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Can the Arab Awakening change an entrenched culture of nepotism?

Yasser El-Gammal's picture
Also available in: العربية
The question of nepotism is in the minds of many people in the Arab world. Some are hopeful that change can be brought by the Arab Spring, but others are doubtful. In a series of blogs (the frequency of which I can’t control due to workload), I plan to look into some of the ways nepotism, favoritism and other ills have become ingrained in Arab society. I will use my own country of birth - Egypt - as an example, because of my deep affinity and close familiarity with the country but also because, one could claim Egypt is a place where these social ills have become magnified.

Kim Eun YeulLast summer, rumors had it in many social gatherings and coffee shop discussions that the son of the head of the Police Academy was denied admission to this academy during the application process. While I cannot verify whether this is true or not, I closely followed people’s reactions to the piece of news. It was a mix of disbelief, hope, but also of fear.

Before I get into the street’s reaction to this “rumor”, it is important to give some insight into the Police Academy admissions process in Egypt. It is almost certain that many had to pay thousands of pounds to be admitted to this academy. Many of those who pay may have well been accepted through the regular admissions process but would not take the chance. People who paid this money came from all social classes in the society, rich and poor (often indebted because they paid the admissions “fee”), rural and urban, from well-educated families or even non-educated at all. And they all had different objectives: some wanted to ensure that they will not be unjustly punished or mistreated one day, for others it was a means of crossing borders to a different social class while for many of the rich it was the lost dimension of power that the money could not fully buy.  There was never a thorough investigation into the decades of alleged bribes made to secure a good number of admissions. It is however not very difficult to see from the mere physical appearance of some of these young officers that they surely could not have passed the academy’s physical exam.

Back to last summer’s incident/rumor. I could see a lot of Egyptians sounding hopeful that why not: maybe the system will change and those responsible for admissions are now feeling more accountable, that there are many eyes looking at them and they don’t want to risk a business-as-usual attitude. There is of course some truth in this and following the news in Egypt lately is good proof that yes, things have changed. There is certainly more media scrutiny and freedom around many things like young people accessing well-paid public jobs, officials’ involvement in business or the use of public resources. More scrutiny at media level yes, but this is yet to be translated into an established system of checks and balances.

Others in the Egyptian society were quite skeptical about the whole story and argued that it is simply not possible.  People in the public service in Egypt in particular felt that part of the social contract they had is for the government to take care of their “kids”. Many readers will be surprised to know how many in the Egyptian Foreign Service are sons and daughters of ambassadors and ex-ambassadors; how many in the army have this legacy and so on. One has to acknowledge that most of these “kids” are well educated and most of them would probably qualify for these jobs. The question remains however whether they competed fairly or not and it is fair to say some of them did not. The most controversial incident perhaps was the group of judges (whose jobs are to ensure equality in society) who have been lobbying for their “kids” to be exempt from the law school minimum marks needs for admission.

There is a group, however, who seems quite worried about all the noise that was made around the Police Academy story. This is a group that had simply gotten used of getting special treatment in everything. Not to say that they are used to get things that are not theirs but they are used the small privileges of not having to have to line up with others for example. This incident for them was an alarm. Will they really need to go to the traffic office to renew their licenses or get ones for their kids? Will they need to line up at immigration at the airport?

What these ills have done to young people without connections over the years has never been assessed but it is surely devastating. Ten years ago a young man committed suicide after failing the oral Foreign Service exam. This story is a stark reminder of what these social ills can cause. He felt there was not much more he could do: he studied hard, got a good university degree, passed the written test but because of his background (his father was a simple working man, a porter), he thought he would never get a chance.

Comments

It would be fascinating if you looked how nepotism/favoritism have become ingrained in Arab society and how to reverse that trend. I am exploring behavioral science as a tool to change habits in Arab societies. I started with Lebanon you can check my first thoughts here: http://www.georgessassine.com/political-and-social-change-in-lebanon-requires-changing-citizens-habits/ Maybe it's something worth exploring in your efforts.

Thanks Georges for sharing your blog which I like a lot. These behavioral issues are problematic across the region and as you say, it can be changed. It is not easy though. You will be happy to know that the topic of the 2013 World Development Report will be on behavioral economics. We have a group of colleagues here in the World Bank who are spear heading the application of this emerging field in our work. Stay tuned for the report to come up.

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