London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from London, Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-Din gave his view on Western reactions to former president Mohamed Mursi’s ouster, the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and the Egyptian economy.
Din was appointed deputy prime minister on July 11, 2013. Following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Din co-founded the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and won a parliamentary seat in the now-dissolved parliament of 2012. His varied career includes roles such as chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and chairman at the Upper Egypt Investment Company. He also previously served as a member of the board of directors for the central bank and the National Bank of Egypt. Educated in law and economics, Din earned his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1996.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You have stopped off in London as part of an extensive international tour, attempting to drum up Western support for Egypt’s interim government and political transition. Have you felt a change in the Western position on post-Mursi Egypt in your travels?
Ziad Bahaa El-Din: There can be no doubt that there has been a change. Before I came to London I was in Brussels, while just three weeks ago I was in Washington, where I visited the World Bank. There has certainly been a change, although I would not describe it as a fundamental one. However, what is important is that this is a real and progressive change, and all of these countries, without exception, are willing to cooperate with Egypt. They have begun to reactivate programs that had previously been in effect, even if this is taking place in a cautious manner. However, without a doubt, there is a big difference between the current situation and what it was just three or four months ago.
Q: Talking about the transitional roadmap, the draft constitution includes a number of articles and details that ordinary constitutions would perhaps omit. At the same time, you have left a number of issues open to interpretation. So, let us be straight: What will come first, parliamentary or presidential elections?
The constitution does include a lot of details, and this is one of the features of constitutions. I personally do not prefer this, but there is also wisdom in this approach for when you want to ensure rights or safeguards. You should not leave this to the law, as this can be changed in the future. In other words, the detail included in the constitution just represents additional safeguards.
As for the second part of your question, you are correct: three or four decisions have been left to the discretion of the president. The president will, of course, implement these based on the mandate that he has been given by the constitution itself, and so the constitution remains the basis for these decisions. I would have preferred if this [the timing of parliamentary and presidential elections] had been decided by the constitution committee. In the end, this committee put in place the general principles and left the details to the president.
Q: In your view as an Egyptian minister affiliated to the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, would it be better to hold parliamentary or presidential elections first?
Let me first clarify that I do not represent the party in this regard. The ministers in this government were all chosen on an individual basis, and anybody who belonged to a political party has frozen their membership before joining government. This is because we are facing special circumstances.
As for the issue of whether parliamentary or presidential elections should come first, I was committed to the roadmap [which stipulated that parliamentary elections should come first]. I was committed to this not just because the roadmap is good, but also because it was an attempt to avoid division during this period.
It was vital for all involved to hold firm to one thing, like those who board a ship and say: “We will not disembark until we reach port.” Given that things have now changed, I imagine that early presidential elections will be good, because these will take place more quickly [than parliamentary] by their very nature, because competition between political parties over parliamentary seats takes more time.
Q: Talking about parliamentary elections, what electoral system do you think best serves Egypt, a party-list proportional representation system or the one member, one vote system?
According to my previous experience—I was an MP and was elected via a party list—I am of the view that the party-list proportional representation system is necessary, if only to a certain degree. This system grants opportunity for diversity and different trends in parliament, while it also pushes parties to undertake popular approaches and develop themselves.
As for the idea that party-list proportional representation is bad because political parties are not ready for it, this is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. In order to develop, parties must take part in electoral competition, and this takes place via the party-list system. However, it is also clear that there is a need for common ground.
For this reason, I believe—despite my support for the party-list proportional representation system—that a parallel voting system that combines both could be best. I would only stipulate that the party-list proportional representation system is granted a sufficient proportion of the voting.
Q: What about the view of the Egyptian public? Do they prefer the party-list proportional representation system or the one-member, one-vote system? Some people claim that the Egyptian people are more comfortable with the one-member, one-vote system. Do you agree?
I believe that developing political life and political parties requires a move towards the party-list proportional representation system, even in a partial manner.
Q: the Islamist trend, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, were able to secure a majority thanks to the proportional representation system, while the civil and secular parties were unable to compete. Has the situation changed? Will the civil and secular political parties now be able to compete?
The last elections were different to the elections that will take place in the near future. First, a portion of society failed to participate in these elections, and there was an absence of many regulations that I hope to ensure are in place this time around.
There is no country in the world that can hold free and fair elections in the absence of campaign finance regulations. We have seen the huge effect of this unprecedented level of financing. There must be campaign financing laws to put limits in place and ensure that funds do not come from a single source.
When a candidate is elected, we must know where his campaign funding came from. This was not present in the previous elections.
There were also no regulations on the issue of the use of places of worship in campaigning, and this is something that is not acceptable in a modern and democratic society. In order to ensure free and fair elections, there are a number of complementary measures that must be in place. The issue is more than people just going to the ballot box.
All of this influenced the last elections, and I believe that the results this time will be different, especially if special regulations are put in place regarding financing and the use of places of worship. Regulations regarding the use of campaign literature and advertising are also important.
Q: As for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, some believe that there is a significant state of polarization in the Egyptian street, while others claim that Brotherhood support is on the decline. What’s your view of the Brotherhood’s strength and future in Egypt?
There can be no doubt that public opinion has turned against the Muslim Brotherhood in a large way. The Brotherhood were in parliament for six months and in power for one year, and during this period it became apparent to many people that much of what they had promised did not materialize. This is not to mention their seizure of the state and its institutions, and the issue of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organizations. All of these were issues that incited public anger. Therefore, I have no problem saying that the popularity of the Brotherhood is on the decline.
However, we must also be careful to differentiate between the Muslim Brotherhood and the political Islamist trend, which contains other parties. So long as these Islamist parties remain committed to the rules, they must have a place in the forthcoming elections. It is clear that some portion of the Egyptian public will seek to elect the Islamist trend, but not necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: What do you mean by the “Islamist trend”? Are you talking about the Salafists, for example?
There are many parties. Yes, there are the Salafists, but there is also the Strong Egypt Party led by Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh. In addition to this, there is also more than one Salafist party—there is the Al-Nour Party and the Al-Watan Party—so there is a lot of diversity. We need to put in place regulations to ensure that there is no confusion between the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamist trends.
Q: As an interim government, what can you do to strengthen Egypt’s national economy, particularly following the economically disastrous Muslim Brotherhood era? What measures is the current government taking to fix Egypt’s ailing economy?
The most important thing the current government has done is to put an economic program in place, announcing this on September 12. This program targets urgent issues. The most important thing it contains is providing some advantages and exemptions to the Egyptian people, such as school fees, etc. In addition to this, we have secured reductions in vital commodities, in addition to setting a minimum wage.
We also adopted a package of investment in vital infrastructure projects, resulting in greater employment and more services. This is just part of the EGP 28 billion invested in Egyptian infrastructure.
Our philosophy is that stimulus is needed, but more important than this is securing public support for the projects. For example, if we announce that we have invested EGP 1 billion in a project, this in itself stimulates the general public and creates public support.
We must also assess who will benefit from these projects. So, for example, should we spend EGP 1 billion on paving a road to the Sahel El-Shamali [on the northern coast], a tourist village that people will visit one month a year, or should we build dozens of roads in Upper Egypt to villages that do not have any roads whatsoever? So choosing the right projects is also important in creating public support.
Q: Does Egypt have the resources to build such projects?
Yes, the resources are present in the budget itself. We have been able to achieve some surplus in the budget, while some resources have come from abroad. We have made sure to ensure that all the foreign financial assistance, such as the assistance from the UAE, is not consumed. A large portion of this—perhaps 50 percent or more—has been used to complete infrastructure projects. In other words, instead of being consumed, it is invested.
Q: You have a lot of experience in economic affairs, and solving the Egyptian economic crisis may require some belt-tightening and unpopular decisions, particularly regarding the country’s subsidy system. There has always been a fear of public reaction to such unpopular decisions. How can we solve this issue?
Yes, we can solve this, although I do not think it will be easy. If it were easy, the whole world would have already done it. There is only one solution to the Egyptian case, and that is publicizing the fact that these decisions serve the people’s interests. In other words, we must convince the Egyptian people—that is the condition.
There can be no change in the subsidy system unless the people are first convinced that the current system is corrupt and unjust. The idea that subsidies are good for the poor is something that we must convince the people is not true. What makes the government unable to reform a hospital or build a new school is that all the resources are going into a system that benefits the rich as much as it benefits the poor.
We must reach a stage where the people are convinced of the necessity of reforming the subsidy system and ensuring that this goes to those who deserve it in the right way. If we are able to convince the people that their funds are being exploited, then they themselves will demand a reform of the subsidy system.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.