A conversation with Egypt’s new planning minister

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On Tuesday 7 May the Egyptian cabinet was reshuffled – and one of the key portfolios for Egypt’s relations with the outside world went to Amr Darrag of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Darrag was named minister for planning and international co-operation. Last Friday, only days before he joined the cabinet, he appeared as a panellist at a Black Coffee Morning event at ECFR in London. Whether or not he had any inkling about his imminent promotion, Darrag’s comments give an insight into the outlook of a man who will now be influential on a series of contentious issues – including negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), relations with the European Union, and rules governing the operation of NGOs in Egypt.

Darrag is certainly a polished and articulate performer, and in that sense, a smart choice for a job that involves making Egypt’s case for funding to the world. Behind his engaging manner, his vision of Egypt’s transition was clear – as well as familiar from other FJP and Muslim Brotherhood speakers. According to Darrag, the biggest problem that Egypt faces is the continuing power of “elements of the old regime” who are entrenched in the security forces, the judiciary, the media, and elsewhere in the state apparatus, and who are working to thwart the democratic forces unleashed by the revolution. These elements “still have power and are causing violence”, he argued. In response, the FJP’s aim has been to shorten the transition period, when it claims that the country is most vulnerable to this attempted revanchism, by pushing through a new constitution and working towards parliamentary elections as soon as possible.

As I explored in a recent report, this vision offers a self-fulfilling justification for an increasingly narrow and exclusionary political approach. If all obstacles to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political programme stem from counter-revolutionary forces, there is no need to make any effort to engage with political opponents or recognise legitimate constraints on the power of the majority. This is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood’s arguments are completely bogus (or that the opposition has not acted irresponsibly). The security services are clearly in need of reform, and some of the judiciary’s decisions – such as the Supreme Court’s dissolution of parliament last year – seem obviously to have been politically motivated. But no reform will be credible if it is advanced only by a single political faction, and since its candidate won the presidency, it is the FJP that has the first responsibility to advance a programme that can plausibly be seen as serving the country’s interests as a whole.

Faced with questions about some of the government’s policies, Darrag pointed out that the prime minister is politically independent and the FJP occupies few ministries. Much disputed legislation currently under discussion in the upper house – notably on the judiciary and on NGO regulations – was not proposed by the FJP, he argued. Indeed the FJP has now entered the debate and discussions on the bills are “moving in the right direction”. Many Egyptians would disagree – an alternative draft of the NGO law introduced by an FJP minister has also been strongly criticised by local civil society groups. But it will be interesting to see if Darrag makes any attempt to use his influence especially on the NGO law (which falls partly within his brief) to promote a greater degree of independence for civil society from government control. Speakers at ECFR’s event made it clear that this issue is being closely watched in Europe as an indicator of the government’s (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s) commitment to pluralism.

Darrag was formerly the secretary-general of Egypt’s constituent assembly, and he also made comments on the country’s new constitution. 10-15 percent of the document could be open to revision in the future, he admitted. At another event in London, organised by the British School in Rome and St Andrews’ University, Darrag expanded on these remarks. He conceded that the rush to finish the constitution in late November meant that some parts of the text were incomplete, and pointed particularly to the lack of provisions on decentralisation as reflecting an area “that was really not enough discussed.” He added that “it is still the position of the Freedom and Justice Party to move further towards decentralisation” in the coming period. He also defended the constitution’s permissive treatment of the military, arguing that “the role of the military must change gradually”, and pointing out that the overall figure for the military budget will now be known, and that it will be up to parliament to define when cases against civilians are tried before military courts. 

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