Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the new draft constitution trumpeted by its supporters is its stipulation that the state is required to increase government spending on education, healthcare, higher education and scientific research. Article 18 of the draft stipulates that, “the state is required to allocate a rate for government spending on healthcare equivalent to at least 3 percent of GDP, gradually increasing this number to match world averages.” Additionally, this stipulation is repeated in Article 19 on education, where government spending should be at least 4 percent, and in Article 21 on higher education, where government spending should be at least 2 percent. Finally, Article 23 of the draft constitution indicates that a rate equivalent to at least 1 percent of GDP be allocated to scientific research.
These four sectors are undoubtedly in need of comprehensive reform, as are a great deal of other Egyptian institutions; moreover, no political or social change will prove fruitful without real reform of education and health care, in particular. Nevertheless one has to wonder, why should these minimum percentages of government spending based on GDP be placed in the constitution? Is the constitution the right place to address the issue of government spending on particular state sectors in such detail?
From the perspective of constitutional legislation, the stipulations in the constitution are completely new, with no Egyptian constitution handling these issues in this manner. From the perspective of comparative constitutional law, neither historic nor contemporary examples from around the world contain the sort of stipulations seen in this draft constitution. What’s more, requiring the state to meet these percentages will put the next government in a serious predicament. Article 238 of the new draft constitution requires that, “the state guarantee its commitment to allocate the minimum rates for government spending on education, higher education, healthcare, and scientific research determined by this constitution, beginning gradually the day it is adopted, and meeting the rates in full in the state budget of the 2016-2017 fiscal year.” Accordingly, after the draft constitution is likely ratified this January, the next government will have only two fiscal years (2014/2015 and 2015/2016) to meet this minimum, which amounts to spending 10 percent of GDP on these four sectors. It is no secret that the government will face a great challenge allocating such a large proportion of spending to these four sectors “as a minimum.” The picture becomes clearer if one considers that current government spending on these sectors is less than half of the amount proposed in the new constitution. For example, the amount allocated for scientific research in the current general budget is 0.2 percent, while Article 23 of the draft constitution sets a minimum of 1 percent for government spending on scientific research. In other words, government spending will have to be increased fivefold in less than two years if this “constitutional entitlement” is to be fulfilled.
From an economic perspective, the constitution is not the right place to discuss government spending in various sectors. Acts of reform are always the result of comprehensive economic plans and programs enacted by political parties and governments via political and economic resolutions, whereas the role of a constitution is to define a general political, economic and philosophic framework to regulate the activities of society at large. Allocating rates for government spending in the constitution suggests that reform rests on how much is spent, while the most important economic challenge remains how it is spent. The proper management and distribution of public resources can only be achieved under the watch of a government administration with a real vision of reform, and not through the stipulations of a new constitution.
Considering the negative impacts of these spending requirements in the new draft constitution, and the great challenges subsequent governments will face in fulfilling them, there will likely be a gap between the constitutionally mandated minimum spending levels and what will realistically happen. This gap could cause people to lose faith in the constitution and its ability to bring about change for the better, despite the fact that these economic details do not belong in the constitution in the first place. Subsequent governments facing the predicament of not fulfilling the constitutional requirements may be tempted to circumvent them by enacting cosmetic changes to the structure and function of government spending.
These new constitutional stipulations for minimum spending rates on the four sectors mentioned above are first and foremost an expression of the hopes and aspirations of those writing the constitution, as well as an expression of Egyptians’ desire for reform. Yet they mistakenly assume that introducing these requirements in the constitution will actually change the situation. This indicates that we are occupied with hopes expressed in this constitutional document, despite the fact that the constitution – any constitution – remains a document of legal rules first and foremost.
Yussef Auf is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.