INTERVIEW-Islamist governor shakes up Egypt province

Tue Oct 2, 2012 4:43pm GMT
 

* Brotherhood man takes post once reserved for generals

* Main priority is tackling pervasive corruption

* Efforts point to reform bid by Islamist administration

By Tom Perry

KAFR EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Battling corruption is a top priority for the Muslim Brotherhood man just named as a provincial governor in Egypt but he faces another problem before he even begins: while everyone knows graft is there, it has scarcely ever been investigated.

Saad al-Hoseiny's first weeks in a job once kept for retired generals offer a glimpse of the knot of problems inherited by the new Islamist-led administration from decades of autocratic rule that failed to address the problems of a bloated state.

It also points to the Islamists' early efforts to shake up the status quo. Hoseiny described a series of field trips that had caught local officials napping. He is drawing up plans for development and administrative reform, and newly-recruited specialists are at work in an office adjoining his own.

"The problems are bigger than I was expecting. But the potential solutions are many," said Hoseiny, clutching a string of prayer beads during an interview at his headquarters in the province of Kafr El-Sheikh, a two-hour drive north of Cairo.

The corruption Hoseiny wants to root out in the Nile Delta province, with the population of a small country, mirrors that pervading the Egyptian state. It poses a significant obstacle to the development plans of the Islamists now in power who are seeking to eradicate corruption in all branches of government.

"We are in a new era. People must work with honesty and transparency," Hoseiny, a Brotherhood veteran appointed last month by President Mohamed Mursi, told Reuters.

Seeking to get a sense of the extent of malfeasance in his first days on the job, Hoseiny asked his administrative oversight team for all the information they had on the subject. "They came to me and said: 'We do not have any corruption files'," he said. "But I know there is corruption everywhere."

"You find everyone saying this person or that is corrupt and takes bribes ... So I transfer that person somewhere else."

The meagre wages paid by a state that employs millions of people are typically identified as the basic cause of much of Egypt's petty corruption. Egyptians have gotten used to the idea of paying bribes to get official business done quickly.

Since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011, both the former president and other senior officials have been indicted in bigger corruption cases, charged with making illicit gains by, for example, selling state land at below market prices.

"By God's good grace, being an honest person surrounded by a team of honest people ... is a message that there is no place for the corrupt in this country," Hoseiny said. He said he would introduce bonuses to reward good performance.

Aged 53 with a great white beard, Hoseiny has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for more than half his life.

"FROM THE STREET"

He was jailed repeatedly by the Mubarak administration. The last occasion was just before the eruption of the popular uprising, when he was held together with other Brotherhood leaders including the man who would become president.

"I come from the street, from among the people," he said, explaining how his qualifications for the role of governor set him apart from the military men who went before him.

"I know the rich, I know the poor, and I was jailed 10 times. I even know what criminals get up to."

He has invited citizens to relay their concerns in person on Wednesday afternoons. Eight hundred people showed up for the first week, leading to the deployment of a small contingent of riot police for the purposes of crowd control.

The people are typically seeking housing and jobs, Hoseiny said. Other problems include inadequate health care, education and sewage facilities, water pollution and dangerous roads.

Hoseiny said the province's natural resource wealth - he said it had 12 percent of Egypt's proven natural gas reserves - should mean a more prosperous future for its 2.9 million citizens. He wants energy firms working in the province to live up to their corporate social responsibilities.

He has made a habit of visiting the most run-down parts of the province, catching local officials off guard.

Hoseiny described how, ahead of one of his field visits, a local official had spent days cleaning the route he anticipated the new governor would take - the kind of behaviour typical of the Mubarak era when it became preferable to hide rather than deal with problems. "It was all about appearance," he said.

Instead, Hoseiny inspected piles of refuse, to the embarrassment of the official. "I said to him: 'Do you think I don't know about this? Now is the chance for us to fix it.'" (Editing by Mark Heinrich)

 
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