Even police officers might go on strike” was a headline in a major independent newspaper in Egypt some time ago when a ruling NDP MP filed a request to raise police officers’ salaries.
According to the report, a General’s monthly salary does not exceed $340, a sum that cannot provide a decent living for a high ranking officer. Although the numbers are probably true, I still believe it is way farfetched to assume that police officers woudl go on strike.
Over the years, Egypt’s regime has developed a shrewd scheme to secure the loyalty of civil servants, especially those working in positions of influence. The scheme is based on controlling two pillars: retirement and pay.
As retired judge and leading historian Tariq El Bishry notes in his book “Egypt Between Disobedience and Dissolution” the 1990s witnessed a major sway in the impartiality of the state as Egypt went down the path of economic liberalization and the regime manipulated the due legislative amendments to secure loyalty of state employees. Laws number 5 and 203, issued in 1991, decreased the autonomy of state bodies.
Basic salaries for police and army officers and other government employees are remarkably low, but this is not the amount of money they receive every month. In fact, basic salaries comprise no more that five percent of what loyal officers get. The rest is made up of a wide range of allowances, incentives, rewards, overtime, other benefits and subsidized services.
Officers illustrating high levels of loyalty receive maximum benefits, while those illustrating lower levels of loyalty, and higher levels of adherence to letter of the law at the expense of the regime, receive less benefits. This also applies to civil servants working in other government institutes such as ministries. Those who are willing to turn a blind eye on corruption in privatization processes for example are rewarded through receiving maximum benefits, while others’ pay is limited to their basic salary, and are sometimes transferred to administrative positions with lower salaries and minimal potential for benefits and promotions.
Promotion and early retirement is the second component of the strategy to control civil servants. Over the past decade, the regime has managed to manipulate the long-lasting seniority concept governing state institutes under the guise of modern management theories. Promotion in influential state positions no longer depends on seniority, but rather on competence, which is decided by the top brass. This might be acceptable in a democratic country, where there are objective criteria for promotions and accountability to those who make the decision. But in a country like Egypt, it only means the regime will appoint loyal employees to top positions, and there will be no solid basis to challenge any such decision.
Alongside promotion criteria changes comes early retirement. Legislative amendments paved the way for dramatic changes in promotion, especially in the military and police sectors. The default now is that an officer would be forced into early retirement after 10-15 years of work, unless he is promoted to a higher position that keeps him in office through a presidential decree. It is only after this time in office that police and military officers start to become influential and their loyalty therefore becomes necessary. Every year, senior officers anxiously wait for this unchallengeable decree, which could transfer them to an administrative position, and could send them home.
One could only imagine how degrading it would be for an officer who spent 15 years in office to start a new career somewhere else, as his pension (calculated as a percentage of his basic salary) could not provide for a decent living. The officer would therefore do his best to secure the presidential decree, illustrating his absolute loyalty to the regime whenever necessary.
It is for this specific reason that police officers illustrate loyalty to the regime by collaborating in the rigging of elections. But police officers are not devils, and they are not happy with what they do when they are forced to mobilize thugs to beat up voters and harass journalists. Yet, they see no alternative to saving their jobs. As El Bishry explains, those responsible for the country’s security suffer career insecurity, and are always keen to please the regime.
This is also one of the reasons why military tribunals do not enjoy the basic guarantees of a fair trial. The judge, who is a military officer, has no choice but to follow the orders of his superiors. And if he doesn’t, he is sent on early retirement. While civilian judges are more stable, military judges depend on a biannual decree from the Minister of Defence to maintain their positions.
This phenomenon clarifies why judges have been outspoken in resisting the regime’s assault on the law. A major structural difference is what allows judges to enjoy partial autonomy, as the judicial system is designed to guarantee judicial independence.
President Mubarak’s regime has gained an international reputation for its shrewd techniques in manipulating democracy. In the case of the autonomy of civil servants, just as is the case in elections and freedom of expression, the regime shows a democratic façade, but the devil is in the details
Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a board member of ikhwanweb.com, the Muslim Brotherhood"s official English-language website. He has a BA in political science from the American University in Cairo and is working towards an MA in Islamic studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies.