The U.N. Transparency International has been issuing annual reports about corruption worldwide. The Middle East and North Africa have been among the leading regions in the world with high levels of corruptions. At a recent Arab government’ labor ministers’ annual meeting in Cairo (5/15/2011), it was revealed that the cost of corruption in Arab states has been estimated to be around $400 billion annually. Corruption exists at all levels and in both the public and private sectors of Arab society, and it is part of the daily activities. In a recently published book by Dr. A Farouk titled, “The Economic Cost of Corruption in Egypt”, Dr. Farouk provided extensive descriptions and analyses on how corruption takes place at the governmental, public and private levels. He estimated that the government spends around 70 billion Egyptian pounds annually on corruption and provides another 40 billion in various types of commissions on contracts related to the infrastructure of the society.
Despite the fact that the Egyptian Constitution Article 90 prohibits members of parliament and public officials from getting involved in commercial activities while in office, during ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, government elites were actively involved in business activities on a large scale. According to Dr. Farouk, the corruption began to increase with the open door economic policy that began during the last two years of President Sadat’s regime.
Nevertheless, the policy of corruption was enhanced on a wide scale during the Mubarak regime. During the previous three decades and until his removal, high public official ignored the law and abused their authority by misusing public funds so that they and their families could become rich. Since the removal of the Mubarak regime after the January 25th revolution, many high government officials, including Mr. Mubarak and members of his family, have been under investigation. Some of them are under arrest until they appear in court.
Dr. Farouk presented a detailed analysis supported by statistics on the scale of corruption in various sectors of the Egyptian economy, such as contracts for projects in the infrastructure sectors, including roads, schools, hospitals, water and sewage systems, electrical power, permits for imports and exports, loans from banks for fake projects given to corrupt people who were linked to the government, and sales of energy such as gas at a low cost to foreign governments including Israel. The latter caused a loss of revenue to the government, which was estimated to be between $4 and $5 billion a year.
It is of interest to also notice that the corruption was not only limited to the members of the elite groups in government and business, but it also spread to all other levels among people who belong to various socioeconomic strata within the Egyptian society.
Corruption at these various levels takes place in different ways and it is part of the daily routine for the average individual. The common phrased used is the “ikramia”, which means the giving or receiving of extra money to get things done. The root of ikramia is karam, which means “to be generous”. It translates, culturally speaking, into “show me your generosity”.
The ikramia is like a tip or a bribe and regardless of its definition it is an act of corruption. Without paying ikramia, it is difficult for a person to conduct personal business, irrespective of what the task might be. If you want to park your car on a public street, you have to pay ikramia to a person who might claim that the street is his personal domain.
If a person visits a private physician’s office, in most cases to cut the waiting time, he or she has to pay the ikramia. The larger the amount of money put in the hand of the attendant, the faster the person is seen.
These examples are just an illustration to reflect the different types of corruption that people practice without a second thought. This socioeconomic cultural trait (ikramiyya) is attributed to several reasons. First, it is a well-known fact to the public that government officials from the president all the way down to the official leaders demand bribes in order to facilitate all sorts of official tasks. It is rare to find a person in such high governmental positions that will refuse a bribe.
Such conduct encourages other people, who might be in civil services or out in the private sector to expect and/or ask for ikramia. The rationale behind this is that since the head of state or some of his ministers accept bribes, then others should follow the same unethical conduct.
The second rationale that encourages people to pay or ask for ikramia is the result of the continuous increases in the cost of living in relation to the low income. A classic example that shed light on corruption is the common pattern of behavior among many schoolteachers who made it clear to students and their parents that in order for them to succeed, they have to take private lessons.
Private tutoring in Egypt costs families over 16 billion Egyptian pounds per year. As a result of such trends, the majority of schoolteachers hardly exert an effort to do their expected job in a classroom. This will put the students and their parents in a very difficult position: pay for private tutoring or your kids might fail.
The whole system is based on an unethical standard and for that reasons, not only Egypt, but the whole Arab world, has been regressing rather than progressing. The spring revolutions in the Arab world should have started five decades ago. However, the new revolutionary trend looks promising and corruption will hopefully be eliminated in the long run.
It is interesting that the younger generation, who led the revolution, has already circulated written advice to the public as part of their policy of reforms. One point was to stop paying ikramia and that if a government official asks for it, they should be reported to the authorities. Cleaning corruption from society should start even at the lowest levels.