Problems on hold
Before I venture on a discussion of the quandary that engulfed the government’s 29 June decision to raise fuel prices, the issue of prime concern of Egyptians today, let me say that I am neither against the move nor its timing. I fully comprehend the inevitability of measures that work to alleviate the burden on the State budget through phasing out subsidies on basic commodities, and redirecting the funds saved towards other fields in dire need of reform, including education, health, housing and so forth.
Now that my stance towards the fuel price hike is clear, I would like to stress that, every time it raises prices on any commodity the government’s conduct is pathetic and lacks prudence and transparency. The consequent public furore and anger, cynicism and bitter sarcasm of the government are well deserved. It is ironic that, despite the government’s verbal glorification of transparency and integrity, it stops short of exercising them when the matter involves difficult decisions; it never informs the public of upcoming decisions or explains their imperativeness prior to announcing them. The government obviously wishes to avoid confrontations at any cost, and hides thus behind fake declarations that aim at tranquillising the public with the delusion that there would be no price hikes in the near future, while it intends to do the exact opposite. But the government does not realise the recklessness of such conduct which provokes Egyptians and makes them feel deceived.
On 29 June—the day fuel prices were raised—the daily State-owned al-Ahram carried on its front page a declaration by the Petroleum Minister Tarek al-Mulla that there would be no imminent hike in fuel prices; [and] that the government and House of Representatives had approved a five-year programme to phase out energy subsidies. Mr Mulla’s declaration came right after a meeting with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail on the evening of 28 June. Does it make any sense that both the Petroleum Minister and the Premier knew nothing about the decision to raise fuel prices to which the public woke on 29 June? Or did the Premier know about it but the Petroleum Minister did not? Twelve hours had barely passed on the Mr Mulla’s denial of a price hike when it was officially announced and implemented. This implies that only one of two moves were expected: either the Petroleum Minister tenders his resignation in protest for not being notified of a decision that primarily concerned him, or the Premier should discharge him for embarrassing the Cabinet. Neither move took place. The government did not even take the trouble to explain the predicament or apologise for it. It only volunteered a profusion of economic explanations and justifications for the inevitability of raising fuel prices. The problem was not with the justifications but with the fact that explaining them then lacked political sense, was disrespectful of the public, and altogether too late.
The only apology offered to the public was indirect and came from al-Ahram. The paper realised that, as the mouthpiece of the State, it had been pushed into deceiving its readers by publishing the Petroleum Minister’s declaration. On 30 June, al-Ahram published a box titled “Apology on behalf of the government”. It read: “We at Al-Ahram realise that some officials think the press is to blame for errors and indecisions on their part. We feel sorry that the Petroleum Minister behaved that way, but we confirm that we did not publish news unsubstantiated from their original sources. Inaccurate news must be the responsibility of those who announced them not those who published the announcements. However, al-Ahram apologises on behalf of the government.”
The problem is thus not with the inevitability of raising fuel prices, but with the political handling of the matter. The government must prepare the public in utter transparency before such decisions are taken. All the explanations, justifications and figures the government cited for the recent fuel price hike were candid and convincing but they came way too late.
9 July 2017