”
A major fear is that the system of evaluation stipulated in the new law would be unfair since it places the performance assessment, upon which raises and promotions hinge, in the hands of direct supervisors. So far, such benefits were granted to civil servants automatically on a periodic basis and were not subject to performance assessment.
Civil servants also object to leave provisions and to what they see as inadequate compensation in the event of an employee earning a higher academic degree while in office.
Those against the new law fear that, in short, it could dramatically reduce the public workforce of over 6 million employees. According to official figures, the civil service swallows over 25 per cent of the government’s budget.
Hard workers singled out
The government has been adamant however that the law, which establishes a new system for salaries, hiring, dismissal and incentives, is fair. Finance Minister Hani Qadri Demian said it will work to compensate hard workers instead of placing them on equal footing with those who do not get work done. “It’s high time good workers get adequate, encouraging compensation for their efforts,” he said. One who works poorly, by contrast, should earn no encouragement.
In a meeting with representatives of the 10 August protestors, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said the Civil Service Law came in response to “wide public complaint” against the “slackness” and bureaucracy of the government apparatus. He said the law was an important step towards administrative reform.
Their demands so far unmet, the disgruntled employees have formed a coalition they called Tadamun (Solidarity), pronounced Tadhaamun, that includes 20 labour and employee associations. Tadamun has called for a million-man protest in Fustat Park in Old Cairo between 10am and 5pm on Saturday 12 September to call for the reinstatement of the old civil service law 47/1978 to replace the new law 18/2015 until a committee of government and workers representatives is formed to draft “a fair law that guarantees a safe and stable work environment and wages that fit the needs of the government workers”. The coalition’s statement decried the “obstinacy of the Prime Minister in face of the civil servants’ demands, and his attempt to enforce the new law as a de facto situation”.
Q & A
The Planning Ministry has issued a statement to explain all about the new law. The close-to-2500-words document comes in Q&A form, and begins with detailing the purpose for passing a new civil service law. The aim, the statement declares, is to achieve a qualitative and quantitative leap in the level of performance of the Egyptian government’s administrative apparatus which has been plagued with draconian bureaucracy, substandard service, overly complicated structural framework, non-discipline, non-transparency, and non-accountability, to cite but a few. All of which have given rise to unending complaints by citizens.
The statement goes on to detail how the new law sets forth a comprehensive, ambitious framework for the reform of the bureaucracy. It introduces a human resource development approach in government agencies, with transparent announcement of vacant positions and standardised testing to fill them. It stipulates a system of voluntary early retirement, a longer maternity leave of four months, and it establishes a new system for assessing employee performance thus allowing career advancement for those who excel. It also creates the new post of permanent undersecretary in all ministries and puts term limits on leadership positions.
The new law increases the proportion of basic pay to 75 per cent of the total pay, up from the current 18 per cent. This article, however, has aroused controversy since the increase in basic pay translates into higher benefits and incentives which are usually determined as a percentage of the base pay. But it also raises the taxes paid by the employee, again a percentage of the base pay.
Culture of rejection
But if the law isn’t that bad for civil servants, why have thousands protested against it? The question, posed by economist and politician Ziad Bahaa Eddin on Ahram Online, has been on the minds and tongues of many Egyptians. “The reason,” Bahaa Eddin writes, “is the way the government passed it, explained it, and defended it.
“The problem,” he insists, “of the civil service in Egypt is real. And those who pay the price are not only employees working in frustrating conditions, but the entire society and national economy.
“I propose neither abandoning the new law nor moving to immediately implement it. I propose that the government and union leaders agree to a one-year moratorium on the law, not to gain more time, but to achieve concrete objectives [towards better understanding by both sides of the best way to implement it].”
Salah Fawzy, member of the Supreme Commission for Legislative Reform, told Watani that he sees the law as fair and objective. “It has been much maligned, however,” he said, “the result being that accurate information about it goes missing. Sadly, the ‘culture of rejection’ that pervades our community and media is giving the law a bad name that is entirely undeserved.” Altogether, Dr Fawzy insists, the law will work to rectify the notorious flaws in the civil service field.
Adel Amer, Director of Al-Misriyeen centre for legal, economic, and political studies couldn’t agree more. “It is precisely those protestors [the tax collectors and customs workers] who have so disfigured and distorted the civil service in Egypt.” He claims they already get more than other civil servants, and are defending their special interests. “The law is good and fair,” Dr Amer says, “with very little that may need minor changes.”
“Get rid of five million workers!”
For her part, Fatma Ramadan, member of the Campaign for a Fair Labour Law, criticises the new civil service law which she claims has been passed without consulting any of the parties concerned, since it aims at reducing the government workforce and imposing control on the entire administrative apparatus in order to get rid of employees. “The previous law,” Ms Ramadan says, “made sure no worker could be laid off without a court order. Now the new law has scrapped this. The new law allows an employee to appeal an unfavourable assessment but there are no adequate guarantees that the appeal will meet a fair fate.
“One official [she did not specify who],” says Ms Ramadan, “has said the 6 million civil servants achieve work that can be done by a mere million men or women. So they wish to get rid of five million workers!”
Hussam Farahat, Professor of Human Resources Development at the American University in Cairo; and Dalia Gheit, expert of human development; both view the new law very favourably. Dr Farahat especially praises the evaluation procedure endorsed by the law. “It is a procedure used by multinationals,” he says. “The worker is not—as has been hyped—only evaluated by his direct supervisor, but also by colleagues, juniors, clients, and all who move in his or her circles. All these evaluations are added in a weighted system and the employee is given a mark out of 360 that determines the final evaluation.”
Dr Gheit, for her part, applauds the law for upholding the rights and privileges of civil servants. Despite all the hype, she pronounces it as “outstanding”.
26 August 2015