Egypt’s presidential run-off, in which around 50 million people are expected to vote on 16-17 June, is spotlighting challenges such as poverty alleviation, the role of NGOs, and environmental issues.
The vote comes in the wake of a popular uprising which ousted Hosni Mubarak’s regime 14 months ago and about 20 days after the first round of elections. Two presidential candidates are standing - the Islamist Mohamed Mursi, and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
Almost 25 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people live in poverty, including 4.8 percent who live in extreme poverty, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
This is perhaps why "poverty alleviation" gets frequent mention in the programmes of both Mursi and Shafiq.
Mursi promises to reduce poverty by, among other things, using Islamic charity money (`zakat’) to provide financial support and training for poor Egyptians to help them find jobs. "I do not want to give people a fish, but want to teach them how to fish," he said in a recent interview with private Al Mehwar TV.
He promises to control prices by encouraging consumer protection agencies to monitor the markets and by setting fixed prices for basic commodities. He says he will redistribute wealth by obliging the rich to pay higher taxes, and create universal social insurance. Mursi also vows to guarantee a minimum income for workers and pensioners.
Shafiq, on the other hand, promises to give pensions to the poor, stop subsidizing energy for industries and ensure that subsidies reach the needy. Without elaborating, he vows to adopt strategies that reduce poverty, improve living conditions, and deliver services to Egypt’s slums.
But away from the promises made by both candidates, whoever wins will face huge fiscal challenges, economists say. "What strikes me as strange is that neither candidate tells us how he will reduce poverty in definite terms," leading economic analyst Maged Aly, formerly with the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, told IRIN. "I think it will take the next president a long time to reduce poverty in a noticeable manner and this might go beyond their presidential term."
The new president has to secure a hefty US$22.5 billion needed to finance the budget deficit for the fiscal year 2012-2013. Unemployment is running at around 12.4 percent - around 3.4 million people out of a total workforce of 27 million.
"He has to take some action on subsidies for energy, basic foodstuffs and service payments for foreign and domestic debts," Aly said. "These debts are approaching the overall size of Egypt’s economy."
According to the Carnegie Endowment, Egypt pays around 6 percent ($16 billion) of its total GDP on subsidizing energy and electricity every year - 20 percent of total government spending. Another $9.6 billion are spent on other subsidies. Food subsidies only account for a small percentage of this - $2.3-3.3 billion a year.
However, according to the World Bank, most of these non-targeted subsidies do not benefit the poor.
Foreign reserves have been declining at the rate of $1.4 billion a month and are now down to less than 40 percent their January 2011 level. At $15.2 billion, these reserves are barely enough to cover three months’ worth of imports.
The fact that Egypt imports around 60 percent of its food and 40 percent of its fuel, makes this all the more challenging for the next president, economists say.
"This also makes us vulnerable to world food and fuel prices rises," Aly said. "Price hikes in international markets can further complicate matters for the president."
A recent government-led crackdown on several pro-democracy groups led to fears among civil society activists that the 2011 uprising would not bring them the freedoms they dreamed of.
Months after this crackdown, rights activists are still afraid the next regime will not be supportive enough of their work.
"I do not expect the next president to tolerate rights organizations," said Shady Amin, executive director of local NGO Centre for the Right to Democracy and Human Rights.
|I think it will take the next president a long time to reduce poverty in a noticeable manner and this might go beyond their presidential term|
Mursi considers civil society to be one of three pillars on which his presidential programme is based. The Islamist candidate calls NGOs an "important development partner". He promises to propose laws to parliament that give civil society organizations more freedoms to organize and interact with citizens.
Shafiq, too, promises to offer support for civil society so it can play an effective role in Egypt’s "sustainable development". He promises to amend civil society law 84/2002, which is seen as restrictive by civil society activists, to help NGOs become more "effective", "independent", and "transparent".
But Amin believes that the two candidates only believe in development NGOs. "These NGOs can contribute to helping the poor and the needy," Amin says. "In this, they support the president. As for rights groups, they are a severe headache for any president because they always talk about mistakes and failures."
There are currently 38,000 NGOs in Egypt, according to the Social Insurance Ministry.
Out of 498 members of parliament only eight were women when the Egyptian Constituional Court anulled part of the results of last year's election on 14 June, stripping one third of MPs of their mandate. Only seven women have been selected to join the 100-member Constituent Assembly that will write the new constitution.
Mursi promises in his programme to bolster gender equality and considers this an important principle of Islamic law. He promises to open the way for more participation by women in political life, elections, and economic activities. He also promises to initiate programmes to help single mothers and widows.
Mursi’s programme also focuses on the role of women in raising children. This infuriates feminists and women’s rights activists who say they are fed up with the perception that women are only there to get married, give birth, and bring the children up.
"We need to put an end to this thinking," said Nehad Abul Qomsan, director of local NGO Centre for Women’s Rights. "There is a systematic and intentional neglect of the importance of women in Egypt’s political and economic life."
She says one third of Egyptian households are supported by women, while women own 20 percent of Egypt’s major corporations. "This means that women have their own economic weight," says Qomsan. "This economic weight must be met with an equally important social and political role."
Shafiq is silent on women's issues.
The environment does not seem to be of major importance in Shafiq’s presidential programme. When he mentions the river Nile, he focuses on the economic value of the river and Egypt’s historical right to its water.
Shafiq promises to mend fences with other Nile Basin countries, and appoint a government official whose job will be to coordinate relations with Nile Basin countries.
"The environment has never been of real importance to Egyptians," said Shakinaz Taha, director of Cairo University’s Environmental Research Centre. "This is why it does not strike me as strange that these presidential candidates do not pay any attention to it in their programmes."
Egypt, a water-poor country, is expected to face a water deficit of 21 billion cubic metres by 2050 when its population is set to reach 150 million, according to the state-run National Planning Institute.
Fights over irrigation water have already become common across this country, with citizens resorting to sewage to irrigate their crops in some places.
Mursi dedicates more space to the environment in his programme. He links the environment to the economy and says Egypt loses 5 percent of its gross domestic product every year because of environmental pollution.
Egypt’s environmental problems could, however, be more serious than indicated by either of the candidates’ programmes. A series of local and international reports warn against an increasing ecological deficit and growing pressure on domestic biocapacity.
"The kind of economic development that Egypt has had during the last 4-5 decades has contributed to increasing the quality of Egyptians’ life, but at the same time it has done so at the expense of the environment to the extent that now, continuing to increase residents’ quality of life following a business-as-usual model for its economy, is unrealistic," Alessandro Galli, Mediterranean programme director at Global Footprint Network, US NGO working in the field of the environment, told IRIN.