Bad blood: Is govt corruption beyond cure?

With cases of corrupt ministers and members of parliament flooding the newspapers in February, the question begs itself: can the government keep its members disciplined, especially now that several independent and opposition MPs have formed a front against corruption and as parliament prepares to debate proposed anti-corruption laws?

Two such draft laws are expected to be discussed this Sunday by a parliamentary committee mandated with handling legal complaints. A "ministerial accountability" bill, drafted by MP Alaa Abdel-Moneim, provides a system by which government ministers’ performances can be scrutinized and by which they can be held accountable for wrongdoing.

Another draft bill provides a means of scrutinizing "leaders of executive authorities," including deputy ministers and the head of state. The two bills are still on the drawing board and it remains unclear whether or not they will be merely cosmetic.

According to MP Gamal Fahmy, who initially proposed the second law, parliament is simply "pretending" to debate both laws in order to silence opposition and "to make it look like they’ve done their part in discussing it."

"The bills have already been discussed by the Shura Council [the consultative house of parliament] and they’ve been in the freezer ever since," said Fahmy. "There’s little hope that any of them will ever see the light of day."

"There are no clear mechanisms in this country governing how corrupt officials should be punished," added the MP. "This government is deeply enmeshed in corruption."

Meanwhile, numerous allegations of official corruption have continued to surface with alarming regularity.

One of these is MP Hani Sorour. The CEO of a medical supplies company, Sorour has been charged with supplying 300,000 bags of contaminated blood worth some LE4 million. This month, Sorour’s parliamentary immunity was stripped and his parliamentary membership withdrawn following a vote of no-confidence at the hands of the assembly.

The Sorour case exposed a vast web of inefficiency–and likely corruption–after it emerged that the bad blood had been approved by the Health Ministry’s National Organization for Drug Control and Research. The blood was later distributed to hospitals–with Sorour ignoring rampant complaints from hospital officials regarding the low quality of the blood and the bags that contained it.

Although subsequent investigations were marked by false testimony, lies and bribe taking, according to reports, Sorour was ultimately sentenced–in absentia–to three years in prison in November 2009. The controversy had first began some two years earlier.

Another recent example of official corruption is that of MP and former housing minister Ibrahim Suleiman, who has been officially charged with both profiteering and wasting public funds during his tenure as minister.

According to recent press reports, a group of concerned citizens have vowed to submit further complaints to the general prosecutor against Suleiman and two of his former deputies. They say they were stripped of their right to 50 apartments that had been allocated to low-income tenants but which were instead given to Suleiman’s deputies, with, they say, the minister’s knowledge and blessing.

In late 2008, several pieces of evidence, including photocopied documents given to Al-Masry Al-Youm, revealed that Suleiman had sold four lots of land in the Cairo suburbs and had given three villas in the posh seaside Marina area to his wife and children. The documents were largely seen as proof of wrongdoing, especially after Suleiman denied, during a 2007 parliamentary session, that he had acquired the property in question when serving as minister.

According to the documents, now considered court evidence against Suleiman, the former minister’s personal holdings surged over the course of his ministerial tenure, by the end of which he owned nine luxury cars, three pieces of land and a villa in the upscale Heliopolis district–in addition to a host of other assets.

In July 2009, several parliamentarians, including independent MP Gamal Zahran, submitted requests to the house speaker demanding that Suleiman’s parliamentary membership be withdrawn for accepting the top post at a state-owned petroleum company. At the time, Zahran and his colleagues accused Suleiman of tarnishing the parliament’s standing by violating laws barring MPs from holding additional jobs in the public sector.

The MPs saw the appointment as a blatant disregard of parliamentary regulations. At the time, MP Mohamed Abdel-Alim told the press that it would be "a disaster" if Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had been aware of the violation and "an even greater disaster" if Nazif had been unaware of the laws barring such appointments.

At the time, Zahran and others also submitted a memo charging Suleiman with profiteering during his tenure as minister. They have openly called for trying him in court for trading in and giving state-owned land to public figures as a means of currying favor. Last Sunday, the general prosecutor issued a ruling banning Suleiman and some members of his family from leaving the country, while four businessmen were called in for questioning.

But even with documented cases of corruption involving government officials like Sorour and Suleiman, MPs from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), such as Mohamed Quweita, refuse to acknowledge this as a failure on the part of the state. On the contrary, Quweita sees such cases as positive indicators.

"It means that the government doesn’t cover up corruption. The proof is that we know all about people like Suleiman and Sorour," he said. "It shows that those guilty of wrongdoing will have to answer to the courts–no matter how high their position in government."

Quweita went on to say he believed that criminal laws were "enough to do the job." There is little need, he said, to amend laws governing the behavior of MPs or ministers or to force them to provide regular reports on their assets or job performances.

Quweita added that the case against Suleiman "is still merely hearsay, as long as the court has not yet found him guilty. He might even turn out to be innocent."

Ministers have to declare their personal wealth both before and after leaving office by providing lists of their financial holdings and real estate assets. This is usually done every five years for MPs–at least in theory–and, "if there’s a drastic change in wealth, he [or she] will be investigated," said Quweita.

But the ruling party MP concedes that the role of the Illegal Gains Authority, which answers directly to the presidency, needs to be strengthened. "The office needs to be more watchful so that wrongdoers are quickly discovered," said Quweita, while failing to provide suggestions on the means of accomplishing this.

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