‘Spare some change’ for Egypt’s crumbling economy?

President Sisi has argued that the fractions of the pound lost in bank translations can amount to millions. (Shutterstock)

“I need this change. I don’t know how, but I do,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in reference to fractions of the pound lost in bank translations which he argued can amount to millions that can be used for development projects. While serious steps towards implementing what came to be known as “the change initiative” are reportedly being taken already amid considerable enthusiasm by a number of experts, sarcastic responses also abounded and so did alarming comments on what this tells about the state of the Egyptian economy.

Azza Koura, head of the development program at the Long Live Egypt Fund, which receives donations from Egyptians, said that Sisi’s idea is based on “the decimal point theory,” as she put it. “This means collecting the fractions of the pound not only from bank transactions, but also from utility and phone bills,” she said. “If we put all this together, we’ll get more than 18 billion pounds per year.” When asked about the mechanism to be used to implement this initiative, Koura said that in the case of checks banks are considering removing the change from transactions for all their clients and those who do not approve can file a request asking to keep their change.

Economic expert Hisham Ibrahim said the while the initiative will never solve Egypt’s economic problem, it can help in small projects. However, he said that it not possible to implement the initiative without prior approval from individual clients. “Even if it is one cent, the client has to approve first. Otherwise, clients will start getting worried about how secure their money is at those banks,” he said, adding that detractors of the initiative might play on this fear to make it fail. “That is why it is important to make it clear that this is a donation, which means it is voluntary.”

Banking expert Ayman Ibrahim said that implementing the initiative requires a legislative amendment that will remove the change from the bill and approximate the amount to the next pound. “For example, if an electricity bill is for 99.60 pounds, it will be issued for 100 pounds and the remaining 40 piasters will go to the fund,” he said. “The same will apply to all entities that issue bills.” Ibrahim added that this money will be deposited in each citizen’s name and under his/her ID number so that citizens become actual shareholders in this fund. “Citizens will also feel that their change is being used for useful projects instead of being left to the electricity bill collector or the cashier at any store,” he said, in reference to the habit of leaving the fractions of the pound when paying for purchases, services, taxi cabs… etc.

MP and member of the legislative committee at the House of Representatives Afifi Kamel said that issuing a legislation that allows the implementation of the change initiative is not enough to make it constitutional. “Such initiative requires a popular referendum to see if people accept it,” he said. “It is up to the people and not the parliament.” Kamel said he saw Sisi’s talk about a change as a request rather than an initiative that will be officially implemented. “I believe the president was just asking Egyptians to help solve the economic problem in whichever way they can.” Constitutional expert Essam al-Islambouli agreed and noted that the law that might come out of the initiative will be unconstitutional. “The resulting law would violate private property rights, but as long as this initiative remains a request it remains voluntary, thus constitutional.”

While admitting that similar initiatives were successful in other countries such as France and the United States, journalist Habi George argued that the case is totally different with Egypt. “In other initiatives there was a clear mechanism that determined how the donation will be carried out and tracked, but in Egypt neither monitoring institutions do their job nor is the civil society empowered to play that role or at least coordinate with the state to make sure the donations go where they are supposed to,” he wrote. George made the distinction between what he called “the spare change state” and the state with a plan. “The state with a plan studies such initiatives thoroughly, presents its mechanisms to the public, and addresses challenges while the spare change state is short sighted and fixes problems as they come while using a patriarchal discourse to deal with crises.”

Several observers compared this change initiative to previous ones launched by Sisi which were also based on donations from citizens, such as the Long Live Egypt Fund, arguing that none of them could save the Egyptian economy. Salma Hussein, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, noted that such initiatives cannot be done on state level. “These initiatives can be launched on the level of municipalities or civil society organizations, but for a state to solve an economic crisis there is much more to be done in education, industry, healthcare… etc,” she said. Omnia Helmi, head of the Research Department at the Egyptian Center for Studies, agreed that major procedures are the only way out of the crises. “This includes eliminating corruption, tracking down tax evaders, and enhancing local production among others,” she said, adding that the outcome of Sisi’s initiative, which she likened to “clinging to straws,” will be too minor to make an impact on the economy.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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