A couple of weeks ago I wrote about corruption and that we are all, in varying degrees, part of the whole system. I also called for more awareness on our part to enable us stop participating in the ongoing corruption. I thought my words might resonate with some, and that alone would be a step in the right direction.
This week, and after the scandal about the Ministry of Agriculture, I feel how naive I was.
Real corruption is what we are seeing happening now and being exposed by some whistle blowers. The extent, depth and breadth of this corruption is totally shocking. I am in total disbelief. Not in a million years would I have imagined that so many people actively participate in fraud and deliberately facilitate the swindling of the Government and some hapless individuals, whose only fault was to actually try to stick to the letter and spirit of the law.
For quite a few years there have been whispers, innuendoes, and sometimes outright criticism of what is going on at the Ministry of Agriculture. Until last week nothing had been done about all that. But last week we must have reached the straw that broke the camel’s back, the pin that pricked the balloon, or the person who opened Pandora’s box.
The first time the general public heard about that was with the sudden, unprecedented field visit by the Minister of Agriculture to a few compounds on the Cairo/Alexandria Desert Road. These compounds have long been beleaguered with rumours of not complying with the law. The main issue was that the land of these compounds was officially sold to these owners as agricultural land, land that should be reclaimed and planted to increase the crop yield of Egypt. These owners ignored this agreement and started building residential compounds, gated communities, of great luxury. People flocked to buy a part of the dream of living in a high class residential area, in a house with a garden and away from the suffocatingly congested capital.
The owners of these parcels of land sold this land very openly and with much media fanfare, and the buyers were legion. Everything was done in plain sight, nothing underhanded and the buyers were reassured that the papers were all above board and legal. The compounds flourished and a whole new area came into existence in just a few years. Real estate was booming. But still the rumours persisted. Yet nothing was done about those rumours. The original buyers of the different parcels of land kept flaunting their official documents, their contracts with the Ministry of Agriculture, showing that everything was legal and above board.
Last week there were a few “leaks” that started the ball rolling. One newspaper reporter started strongly hinting about “investigations” within the Ministry of malfeasance. Then the detention of some senior members of the Ministry and their interrogation took place, ending with their arrest and accusation of corrupt behaviour. The coup de grace came with the arrest of the Minister of Agriculture after being fired.
Up to that point the general public knew nothing except the “rumours” that have been circulating for years. But now that things had come to a head and the Minister was arrested, one television presenter hosted a couple of whistle blowers from the Ministry of Agriculture and started airing the details showing the depth and extent of corruption.
The root of the problem started during President Sadat’s tenure, when he used a catchy phrase that caught on and caused endless legal headaches. He said “The land is for those who till it”. People took it literally and assumed that they have presidential sanction to squat on and work the land, therefore becoming owners. Years later these squatters found that they did not have a legal right to the land, but felt that morally they were entitled. A compromise was reached by which these people paid the Ministry of Agriculture the price of the land and their status was legalised. In the meantime many businessmen saw a chance to acquire large parcels of desert land, so applied the principle of squatting, but were unable to legalise their status as they did not “till” the land. They kept it for later to be sold in lots as building land.
At the end of 2012 a decree was issued by which the practice of legalising the ownership of land for squatters ended. So any squatters who had gone to the Ministry of Agriculture to legalise their ownership of the land that they had been squatting on, could not after the end of 2012. This became a big problem for some of the current squatters who had not legalised their claims with the Ministry. This cut-off date forced those who were left holding the bag to think of ways and means to get these lands legalised.
The Machiavellian scheme they hit upon, and with the full cooperation of some of the most senior members of the Ministry, as well as, allegedly that of the Minister, was put in place and executed. It was very simple and extremely brazen.
Each application submitted by a squatter and which had taken a number and was approved before the end of 2012 and was entered into the data base, became a target. These legalised applications were withdrawn from the records, had the names, number of feddans and locations all wiped out and the new names, new numbers of feddans and new locations written in. The computerised data base was then changed to reflect the newly doctored documents.
This was the first step. The next was to ensure that whatever internal controls there were, were blindsided. The committees that were set up for control and follow up were easily manipulated by ensuring that only those in on the plot were appointed to these committees. This took the active participation of a large number of very senior members of the Ministry. The motive behind all that was money. Some very large amounts of money, some great services and some very expensive assets exchanged hands.
There were a few honest people in the Ministry of Agriculture who were extremely disgusted and who tried to report these fraudulent acts to senior management, but to their horror they discovered that those they reported to were implicated and part of the corruption going on. Many of those honest people were either fired or transferred far away from the hub of the operation.
Over the past few months the official stance of the Prime Minister, but more importantly that of the President has been that of fighting corruption at every level. This had encouraged those brave souls who worked in the lion’s den to get their files and documentation and submit them to the General Prosecutor’s Office. These whistle blowers were very tenacious and kept digging until they came up with a previous backup of the data base that had the original names and all original data of the legal squatters. When compared to the doctored documents, the discrepancies were horrendous. One example is that of a squatter who had legalised his holding of three feddans in Suez, had had his approved application doctored to show someone else’s name as having approval for 6400 feddans in the desert next to the new highway to the North Coast.
Every man is innocent until proven guilty, but the fraud perpetrated in the Ministry of Agriculture is on such mammoth proportions, it could not have succeeded without a large number of the most senior members being active participants. The depth and breadth of this corruption is still being uncovered and we are still waiting to see who else is involved.
My perception of corruption, prior to last week, now seems to have been extremely naive. Though my confidence in some of the supposedly responsible seniors in the Government has been badly shaken, yet my appreciation of the tenacity and strength of those who exposed the quagmire has given me renewed hope for a better, cleaner Egypt.
14 Sept. 2015