Nazif described the banned Muslim Brotherhood “as more of a brand” than a political party.
Nazif described the banned Muslim Brotherhood “as more of a brand” than a political party.
Friday, November 25,2005 00:00
By (Financial Times)

Egypt’s PM defends economic reforms
By William Wallis in Cairo

Ahmed Nazif, Egypt’s prime minister, on Thursday defended his government’s record in increasingly violent parliamentary elections and said the ruling National Democratic party (NDP) was winning a “mandate” to pursue political and economic change on its terms.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Nazif said Egyptians were feeling the benefit of reforms carried out since his appointment in July 2004 at the head of a cabinet charged by President Hosni Mubarak with reviving the economy.

Gross domestic product growth had risen to 5.3 per cent from July to September and foreign direct investment in the non-energy sector had tripled annually since 2003 from $400m (€340m, £232m) to $1.2bn, he said.

The government had brought inflation from double digits to below 4 per cent, and had made inroads into unemployment. This and salary increases in the public and private sectors were improving living standards. However, so far “we have barely scratched the surface of Egypt’s potential”, he said.

Looking forward, the focus would be on further cutting bureaucratic impediments to investment, and deepening financial sector reform starting with the privatisation in early 2006 of the Bank of Alexandria, one of four state banks that dominate the market.

“Our social spending will be more responsible in the next phase,” he continued, explaining that the aim was to target subsidies more effectively to the poor.

Egypt was listed among the world’s top 10 reformers in the World Bank’s recent Global Competitiveness report, following a year in which the government drastically reduced customs duties and corporate tax rates and relaunched a stalled privatisation programme.

Its record on political reform since George W. Bush, US president, urged Mr Mubarak to take the lead introducing democracy to the Middle East has been more ambiguous.

OnThursday, judges supervising month-long legislative elections said they had been subject to assault and in some cases death threats. They said they would boycott the next round of voting tomorrow if they were not given more protection.

Mr Nazif portrayed the violence and violations as isolated, and said the introduction of transparent ballot boxes and independent election monitors had provided a “healthy beginning” to a democratic transformation that might take 10 or 15 years.

He described the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised opposition force, “as more of a brand” than a political party. The parliamentary gains made so far by independent Islamist candidates aligned to the group were not unwelcome, but the government had no plans to grant the Brotherhood legal status.

One disappointing trend, he added, was the paucity of women candidates and the failure of other, secular, opposition parties to make an impact. “It would be out of place for the government to say it will help other parties to do this, but creating the environment for secular opposition parties to show their face clearly will be an important part of the next phase of political reform,” he said.

An early priority would be replacing emergency laws – with which Mr Mubarak has ruled Egypt for the past 24 years and which have contributed to stifling political life – with anti-terrorism legislation.

“We intend to set an example in building a democracy that suits our environment, our culture and our ethics … in which the basics of democracy, freedom of expression and accepting differences, are a way of life,” he said.

The ruling party’s representation in parliament might sink from nearly 90 per cent to 70 per cent by the conclusion of polling on December 7, he admitted.