Monday, January 25, 2010

EDITORIAL: ALF MABROUK, DR NAZIF

First Published: January 22, 2010

Weddings are such happy occasions. My heart always skips a beat when I hear that a couple has decided to tie the knot, come what may. In this day and age, it’s hard to guarantee anything. As our grandmothers used to say, marriage is like a watermelon (etc…).

Amid the bad news of torrential rains flooding areas in five Egyptian governorates and the sad death of 15 people, all state-run and independent newspapers (including the Middle East News Agency — MENA — Egypt’s official wire service) ran the happy news of our very own Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s pending marriage to the deputy head of the Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) Zeinab Zaki.

Why this particular piece of very private news was treated as an item of public interest — deemed of even international appeal, having appeared on MENA — is a bit of a mystery.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m truly happy for Prime Minister Dr Nazif. A former university professor and the founder and first minister of Egypt’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT), Nazif was instrumental in heralding Egypt into the IT age and setting up perhaps one of a handful of functional ministries, complete with affiliated developmental and regulatory agencies, its very own Smart Village and a generation of bright, skilled Egyptians who have proven that this country is capable of great things if only it employs the proper standards.

If only that model can be replicated in the rest of the ministries. Why, for instance, do we have 30 ministries, when the average number of portfolios in most developed countries is 16? Why, in this day and age, do we have a Ministry of Information? Why, for instance, is the Ministry of State for International Cooperation no longer part of the foreign ministry? And isn’t the natural place for the Ministry of State for Military Production under the Ministry of Defense? And what exactly is the mandate of the newly-formed Ministry of State for Family and Population, a splinter from the Health Ministry? Why do we have three separate Ministries of State for Local Development, Administrative Development and Economic Development?

When it comes to the Ministry of Investment and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the problem is even more complex. Foreign investors in Egypt complain of a fragmentation of authority that leaves them at a loss as to which body they should refer to, to do business in Egypt. What was conceived as a one-stop-shop for investors, the Ministry of Investment is no longer the dream team it was slated to be.

After attracting billions in FDI over the past five years, the ministry’s development has been stunted by the fact that the Trade Ministry’s Industrial Development Authority has now been given the final word. Instead of complementing each other, the two ministries seem to be competing, with overlapping mandates with both ministers on overseas trade missions every month — sometimes even going to the same countries within weeks.

It seems that in order for Nazif to transmit the visionary thinking behind his creation of the MCIT into a model for the Egyptian cabinet as a whole, he needs to streamline the process for decision-making, decrease the red-tape, the bureaucracy, and the centralization by pumping more cash into the municipalities and local councils. But this won’t happen if he continues adding new portfolios to a mostly dysfunctional cabinet not particularly known for its seamless inter-ministerial coordination.

In fact, it will only stoke more rumors of favoritism and behind-the-scenes political maneuvers to make the web of our executive body ever more complex and entangled.

But I’d hate to put a damper on Dr Nazif’s wedding plans. Yet speaking of that, and despite my aversion to mixing the personal with the public — I adamantly believe that an official’s family life is completely off limits to the media — except, of course, when it comes to the question of nepotism, which has long marred Egypt’s public affairs arena.

That said, despite my bewilderment at the scope of the announcement of Dr Nazif’s nuptial plans, in a way it was a transparent move considering that Ms Zaki is a high-ranking employee at an affiliate agency of the MCIT.

Let’s just hope that this transparency continues to spill over into all aspects of government, not just when it’s irrelevant.

Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt