Letter to the editor:
Growing up in a city like Cairo, one can easily see the rampant poverty that results from widespread corruption. Indeed, the inhumane conditions many have suffered through in Egypt for decades are probably the main cause of revolts, of upheavals, of necessary, and sometimes violent, protests that spiraled from the capital to the rest of the Middle East. The poverty is cruel, well-documented, and powerfully in your face. Unfortunately however, the flip side of corruption is much more subtle, yet almost just as tragic. At a very young age, I quietly realized that if you’re born poor in Cairo, you will die poor in Cairo. But it took me much longer to make the same realization that if you’re born wealthy in Cairo, you will die wealthy in Cairo. This observation unlocked the secret to why corruption maintained its presence for so long in my country. I’m not referring to the political elite, the right-wing autocrats that obviously benefit from the startling lack of democracy. Instead, I’m talking about non-political, high-income families.
The looseness of business models in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East ensure that if you’re born into one of these families, you can quickly get a high-paying job, a nice house with a nicer family and a highly elite social status, all without the necessity of hard work. Of course, if an Egyptian would rather pave his way by hard work and a strong resolve, he can attain all of those luxuries as well; but the drive to compete is not as necessary in Cairo as it is in a properly democratic country. The poor do not need to compete because they are forced to accept the reality of their situation: they are born into a system that will never show them any modicum of support or allow them any chance at real growth. Conversely, the rich do not need to compete either, because it is easier to rely on connections, bribes and the good word of their familial reputation to get them places. This is why I think the Egyptian high class is so complacent: without the fear of failure to motivate them, why would the intellectuals of this class choose to innovate and achieve rather than simply accept their good fortune? This morbid reality explains another anomaly in the Egyptian culture: the financial elite is not the country’s smallest constituency. Instead, it is the middle class that is the smallest class. The middle class cannot be found in Egypt. You are either filthy rich or dirt poor.
Of course, it’s rather important to note at this point that I make these conjectures as an observer rather than as an economist of any sort. I am no researcher of the forces behind the Egyptian class divide; I am only both their abuser and their victim. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have no numbers to throw at you, no statistics or percentages with which to back these claims. I have only my experiences, and over the course of my life I’ve seen friends and relatives follow the same routes I’ve outlined in this article. The rich folks I’ve grown up surrounded by have inadvertently made sure corruption persists by ensuring success for their kin through the means of ‘the good word.’ In fact, this moral decline has become so ingrained in Cairo’s societal psyche that Egyptians have grown numb to its presence. Politicians no longer need to make grand speeches denouncing shortcuts (and indeed, they haven’t in quite a while), because the shortcuts are no longer anomalies. They are the norm. Ultimately, this all demonstrates that corruption is not built as a cruel force that simply and inhumanely oppresses the poor. Rather, it is built as a smart and morally bankrupt business ideal that backs the wealthy and makes sure they stay that way. Its oppression of the poor is merely a grotesque side effect.
Second-year in economics