Curing Egyptian Idleness

Some students at the American University in Cairo take the popular college pastime of slacking off to a whole new level.

One morning I woke up at 9:25 and thought for sure that I’d be embarrassingly late for my 9:30 class. Instead, I arrived 15 minutes late only to find that I’d gotten there five minutes earlier than the professor (an Egyptian) and many of the students.

Another time I was studying for a midterm exam with a group of AUC students. We met in one of the girls’ apartments – a spacious, well-furnished flat. As we lounged on an overstuffed couch and ate Pizza Hut delivery and chocolate cake from a tray brought in by a maid, the Egyptian students asked me what I thought the answers to the test would be, complaining about the midterm when it was fairly obvious that they had done none of the readings and didn’t want to study as much as they wanted me to tell them what they needed to know.

This seeming lack of the Western concept of a work ethic is not unique to AUC. Across Cairo, it seems as though many people are making themselves busy by not being busy.

Groups of men loiter on street corners in the middle of the day, and many others sip tea and smoke a tobacco called “sheesha” at sidewalk cafes for hours on end.

The busiest person at the Mugamma, Egypt’s main federal building, seems to be the person bringing tea and snacks to employees on break. Egyptian society at all levels is full of examples of lassitude driven by an apparent lack of motivation to work harder, faster and more efficiently.

Some Westerners could chalk up this seeming culture of laziness to supposedly inherent cultural characteristics or the absence of the ubiquitous Protestant work ethic that has shortened coffee breaks in Western society since the industrial revolution.

Yet many Egyptians’ lack of motivation may be less of a cultural attribute than it is a foreseeable reaction to the socioeconomic conditions of the nation.

At the highest level of Egyptian society, high-paying jobs are often won more through nepotism and connections than from hard work alone. Many AUC students have parents in high places who can guarantee them a high-paying job, or at least a strategic career connection, after graduation.

If post-graduation employment is virtually guaranteed, there’s no real motivation to excel academically or make any extra efforts. Simply passing a course suffices.

Paradoxically, the poor in Egypt may slack off for the exact opposite reason.

Socioeconomically and structurally, Egypt is a very stratified nation; much of the wealth is in the hands of a small elite class, while the rest of the population lives in varying levels of poverty.

This system stands in sharp contrast to the United States, home of the rags-to-riches idea that hard work and determination can, in theory at least, get even the poorest person ahead in the world. The class differences in Egypt are so extreme and the avenues for upward social mobility so limited that many poor people see no viable chance at improving their situation or entering an occupation different from that of their parents.

When hard work beyond what is necessary to get by doesn’t lead to clear gains, many may fail to see the point of exerting any additional effort. There’s little motivation to work harder or try more.

Egypt’s socioeconomic divisions are only going to get wider in coming years unless government economic and social policies can work to change the social structures of the nation in a way that provides opportunities for a wider segment of the population to succeed. Various government reforms over the past 30 years have yet to see a large improvement in the living conditions of Egypt’s poor, and population increases have contributed to a rise in unemployment and underemployment that only further frustrates the situation.

I will not hypothesize any further on the exact changes that could and should take place in Egypt in order to bridge the nation’s social divide, as this would be outside the limits of this column and I feel that I’m neither knowledgeable enough nor entitled, as a foreigner, to make such recommendations.

But maybe, for all Egyptians, a viable and working solution to these socioeconomic problems is something worth putting a little extra effort towards.

As I’m writing this column, Mohammed rings the doorbell. He’s a 6-year-old boy who irons clothes for people in the neighborhood. He’s always prompt and ready to do any work he can. Perhaps he’s not old enough to be disillusioned yet. Perhaps he’s just young and energetic.

He comes in, I take my clothes and pay him, then he goes on his way, blowing kisses as he leaves to my roommate’s joke poster of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the socialist revolutionary leader whose promises have yet to come true.

Kerry McIntosh is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She is currently studying abroad at the American University in Cairo. She can be reached at mcintoshthehoya.com. SALAMAT appears every other Tuesday.

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