By Mohammed Nosseir
Life has certainly always been full of many colours. Despite the recent attempt being made to use new, non-traditional colours that have never been used before, only two colours – black and white – should define the relationship between a state and its citizens (in other words, whether the rule of law is applied and enforced). Egypt, however, only functions using the colour grey – not because it is a favourite colour, but for a very specific purpose.
Egypt can be easily defined as a nation placed in ‘floppy mode’. This has nothing to do with a lack of adequate skills enabling us to be ‘certain’ and ‘definitive’; it is a method of governing designed to trap citizens with deficiencies, holding them prey until the government eventually decides to either prosecute them or conduct trade-offs. This philosophy gives the government the option to choose between politically pressurising its citizens or over-penalising them. There is definitely no place for the rule of law in such a process.
Ambiguity is the name of the game. Every single political or economic decision that is made, each policy that is adopted, and even the laws that are passed, must have a number of interpretations, perceptions and goals. The purpose is to provide the government with the option (while literally applying the same law) to either deal gently or harshly with its citizens. Meanwhile, the role of the Egyptian media is to justify each and every decision made by the ruler. The ambiguity of Egyptian laws has led to millions of court disputes and widespread conflict among Egyptians, which also serves to keep citizens away from politics by draining their energy in their struggles among one other.
This structure is not only designed to trap citizens and facilitate corruption, which is essential and widespread in Egypt. It is also the result of the lack of timely decision-making skills on the part of those in power and their reluctance to bear the consequences of their decisions. Culturally, Egyptians are uncertain individuals, who prefer to give themselves sufficient room to change their minds. Not only is arriving late to important events a source of pride for them, they generally are also mentally late in making decisions. Regrettably, this inability to be decisive often results in missing valuable opportunities. I am not sure whether the government is affected by this popular cultural trait, or if the government is the one that is influencing society with its indecision.
There is no shade of doubt that every Egyptian has at some point experienced some sort of corruption in his/her dealings with the government. I personally have received all sorts of bribe requests, and have tried many different reactions to these, from turning a deaf ear to the request (which resulted in my demand being completely ignored), to complaining to the director concerned and discovering that corruption is much deeper and more widespread than I had ever imagined, spreading to many senior civil servants, to simply surrendering, paying the required bribe and finishing my business so that we could all return home happily.
A “Happy New Year” greeting in Egypt is very different than anywhere else! It is the gentle slogan used to request a tip after you have paid for and received a service delivered by civil servants or by private sector employees. I have always been hesitant about whether I should ignore the greeting or join forces with this pervasive phenomenon of corruption. Recently, after our two revolutions failed miserably to create any sort of employment opportunities, or bring about a modicum of justice or dignity, I began sympathising more with these people. I have started to reward their greetings with small amounts. I now believe that these few pounds in tips might compensate for what we lacked to deliver through the revolutions.
Roughly over a year ago, our former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Higher Education, who is also a professor of law, stated that corruption spreads to every corner of his Ministry and is ‘knee-high’ (an Egyptian expression used to illustrate the magnitude of an issue). Initially, I thought that he would be urged by his superiors – the Prime Minister or the Interim President – to fight corruption in his ministry, or that his statement would be challenged. Eventually, however, I understood that his statement about corruption was nothing more than ‘business as usual’, where everyone denounces corruption but nobody dares to fight it.
Real estate development is a clear example of a field where strict laws exist and are being bended. Although every Egyptian real estate developer is aware of the laws concerning building height restrictions and parking slot requirements, the majority brazenly and publicly bends the law. Although it is certainly aware of these crimes at the early stages of construction, the government does not intervene to prevent them from day one. On the contrary, it traps the developers by allowing them to complete their buildings – then it begins to tackle the issue by applying a combination of penalties and bribes. Meanwhile, real estate investors know that, even after bending the law and paying both compensations (penalties and bribes), they will still make a high profit. This is the grey area where citizens and the government convene – and which has resulted in thousands of illegal buildings and enormous traffic jams everywhere.
Corruption enables wealthy citizens to enjoy their comfortable lives by having more and paying less. The custom duty law for automobiles was perfectly designed to encourage small-engine capacity automobiles to pay lower custom duties, progressively applying hefty increments as engine capacity increases so that in the end, high customs duties are levied on the larger cars. Nevertheless, wealthy Egyptian influencers manage to pay a tiny amount of duty on the luxury automobiles they import by obtaining a special tourist registration plate, enabling them to benefit from a well-designed gap in the law. Those wealthy influencers are the same people who draft the laws and persuade the poor to vote for them.
Many Egyptians believe that corruption is deeply rooted in our culture and is almost impossible to avoid! Naturally, this is the convenient aspect of the grey area that benefits citizens who already know their way around this complicated network of corruption. Widespread corruption in Egypt isn’t a matter of simply paying bribes; it is a structure based on a very complicated network that requires knowing who is who prior to filling other people’s pockets. Many businesspeople were caught red-handed, simply because they did not know the corruption roadmap.
The purpose of rule of law everywhere is to prevent and reduce crimes, but in Egypt it is a tool to manipulate society. Many citizens who have every intention to abide by the law soon realise that most of their competitors are acquiring certain advantages by bending it, so they eventually join the corruption club. It is sad to learn that some religious people justify corruption, stating that small bribes help the poor to survive and ignoring the moral issue of spoiling society by blessing the practice of giving and receiving bribes, which eventually develops into more serious immoral behaviour.
There is no question in my mind that the current government is not involved in any corrupt transactions – but it has certainly not spent a minute on fighting Egypt’s deeply-rooted corruption network. Obviously, dismantling this network is not an easy task. Its members do have considerable influence in society and they can challenge the government itself. Nevertheless, it is the government’s duty to fight corruption and not to turn a blind eye on what is happening. During his election campaign, President Al-Sisi spoke about moral values. With the continued existence of this grey sphere in our country and with the absence of the rule of law, all we can harvest is more immorality.
Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian Liberal Politician working on reforming Egypt on true liberal values, proper application of democracy and free market economy. Mohammed was member of the Higher Committee for International Relations of the Democratic Front Party from 2008 to 2012