Egypt Too Oppresses Journalists; Now It’s Going After Economists

Anyone who dares criticize the corruption, the military’s control of the economy or the enormous gap between the rich and poor should pack a suitcase now

Zvi Bar'el
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Homeless children in Giza, just southwest of Cairo.
Homeless children in Giza, just southwest of Cairo.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

Journalism seems to be the most dangerous vocation. Dozens of journalists have been killed in wars in Syria and Iraq. Journalists have been persecuted and imprisoned in Turkey, Russia and other countries. And of course there’s Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Egypt has a place of honor in the history of suppressing the media, but this long arm hasn’t skipped researchers and academics who dare criticize the regime.

The latest case is of writer and economist Abdel Khaleq Farouq, who has been an analyst for Egypt’s Finance Ministry and the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Farouq was arrested this month by the authorities for “publishing false information that could harm general safety and security and sow fear among citizens, and for broadcasting false statements and reports.”

These are very serious accusations, and if Farouq is convicted he could spend many years in prison, not to mention the hefty fines. His horrendous crime is publishing his new book “Is Egypt Really a Poor Country?” The work was put out by the Dar al-Salam publishing house, whose owner, Ibrahim el-Khateib, was arrested on the same charges.

Security forces confiscated the 200 copies of the book that have already been printed, but the work has made its way into PDF format and is being read by many people both in Egypt and abroad. Farouq’s lawyer says the government is accusing his client of ridiculing government institutions for the way they’re managing Egypt’s human resources. It seems one of the claims that angered the regime the most concerned the military’s control of the Egyptian economy.

The book was meant to serve as a factual response to claims by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who declared in a speech in January 2017: “Yes we are a poor country … very poor even …. I am poor too …. From where will I provide for you?”

Farouq quotes numbers published in the official Egyptian media showing that the country does not suffer from a lack of money but only from an unjust distribution of wealth. For example, Farouq reports that in 2016 about 200,000 cars were sold in Egypt. This means Egyptians spent 30 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.67 billion) that year on cars.

Another example Farouq presents is that from 1980 to 2011, Egyptians spent $180 billion on home purchases. The total assets held by Egyptian citizens overseas has reached $250 billion, Farouq says. In 2014, when Sissi called on Egyptians to buy stock in the project for expanding the Suez Canal, 64 billion Egyptian pounds were contributed within two weeks.

Some of the data were already published in the Egyptian media, but the estimates of the assets held by Egyptians and the extent of their deposits in foreign banks are based on Farouq’s own calculations and analysis.

Farouq wondered where all the money the country earned was going. For example, where did the money for establishing the new administrative capital come from, whose cost is some $45 billion? And who will profit from this construction? According to Sissi, a company will be set up for planning and building the new capital, and its profits will be divided between the company, the military and the treasury.

The budget for the military, which takes part in almost every large project in the country, isn’t subject to parliamentary oversight, and it’s impossible to know how big a share it takes from the revenues from the various projects. As a result, when it’s impossible to know what happens to the money, it’s impossible to direct the country’s revenues so that its citizens will benefit from them.

Last week, the website Mada Masr, one of the few sites still reporting on corruption and improprieties in Egypt, published a long investigative report on the natural gas deal between Egypt and Israel.

This solid story shows that Egyptian intelligence is deeply involved in the deal through front companies registered in the Virgin Islands and the Netherlands; the companies are partners of the company that signed the natural gas deal with their Israeli counterparts.

In his book, Farouq also discusses the gas deal signed with Israel during the Hosni Mubarak era. He notes that in 2000 Omar Suleiman, who headed Egyptian intelligence from 1993 to 2011, sent a letter to Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi informing him that Egyptian intelligence had approved the natural gas deal with Israel. According to Farouq, at the time it was said that Suleiman received an $11 million fee from the Israelis.

Farouq, who has written some 20 books, many of them about corruption and mismanagement in Egypt, explores Mubarak’s secret assets and the way the former president and senior officials stole from the government’s coffers. In 2013, the interior minister’s salary was 3,750 Egyptian pounds a month, as set by a new law. But he also received a supplement of 124,000 Egyptian pounds a month.

This can of worms Farouq uncovered in his book is no great surprise. The scope of the corruption and enormous gap between Egypt’s rich and poor is felt in every home. Much of the book is actually about the Mubarak era. But the Sissi regime must make clear to academic researchers too the boundaries of what’s allowed. Anyone who wants to expose corruption, criticize what’s happening during the Sissi era or isn’t pleased with the military’s economic power should pack a suitcase now.