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Egypt-Interest Groups

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The widening scope for interest-group politics was one of the most significant dimensions of the limited liberalization begun under Sadat. Under the Nasser regime, which distrusted the effect of pressure groups on public policy, interest groups were brought into a corporatist system whereby their leaders were government appointed. They were thus rendered powerless to deflect the mounting state assault on private interests launched in the name of socialism. Sadat, seeking to win the support of the land- owning and educated classes, permitted their associated interest groups greater autonomy and opened greater access for them into the decision-making process. Their members turned parliament into a channel for promoting their interests, and their representatives carried weight in the system of consultative national councils. Under Mubarak the numbers and influence of interest groups grew, and although the relation between the state and these associations was by no means free of conflict, they carried much more weight in policy councils than the unorganized mass public. Of all interests, business made the best use of the widened scope for interest-group activity. In men such as Osman Ahmad Osman, business enjoyed the direct access to Sadat critical for steering the transition from statism. But organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Industries also spoke with increasing authority for their interests against both the state sector and labor. The Businessmen's Association and the Egyptian-American Chamber of Commerce united the most powerful business interests and facilitated their access to state resources. The government even encouraged formation of new business organizations, such as a joint venture investors' association and an exporters' union.

To be sure, the bourgeoisie was far from united on many issues. Business people vied for lucrative privileged deals with the public sector, and those connected to its patronage networks were much more favorable to the state than those in competition with it. Such competition included the bankers, who fought the public sector for control of foreign exchange, and others who had to pay off officials merely to operate. Clashes also occurred between the interests of importers and of local industrialists and between the secular haute bourgeoisie and Islamic-oriented small business.

Nevertheless, on the big issues such as infitah, government regulation, taxation, prices, and wages, business shared a common view. Thus, business people and business groups were instrumental in pressuring for the widening of infitah under Sadat. They continually lobbied, with considerable success, for tax reductions and exemptions on the ground that the mobilization of savings and investment required these concessions. The government responded by reducing the progressive rates of the income tax and permitting a proliferation of "tax holidays" for new investment. The ability of the rich to evade taxes had become such a scandal by the end of the 1970s that Sadat declared the rich were not paying their fair share of taxes. The Chamber of Commerce lobbied aggressively against attempts by the Ministry of Supply to fix profit ceilings on imported commodities and fought back pressures from the trade unions for increases in minimum wages. Construction and real estate interests, operating through the Housing Committee of parliament, pushed through the demolition of lower-income neighborhoods to make way for luxury hotels, highways, parking lots, and office towers. The Federation of Industries launched a campaign to roll back public sector monopolies in fields where industrialists wanted to invest, while at the same time pushing for protection from foreign competition. Owners of large farms were also successful in advancing their interests. Operating through the Agricultural Affairs Committee of parliament, they won an alteration in the Law on Agrarian Relations, reducing the security of tenants and raising their rents; had public money allocated to compensate victims of the Nasserite land reforms; and won the right to bid on reclaimed state land, unrestricted by the agrarian reform ceiling.

The professional syndicates or unions also worked to defend the interests of their members. The medical syndicate, for example, lobbied to restrain the indiscriminate expansion of professional school enrollments, which it said was producing a surplus of undertrained graduates. The engineers' syndicate insisted that foreign firms be required to hire a quota of Egyptian engineers.

The actions of the journalists' and lawyers' syndicates stood out as cases where professionals took positions on wider political issues in opposition to the regime. The syndicates took these positions partly because these associations were battlegrounds between rival political forces and partly because their professional interests demanded political freedoms greater than those that the regime was willing to concede. Thus, the journalists' union long fought to expand press freedoms. Sadat inserted a trusted confidant to discipline the union, and when the strong leftist influence in the profession led to the election of a leftist, he tried unsuccessfully to abolish the union. The Mubarak regime, however, managed to reassert its control.

The lawyers' syndicate also became an independent force troublesome to the regime. While lawyers generally applauded Sadat's liberalization and the restoration of the rule of law, he did not go far enough to please many. The union gave New Wafdist leader Fuad Siraj ad Din (also seen as Serag al Din) a forum for his attempt to resurrect his party. Siraj ad Din vigorously attacked Sadat's Law of Shame by which he attempted to outlaw all criticism "disrespectful" of presidential authority. Sadat finally purged the syndicate leadership when it attacked the normalization of relations with Israel. Under Mubarak the syndicate became an even more contentious defender of civil liberties; in 1986 lawyers staged a strike against the continuation of emergency laws, and in 1988 the syndicate raised a public storm when it launched a campaign against the abuse of emergency laws and illegal detentions.

Public sector managers also entered the interest group arena as the infitah unfolded, embodying both threats and opportunities for them. The Ministry of Industry convened assemblies in which public sector officials were allowed to vent their grievances. Seeking to compete and survive in a freer economy, they demanded discretion to raise prices as costs rose, reduction of their tax burden, and authority over personnel policy to "link incentives to production." They also lobbied against a joint- venture textile factory that threatened to flood the market at the expense of the public textile industry. The managers had but limited success, however, because their desire for lower taxes clashed with the needs of the treasury, and their desire to raise prices and dismiss excess labor risked a popular reaction the government could ill afford. Public sector managers increasingly saw their salvation, therefore, in joint ventures with foreign firms that would release them from government restrictions and from the provisions of the labor code. Pushing from the other side with mixed success, the trade unions voiced the objections of public sector workers to any weakening of the labor code. The unions fought for increases in the minimum wage, too, but raises always seemed to lag behind the rising cost of living.

Generally speaking, the widened scope for interest-group politics in post-Nasser Egypt opened access for the "haves" to the policy process. But this was to the exclusion of, and often at the expense of, the less well connected or unorganized masses.

Data as of December 1990

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