Egypt’s President now has an advisory council made up of academics and experts in those fields where Egypt is facing its most critical problems.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is the first modern president to form such a council. Former presidents had various advisors, but not an advisory council. However, says Zebeida Atta, Professor of Contemporary History at Helwan University, there have been comparable councils in the past. Ever since the Mamluk era in the 13th century and up to the reign of Khedive Ismail in the 19th century the ruler would seek the advice of senior intellectuals. Khedive Ismail founded a parliament similar to those in Europe, but it had to wait for President Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s for Egypt to get a Shura (Consultative) Council which he inaugurated as the upper house of parliament, Dr Atta says.
Dr Atta points out that some people see parallels between the new advisory council and the team of savants—scientists and experts—recruited by Napoleon Bonaparte during the French occupation of Egypt which lasted a mere three years from 1798 to 1801. But they are different, she says. Bonaparte was intent on learning about the country, but the current team should advise the President and work on solving the country’s problems.
Egypt’s new advisory council is made up of experts in a range of critical fields. Covering higher education and scientific research will be Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail, Nabil Ahmed Fouad Youssef, Victor Auguste Rizqallah and Nabil Fouad Greiss, all prominent university professors. The problems they will address include stale educational strategies and systems which have been in place for decades and leave university graduates incompetent and unable to cover market needs. The gap between the needs of the market and the educational curricula is huge; there is virtually no link between them, meaning that scientific research is not directed to serve the national economy. Increased student numbers, poor library facilities, lack of funds and unqualified teachers are also main drawbacks. In addition, only being allowed to attend university according to high school (Thanawiya Amma) grades leads to many young people being denied the opportunity to choose to study a topic that interests them.
The field of scientific research is rife with problems. Not least are low salaries for researchers compared with the salaries they might earn as qualified individuals in the private sector, and the lack of links between scientific research in the industrial and services sectors. Research instruments and equipment, so pivotal for the work, are frequently out of order owing to technical problems and poor incompetent maintenance.
Handling pre-university education will be the leading educator, Professor Mervat Abu-Bakr al-Sayed. She faces huge challenges regarding teachers, schools, students, and curricula. Too many teachers are not qualified either educationally or culturally, and the too-low salaries force them to give private lessons. Rote learning makes sure that students do not use their creative abilities. Schools cannot accommodate the numbers they are required to teach, and classes can number 70 and more.
International energy experts Hany Mahmoud Fahmy and Ibrahim Rizq Raphael Samak who both have extensive experience in the field in Germany, have been selected to look into the nation’s energy problems. Egypt used to produce enough gas to cover its needs with a surplus to export to Jordan and Israel. In 2010, owing to problems with the use of resources in disputed territorial waters, gas production decreased. Since gas was subsidised and the low prices affected profits, producers suffered heavy losses. The problem was further complicated by the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the ensuing chaos and instability. The government was unable to pay the companies’ dues of about EGP6.5 billion, so most of the companies were forced to close. During 2012/2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power Qatar provided Egypt with gas, but after Muhammad Mursi’s fall this stopped. After the 30 June 2013 Revolution which overthrew the MB, the Gulf States of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia sent a grant to Egypt, but this expired in August 2014. Even though the international predicament on production in territorial waters was recently resolved and production from offshore fields is expected to resume in 2018, Egypt still faces a huge energy shortage. Pivotal decisions have to be taken on nuclear energy, various sustainable energy resources, or different energy solutions.
Huge debt; huge projects
The international financier and economic advisor Mohamed Ali El-Erian is appointed to the panel to handle economic affairs. The Egyptian economy has an accumulated local debt of EGP1.7 trillion, and the burden of servicing this debt amounts to more than a quarter of public expenditure. The price hikes and deep economic recession that set in since the Arab Spring have led to lack of demand and reduced production.
The living standards of Egyptians have seen a marked decline owing to the fall of economic growth rates while the population growth rates have been rising. The State budget suffers a deficit of some EGP300 billion, representing 14 per cent of the GDP. Other major problems facing the economy include a near-halt in tourism, rise in unemployment, and severe energy shortage leading to frequent blackouts and decreased production. Several factories have had to close down.
Hani Helmi Azer, the Egyptian engineer who was honoured by Germany for his work on the construction of the Berlin Hauptbanhof and Tiergarten tunnel, has been selected to the panel to steer large projects about which investors are wary because of the current instability. Large national projects need large budgets: President Sisi has solved the problem of financing the new Suez Canal, but the same solution cannot be applied in all other cases.
Major food imports
In the field of agriculture, Hani Abdallah al-Kateb who holds degrees in agriculture and forestry from Egypt, Germany, and South Africa, has been selected to the advisory council. Where it was once a major exporter, Egypt now suffers a nutritional gap and imports 50 per cent of its food needs. It has topped the global league for wheat imports for six years, amounting in 2009/2010 to 10 million tons. Egypt also has a low rate of self-sufficiency in other strategic crops, and in no case does it produce more than 50 per cent of its needs.
There are many reasons for the current poor state of agriculture in Egypt, chiefly because the activity is no longer a lucrative business by any means. The fragmentation of rural land ownership, the rise in land rental rates, the pricing policies for agricultural produce, and the poor facilities in the countryside have all contributed to regular migration of agricultural workers to urban areas. But perhaps the most serious problem of all is the encroaching and building on agricultural land despite the strict law against the practice. Yet the very spread of this crime which eats up swaths of Egypt’s fertile land speaks volumes of the deteriorated economic value of the land if used in agriculture; selling it off for building purposes obviously yields better profits. Such a situation must be quickly reversed; otherwise, Egypt stands to lose irreparably.
Medical and health care
The panel members for medicine and general health are the eminent, world-renowned heart surgeon Sir Magdy Yacoub and urologist Muhammad Ahmed Ghoneim of the world-class Ghoneim Urology and Nephrology Centre in the Delta town of Mansoura. One of Egypt’s top psychiatrists, Ahmed Mahmoud Okasha, will cover psychological and societal health. They will have to tackle various problems in the field of medicine and health care, not least among which are the challenges of producing highly skilled doctors and improving hospital care. Egypt’s hospitals are notorious for negligence and lax supervision.
The council members will not be paid. Members can appoint new members from inside or outside Egypt with the approval of two-thirds of current members. Sessions will be held in the presidential palace and the council will meet at least once a month. The president will be invited to meetings, and visitors may also attend but only as observers; their voices will not be counted in discussions, nor will they have a vote. The council may invite a minister or governor to discuss a problem related to a particular area or range of responsibility. The general coordinator will report to the president on the council’s work every six months.
The council will be expected to present proposals for the enhancement of education and scientific research, and to propose scientifically based plans for major national projects and future policies in all sectors of the State. Egyptians are pinning high hopes that, with the energy and enthusiasm of President Sisi and the expertise of his carefully chosen advisory council, Egypt will step out of the doldrums and march into the 21st century.
2 October 2014