Return your card: Subsidy recipients reluctant to respond to Supply Ministry’s initiative

“We call on every Egyptian who isn’t in need of the ration card or the subsidy to willingly give up the card. If you have a high income, don’t burden the state’s budget,” Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, head of the control and distribution department at the Ministry of Supply said.

This ministry official went on to explain to Mada Masr the “Return your Card” initiative launched by the ministry.

He said that giving up the card is optional and according to people’s needs.

While Abdel Aziz stated that there is no official number of those who have returned their cards, the Supply Ministry Spokesperon Mahmoud Diab had told Al-Ahram newspaper in a previous interview that about 165,000 cards have been returned.

Abdel Aziz explained that the ministry is not restricting the initiative according to people’s income. “We don’t have the necessary databases for that purpose yet. We need to conduct research with various parties to do that,” he explained.

However, he stated that anyone receiving less than LE1,500 a month deserves the subsidy in his opinion.

“If the card includes various services, the individual can give up the service he/she doesn’t need, they can still benefit from the remaining services,” Abdel Aziz clarified.

At a subsidized commodities outlet in the Bein al-Sarayat neighborhood in Giza, a long queue was formed of people waiting to get the supply, most of whom said they were reluctant to give up their ration cards.

“It’s a good initiative. The government’s recent decisions regarding subsidies are satisfying, but I am worried about the rise in fuel prices which will cause the rise in prices of everything,” one man in the queue said.

According to Saeed Abbas, the teller at the outlet, five more people registered to take new ration cards.

“That’s only in one month,” Abbas said pointing to a registry sheet. He explained that the registeration for rations cards has become an easier process. “In the past, the registrants would have to stay for two to three months before they can get a new card,” he said, adding that the waiting period has become much shorter.

Abbas stressed that the Supply Ministry must allow people to report family members’ deaths without the need to submit death certificates.

“People are afraid to report their family members’ deaths, as they would have to pay the difference for what they have been taking illegally for themselves,” he explained. He estimated that deducting deceased citizens from the system would mean saving commodities for about 2 million people, “which means more would be available to give to the poor.”

Abdel Aziz said that people were allowed to report family members’ deaths from October 2013 till June 2014 without any repercussions. However, he explained that generally reporting deaths after 90 days is punishable by a fine.

Still, the ministry’s initiative prompted a small minority to return their cards.

Saeed told Mada Masr about a woman who came recently to return her ration card.

“She said she doesn’t need it, because she receives LE5,000 in pension,” Abbas said. “Another woman told me that she would submit a family member’s death certificate to give up his share,” he added.

Moving to another area in Dokki, a new perspective seems to appear. A shopkeeper is adamant on keeping his card.

“I am not going to give up my ration card,” he said, “No one will actually do that these days.”

“They come here riding the most expensive cars and ask privately for the supply,” a worker in a supply outlet in the same area said. Asked if they may be taking it to the poor, he quickly replied “No, they take it for their own consumption, I know them well.”

There are around 18 million ration cards serving about 69 million Egyptian citizens, according to a report by Al-Ahram quoting the spokesperson of the Supply Ministry.

According to the fiscal budget for 2014/2015, the government had allocated LE31.56 billion for food subsidies, amounting to 19.1 percent of the total subsidy budget and 4 percent of the total fiscal budget. It’s noted that consumer food subsidies come in second place after subsidies on petroleum products which absorb about 60.5 percent (LE100.25 billion) of the total subsidy budget. This is criticized by some experts who say that the latter subsidy benefits the rich sector more.

According to Reem Abdel Hameed, economic and social justice researcher at the Egyptian initiative for Personal Rights, ration cards is a convenient method to serve the poor in Egypt, “except that the government made the food subsidy in cash form instead of tangible products.” The EIPR researcher explained that the government allocates LE15 per family member as a food subsidy, explaining that people will be more affected by inflation in case of price hikes afterwards.  

She said however that we are not the only country to use the subsidy system and that it is followed in other countries as well.

“In countries like Indonesia, people deserving the subsidy are granted a ‘voucher’ that allows them to buy what they need from ordinary supermarkets, but it should be vital products, for example it doesn’t include cigarettes or wine,” she explained.  

“It’s impossible for the people to give up their cards nowadays. What should motivate people to do so in a country where the only service they get is the subsidy?” Abdel Hameed added.

Abdel Hameed is not optimistic that the Supply Ministry’s initiative will achieve its goals.

“The government’s decisions are contradictory, the initiative coincides with the decision of raising fuel prices which will then affect the whole costs of the citizen, and people fear the possible inflation. In addition, the bread is now included on the ration card, so who will give something like that up?”

“People tend to belong to the state’s social protection system. The subsidy protects people from the negative effects of inflation. And the state took no steps towards a comprehensive system for social protection,” she explained.

“Of course I won’t give up my card,” said a 50-year-old woman. “How can I guarantee that the state’s conditions won’t deteriorate? During the 1967 war, we were queuing to get bars of soap.”

Moreover, there hasn’t been enough societal dialogue around the government’s decisions regarding subsidies, according to Reem.

Abdel Hameed suggested a number of decisions the government should consider for the coming period, including the review of databases of citizens benefiting from the subsidy to exclude deceased citizens.

She also suggested the state form a strong structure to support goods. “We know that the government announced lately saving about LE3 billion from the subsidy on bread according to its financial report 2014/2015, we hope this will improve the services catered to citizens,” she said. She also mentioned that citizens should be segmented according to their needs and be included on unified cards.

Rania Tarek 

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