Cablegate: Mubarak's Annual Speech to Parliament Offers

DE RUEHEG #2209/01 3291527
P 251527Z NOV 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 CAIRO 002209



E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/24/2019
ECONOMIC BENEFITS AND DETAILS ITS REGIONAL LEADERSHIP REF: A. CAIRO 2166 B. CAIRO 2193 Classified By: Minister-Counselor for Economic and Political Affairs Donald A. Blome, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)
1.(C) Key Points: -- President Mubarak's annual speech before parliament focused on economic and social safety net issues. An approach directed squarely at the ruling NDP's rural and urban working class constituents. -- Fulfilling these new commitments, including "health insurance for all" and a 25 percent expansion of the government social insurance program will be costly, straining already significant budget deficits. -- Mubarak did not raise any new or potentially contentious political reforms. He praised the parliament's legislative "achievements" in key areas like judicial independence and freedom of expression, but the real record falls short. -- Beyond the legislative agenda, Mubarak asserted Egyptian leadership in Africa and the Arab world (noting concerns about Iran and the Palestinian reconciliation) and touched on key national security objectives including energy (specifically nuclear energy) and water security.

2.(C) Comment: Mubarak's agenda reflects the importance of patronage and government benefits to the ruling party's bargain with the Egyptian people. At least one senior NDP official told us recently that NDP leaders heard loud and clear from their local party bosses that economic hardship and inflation have put public support in jeopardy, particularly among the NDP's key rural and urban working class constituencies. While there is little competition from the secular opposition, which has no broad popular base of support, accusations from the opposition that the ruling party favors the interests of the elite do have resonance. The GoE must also compete with services provided by Egypt's large and well-organized Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Fears that any political reforms will limit the GoE's ability to control the outcome of the elections have stalled promised changes, most significantly the end to the Emergency Law. Mubarak touted the success of prior economic reforms, but avoided raising privatization, subsidy reform and fiscal discipline as these are broadly unpopular. This suggests that the GoE is unlikely to broach significant new economic reform initiatives until after the elections. End Comment. -------------------------------- Mubarak Focuses on Delivering Benefits --------------------------------

3.(C) In his annual speech to parliament on November 19, President Mubarak outlined key aspects of his government's domestic agenda, with a focus on economic progress, as well as foreign policy priorities for the coming year. The speech sets legislative priorities but does not reflect the entire legislative agenda which will emerge over the next months as the cabinet moves draft legislation through the relevant parliamentary committees. Mubarak's focus on a social safety net and expanded economic opportunity came as no surprise. Government priorities were effectively set by the National Democratic Party (NDP) Conference held in early October (Reftel A). As expected, Mubarak largely ignored political reforms advocated by democracy activists and human rights groups, still unable to build the necessary broad popular support for their proposed reforms. The GoE,s preference for "incremental" political reform and fears of the effect of unemployment, price hikes, and a general dissatisfaction with government performance kept Mubarak focused on "bread and butter issues," including heath care and social security reform, key to maintaining support from rural and urban working class constituencies. (Note: Parliament is unlikely to act on any of the agenda items until they return from the Eid al Adha break on December 8. End Note.)

4.(C) An experienced journalist covering the parliament, Gamal Essam El Din, called the speech typical of Mubarak's previous speeches before the parliament. He said now more than ever the goal was to frame President Mubarak as national leader, safeguarding the interests of all Egyptians, not just the ruling party elite. The message (also in his National Democratic Party (NDP) Conference speech) that "we are all in one boat" was repeated several times. According to El Din, this effort at "inclusion" was mostly a reference to NDP CAIRO 00002209 002 OF 003 efforts to address the needs of both business elites and the working class, but said he felt Mubarak's insistence on the need for unity was novel. Media commentary on the speech was limited, drowned out by the ongoing outrage about Algerian "attacks" on Egyptian football fans at the World Cup qualifying match in Khartoum (Reftel B). (Note: The People's Assembly took up the issue the day after the President's speech, with several NDP MPs reportedly arguing for a stronger GoE response. MPs will submit report discussed at the session to the international soccer authority FIFA. End Note.) --------------------------------- Promised Increases in Benefits Will Grow Budget Deficits ---------------------------------

5.(SBU) Mubarak praised previous economic reform efforts and referred to Egypt's success in weathering the global financial crisis. Mubarak announced new legislation amending the social insurance system and promised a 25 percent increase in benefits by the start of 2010 and an expansion of the program to include seasonal workers. Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali estimates the cost of expanded coverage at LE500 million (US$91.7 million) in the first year alone. Healthcare reform is also high on the agenda. Mubarak asserted the "right" of all Egyptians to coverage with a focus on providing high-quality health care to all with a focus on the poor and children and lowering out of pocket fees. The law would also allow upgrade hospital facilities and increase doctor's salaries (more detail will follow septel).

6.(C) Mubarak committed to a third "economic stimulus" package of LE 10 billion to fund water and sanitation projects. Earlier packages totaling LE 23 billion(US$4.22 billion) sought to off-set the effects of the financial crisis and sharp declines in the GDP with a smaller percentage focused on infrastructure and investment including tax incentives for free-trade zone investments and tax cuts. These plans will continue to place stress on Egypt's fiscal situation and increase already large budget deficits. The government is already projecting an 8.4 percent budget deficit for 2009/2010 (up from 7 percent the previous year), but some analysts project that the deficit could be a full percent higher.

7.(C) Also on Mubarak's agenda was an overhaul of Egypt's Agricultural Bank, adding services that would bring revenue and keep the bank, primary lender to Egypt's farmers, afloat. Pressures on farmers following government mishandling of pricing agricultural commodities and inputs along with accusations of corruption in price setting have generated significant discussion. MPs convened on November 23 to discuss agriculture policy and recommendations will be passed to the Prime Minister. The effect on policy will likely be minimal, but criticism from the NDP-dominated PA will compel GoE action. ------------------------------- Mubarak Says Democracy Will Come But Political Reform Not on the Agenda This Year -------------------------------

8.(C) Mubarak largely shut the door on any key political reform legislation being introduced before the 2010 parliamentary elections. Several pieces of legislation were absent from Mubarak's speech. The most notable absence, draft counterterrorism legislation (a 2005 election commitment), which would replace the expansive powers of the Emergency Law, set to expire in April 2010. (Note: Influential member of the NDP Policies Committee Mohamed Kamal suggested to PolOff at the NDP Conference that the legislation continues to suffer from internal conflicts (specifically on limits to detention of terrorism suspects) that were unlikely to be resolved this year. In a meeting the day after Mubarak's speech, People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mostafa Al Feqi also said he did not expect to see this legislation in the current session and said he believes the Emergency Law will be renewed again. End Note.) Journalist and Human Rights Activist Hisham Kassem told PolOff the renewal of the Emergency Law better allows for "continuity" throughout the elections. Legislation raised last year including a draft law governing the construction and repair of places of worship (applying the same rules to both mosques and churches)and a long-awaited local administration law, as well as the expected trafficking in persons law were also not on the agenda. CAIRO 00002209 003 OF 003

9.(C) In his speech Mubarak promised "enhanced" rights and freedoms and "entrenched democracy" as part of his "vision" for the next ten years, but offered little hope for the promised suspension of the Emergency Law or constitutional and legislative reforms the opposition demands. His praise for parliament's efforts to advance "political rights," improve "judicial independence," and expand "freedom of expression" rang hollow as many believe reform since 2005 has been either superficial or a step backward. -------------------------- Egypt's Regional Role and Energy Security --------------------------

10.(C) Mubarak outlined foreign policy priorities and highlighted Egypt's leadership in Africa, its focus on key regional issues such as water security, and underscored concerns about intra-Arab conflict. Mubarak warned against the interference of Iran in Arab affairs, underscored Egypt's commitment to Palestinian reconciliation and criticized Israel's settlement policy. Alluding to the ongoing Egyptian-Algerian diplomatic soccer row (reftel), Mubarak said Egypt will not accept attacks on the dignity of Egyptians abroad. He did not reference USG efforts either on the Israel-Palestinian conflict or elsewhere, nor did he specifically mention Iraq or Lebanon. MFA contacts told us November 23 that Mubarak,s comment on Iran was consistent with Egypt,s policy line toward Tehran, but declined to say whether it was driven by specific recent Iranian actions, e.g. in Yemen.

11.(C) Mubarak underscored the importance of energy security and said Egypt would establish itself as a "regional energy hub." Egypt remained committed to pursuing nuclear energy and would stick to its international nonproliferation commitments but would not accept pressure to limit its peaceful nuclear activities. Mubarak announced new legislation to regulate nuclear activities. Scobey

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