I learned long ago how judgmental some Egyptians can be and how cruel they can be as well. My last encounter with this was at the World Bank’s Annual Meetings when colleagues from Egypt started talking about one of their peers not realizing he was close enough to hear everything that was being said. They whispered that anything he said about Egypt wasn’t credible because he had left long ago. Not only did he leave they said, but that he ran away. And, for those that ran away, they added, they didn’t deserve the respect of those that stayed behind and endured “the horror” of the past two decades.
But, the person they were talking about, the person that ran away, never ran away from anything. He was forced out, shunned, and suffered throughout his career to a degree that no human should ever be exposed to. For starters, the person they alluded to as a younger man had just finished his Doctorate and went back to Egypt to join the civil service where he was making $200 a month. He could have stayed in the US and done a million things more lucrative like joining Goldman Sachs, or a variety of high end investment funds.
He chose to go back to help his country, to fulfill his father’s legacy, and the way he survived on an Egyptian government salary was to teach in his spare time. He taught at AUC, Helwan University, Cairo University, anything he could do to make a difference. You see he was an ideologue. A young dreamer who thought that if so many other well educated Egyptians did what he did, come home rather than stay overseas where there would be better job opportunities, Egypt could become a better place.
So, he began his career by not running away from his country, but running to it with open arms. And, what did he find in the two years he worked for government? Unabated corruption, nepotism, and a lack of ethics so appalling it made him sick to his stomach. For the corruption he saw, he reported it to his Minister not only to see inaction, but to find himself being told he should mind his own business and not get involved in the affairs of others. Kickbacks on government purchases, no problem. Giving your sister’s boy an executive position for which he has absolutely no qualifications, that just comes with the territory. And, he doesn’t even have to come to work either, but he has to get every possible bonus for meetings he didn’t attend, and pay for work he never did.
The nepotism that existed was one thing, but the kind of corruption that was in place was meant to coerce you into becoming part of a “system”. Need an apartment, or a house on the beach in Alexandria, well the Ministry can give you one for less than a third of its price. Play ball, we will even give you two. Sell one for its market price, make a few bucks, and keep the other. And, yes these pitiful ways to buy you off were a dime a dozen. But, when you didn’t bite, when you wouldn’t live in a several hundred thousand dollar house when you make less than a $1,000 a month, that’s when you became the problem.
For all of the Egyptians reading this, ask yourselves how many people do you know who spent their entire careers in government, or even just a few years in government, and now live well beyond their means or their life time salary potential? What of all the cronies of the previous regime and their extravagance, how did they get Four Seasons apartments on government salaries where many of whom live to this day? But, there were others who refused all this and stayed in government, and trust me their lives were never easy, and then there were those that ran away.
Many of those that ran away simply couldn’t stay quiet to the corruption they were seeing, and yes while they weren’t part of it, they couldn’t turn a blind eye. They became disillusioned, angry that this was all being allowed to happen, sad for such a beautiful country as ours that these vile people were being given the run of the place. Yes, corruption was tolerated at all levels, and our friend could never understand why. He would say, “OK, let the President and his family go wild, maybe even their close entourage, but why let the corruption spill over to virtually every branch of government? Why?”
Our friend couldn’t take any of this, so one day he decided to tell the Minister that he worked for, whose hand was clearly in the till, what he thought of this entire debacle. But, he hadn’t thought this one through. He thought he could just tell this guy off and move on with his life, only to find that there would be consequences, and that they would be severe. Our friend immediately had problems virtually everywhere else he worked outside government. One university after the other no longer needed his services with one Dean even having the audacity to say to him that he really liked him, but he had to square things with the Minister first before he could continue to teach in “his” university.
Yes, our friend was being taught a lesson. OK, you didn’t want to play ball, and you think you’re more ethical than we are, than we will show you. And, show him they did. All doors for our friend closed one after the other. But, it wasn’t work that he wasn’t getting, he stopped being invited to conferences, the magazines that published his articles started rejecting his work, and the rejection of everything that carried his name was relentless.
As ridiculous as it may sound, he started envisioning a day where he might not find meaningful employment and that was when he decided to run away. He found a job quickly, a good job overseas, and he packed up and left. But, they hounded him there too. There reach was that deep, and their payback was relentless.
After the revolution happened, which one of them now I’m not so sure, our friend being the naïve person that he is, thought that any new government would come running after him asking him to come home, asking so many others like him to come home too. Yes, they’ll want the honest intellectuals with a proven track record of being incorruptible he thought, but I knew his phone would never ring, that no conference invites would come, but I never expected the remarks that he shouldn’t be taken seriously because he ran away.
But, he never ran away. He just didn’t want any part of being corrupted by what was around him, he didn’t want to become one of those good people that could justify one small perk, that just kept becoming bigger and bigger until their ethics ended up in a really big garbage can. He didn’t want to betray his character, let alone sell his soul. He didn’t want to be the crook leading Friday prayers, or the petty thief that justifies to himself taking this or doing that because everyone else is doing it too.
Or, maybe on second thought, he did run away. Maybe he didn’t want a life where every other day was one ethical dilemma after the other. He must have clearly realized that in all of us there are seeds that are both good and unscrupulous, and that by staying where he was one of those seeds, a bad seed, would have been excessively watered.
So, yes he had every right to leave, but decades later there are still those that say he ran away. To them I say, it may have been better for him to have run away then to have become a man who lost his self-respect, or his dignity. What do you think of all of these ex Ministers and Prime Ministers today who live in palaces, but walk the streets of Cairo to shame or disgrace? Are the fortunes they amassed helping them now, or their children for that matter? And, yes Egyptians are a very forgiving lot, but there is a level of accountability that none of us will be able to run away from. We will all have to pay the piper some time. But, the worst form of accountability is the judgment we will all one day render on ourselves. And, maybe, just maybe, our friend who ran away has a much easier time looking into the mirror in comparison to many others he met along the way.