I Love Wasta, Hate Standing in Line in Egypt, But I Am Poor

14 June, 2021
Painting by Cairo artist Mohamed Khedr, from the

Paint­ing by Cairo artist Mohamed Khe­dr, from the “Tran­sit” col­lec­tion, 2019, 60 x 80 cm, acrylic on board (cour­tesy of Mohamed Khedr).


After sur­viv­ing an
Egypt­ian prison and obtain­ing asy­lum in the Unit­ed States, a writer won­ders what else he has to do to get ahead.

Ahmed Naji

 
We encounter no scenes of peo­ple lin­ing up in Renais­sance paint­ings, nei­ther is there evi­dence of the exis­tence of lines among the Romans or the Greek. In the work­ers’ city by the pyra­mids, detailed records have been found regard­ing work­ers’ wages, their diet, food and beer rations, yet lo and behold, not a sin­gle record of any queue appears in any of them.

In an arti­cle by Jamie Lau­ren Keils on the socio­cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the line, she wrote that the first men­tion of lines appeared in Thomas Car­lyle’s book on the his­to­ry of the French Rev­o­lu­tion in which he first doc­u­ment­ed the uncan­ny scene of peo­ple lined up in rows in front of Paris bak­eries to buy bread.

Lines are born out of the womb of rev­o­lu­tion and rebellion.

The line is in fact a man­i­fes­ta­tion that con­firms the equal­i­ty between human beings. So it fol­lows that the rev­o­lu­tion that caused feu­dal heads to roll, abol­ished nobil­i­ty titles and called for equal­i­ty and broth­er­hood, found in the line an exem­plary embod­i­ment of its prin­ci­ples as well as a behav­ioral prac­tice that best reflect­ed the val­ues and laws of the new era.

Pri­or to the rev­o­lu­tion, not only was the con­sid­er­a­tion of the line near impos­si­ble but it was incon­ceiv­able as a con­cept and regard­ed by many as one that went against the nat­ur­al order of things. How could one expect a count, for exam­ple, to stand in the same line as a com­mon­er? Or for a slave to pre­cede the noble Sheikh Alazhary in a anoth­er one? 

Ancient soci­eties, monar­chi­cal and feu­dal states typ­i­cal­ly imposed a pyra­mid-like orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture of hier­ar­chy that ranked indi­vid­u­als accord­ing to social, eth­nic and reli­gious sta­tus, there­by nul­li­fy­ing all chances of equal­i­ty between those at the top of the struc­ture and those at the bot­tom of it, or even for the two to ever align in one row.

It was not until the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, with the advent of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion and the con­struc­tion of the mod­ern state, that lines became more prof­li­gate, albeit con­fined to the ranks of the work­ers. The gen­try, how­ev­er, con­tin­ued to enjoy priv­i­leged back door access.

By the start of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, lines were no longer con­sid­ered a pecu­liar sight, but rather a high­ly regard­ed aspi­ra­tion and encour­aged obser­vance. Com­plete egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, all equal in one line, with priv­i­leged treat­ment award­ed to none.

In the 21st cen­tu­ry, lines have come to sym­bol­ize pro­fes­sion­al­ism, order, and effi­cien­cy, even when they fall short of these attributes.

 

Writer Ahmed Naji at the Virginian overlooking Cairo (photo by  David Degner ).

Writer Ahmed Naji at the Vir­gin­ian over­look­ing Cairo (pho­to by David Deg­n­er).

All my life I’ve hat­ed lines. My first painful mem­o­ry of them lan­guish­es deep in the soles of my feet, from when at three years old, my moth­er would occa­sion­al­ly drag me along on her errands to com­plete some gov­ern­ment form or oth­er where, for hours, we stood shuf­fling between lines, per­ish­ing under the heat of the sun. And lat­er, at school, I recall the tor­ment of the dai­ly morn­ing line and an aca­d­e­m­ic life defined by myr­i­ad schemes to escape it. 

In high school, I found out that I had flat feet and that stand­ing for long hours was indeed med­ical­ly unad­vis­able. But it was to be my life­time’s quest to steer clear from all lines that would ensnare me into the clutch­es of a path that cham­pi­oned wasta and favoritism.

How­ev­er, despite my best efforts to escape the line, I could not. Con­tin­u­al­ly, I failed to secure the wasta that would save me and pro­tect me. I rea­soned that lines were an unavoid­able even­tu­al­i­ty any­way, an excre­men­tal by-prod­uct of moder­ni­ty, in social­ist and cap­i­tal­ist sys­tems alike, with no rem­e­dy or cure, like spring aller­gies or hem­or­rhoids — a riposte to pop­u­la­tion growth and dwin­dling resources.

When, a few years ago, we moved to Amer­i­ca, I found that the line had tak­en on a whole new dimen­sion, patent­ed into a unique Amer­i­can endeav­or in which indi­vid­u­als were oblig­at­ed to line up in one col­umn in order to obtain a tick­et that would allow them to tran­sit to anoth­er one. Take any gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tion or analy­sis lab, for exam­ple, in which no soon­er did vis­i­tors come to the end of the long line that had greet­ed them on arrival, than an employ­ee hand­ed them a num­bered tick­et that bumped them yet again to await a turn in anoth­er line, albeit a vir­tu­al one this time.

Amer­i­cans’ love for lines is both mind-bog­gling and excep­tion­al. They think noth­ing of dress­ing up for a night on the town in which they might spend close to an hour, some­times more, stuck in a line. Nev­er does their hap­pi­ness dimin­ish or their enthu­si­asm waiv­er, as beer in hand, they wait.

 


 

Fol­low­ing Egyp­t’s rev­o­lu­tion in Jan­u­ary 2011, a good num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions and pro­mo­tion­al fly­ers doing the rounds honed in on the point that since Egypt had been freed and there­fore now belonged to all of us, to care for it meant we had to abide the law. This meant no lit­ter­ing, no van­dal­ism of street lights, and no cut­ting in line. As such, when the fan­fare of elec­toral activ­i­ties com­menced, pho­tos that cap­tured the long lines of vot­ers were wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed to flout the ongo­ing trans­for­ma­tion of the coun­try. In the pho­tos, vot­ers lined up in order­ly fash­ion, patient­ly wait­ing for hours on end, albeit not to secure a loaf of bread as in the French rev­o­lu­tion, but in order to cast their votes at the bal­lot boxes.

The his­tor­i­cal­ly acknowl­edged law of the line stip­u­lates their emer­gence along­side rev­o­lu­tions and their con­sol­i­da­tion and expan­sion under demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices. For Egypt, the peri­od of its “demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es” was short-lived, hav­ing last­ed a mere two years, so that by 2013 the coun­try had revert­ed back to the prac­tices of its for­mer­ly cor­rupt dic­ta­to­r­i­al and mil­i­tary regime, where­by twen­ty pounds, or a less­er sig­nif­i­cant bribe, allowed one to cut in any line. How­ev­er, wasta guar­an­teed its ben­e­fi­cia­ry a bypass of the line alto­geth­er and direct access to gate­ways reserved exclu­sive­ly for the priv­i­leged gentry.

Wasta is the hand that reach­es down from the top of the hier­arichal pyra­mid to pluck you out of the line, and it is one that holds the key to the doors of priv­i­lege. How­ev­er, what this help­ing hand does not guar­an­tee is ascen­sion with­in the ech­e­lons of pow­er, its role restrict­ed to briefly unlock­ing invis­i­ble doors, before it push­es you out to rejoin the “egal­i­tar­i­an line” once more, where you rejoin the mass­es who stand in rows equal­ly unit­ed in their need, in their wait and in their grov­el­ing pleas for wasta’s reemer­gence. Thus rule the elite through the cre­ation of lines, enforce­ment of laws that reg­u­late them, and monop­o­liz­ing the pow­er to tip the scales in favor of a select few.

Painting by Egyptian artist Mohamed Rabie, b. 1986 (courtesy of the artist).

Paint­ing by Egypt­ian artist Mohamed Rabie, b. 1986 (cour­tesy of the artist).

Nev­er­the­less, wasta isn’t in all instances entire­ly crim­i­nal. Many cas­es show that priv­i­lege can be sold in such a way that makes it both legal and legit­i­mate. For exam­ple, on renew­ing one’s pass­port, there appear to be three price ranges to choose from; the first guar­an­tees the pass­port is ready in ten days, the sec­ond, slight­ly prici­er option, gives it back in three days, where­by the third and most expen­sive option deliv­ers the pass­port to its own­er on the same day — known in Amer­i­ca as the VIP line.

Nowa­days, the prob­lem with favoritism (wasta) is no longer that it stands in direct oppo­si­tion to egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, or fra­ter­ni­ty amongst cit­i­zens lined up in the bread line fol­low­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion, but that it allows the leak­age of funds out­side the sys­tem’s con­trol. In close­ly mon­i­tored admin­is­tra­tive sys­tems, rem­e­dy­ing this leak­age takes prece­dence over the enforce­ment of any law. As such, legit­imiz­ing the cause of the leak­age, in the guise of VIP lines, guar­an­tees the refun­nel­ing of bribery monies back into the pock­ets of the sys­tem’s gatekeepers.

Wasta is not only impor­tant for those in the low­er ech­e­lons of soci­ety as an aid to over­com­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of life and the rul­ing order, but it is also vital­ly impor­tant for those at the top of the pyra­mid as a source of income that con­sol­i­dates their influ­ence and dom­i­na­tion. In coun­tries like Egypt, rife with cor­rup­tion and hier­ar­chi­cal forms of admin­is­tra­tion and gov­er­nance, wasta, or medi­a­tion as such, has become the modus operandi.

It would be near­ly impos­si­ble for a per­son to get any­thing done in Egypt with­out wasta. Rather, the first step, before embark­ing on any task, is to search for a medi­a­tor, be that in order to apply for a school place or to obtain a dri­ver’s licence or to secure employ­ment, irre­spec­tive of whether the posi­tion were a pres­ti­gious or triv­ial one.

In Egypt, wasta is not only a social con­struct, it goes so far as to be its fab­ric, as well as a polit­i­cal order so well-estab­lished that the prac­tice itself is no longer frowned upon or con­sid­ered cor­rupt. In fact, the same min­is­ters of jus­tice and the judges entrust­ed with imple­ment­ing the law are its most brazen offend­ers, unabashed­ly offer­ing up posi­tions with­in the Judi­cia­ry exclu­sive­ly to mem­bers of their own fam­i­ly. It goes with­out say­ing that the same applies every­where else in the work force.


One adapts to liv­ing with wasta as one does to liv­ing with sea­son­al changes, even when one is averse to deal­ing with the nui­sance of spring aller­gies. In Egypt, there is no escape from wasta, even for those of us con­tent to live in obscu­ri­ty, resigned with our place nes­tled in the low­er rungs of soci­ety. And yet in spite of all that, there appears to be a kind of social jus­tice in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of wasta, as it becomes appar­ent that no mat­ter how mar­gin­al or insignif­i­cant one’s task, there will come a point, when every per­son is com­pelled to seek wasta out if plans are to move forward. 

After my release from prison in 2016, the prospects of liv­ing and work­ing in Egypt nar­rowed con­sid­er­ably, until it became clear that leav­ing the coun­try was indeed my only option. And yet, when I arrived at the air­port, to my sur­prise, I was denied exit. For more than two years, I explored every legal chan­nel, stood in every gov­ern­ment line at every gov­ern­ment agency in a bid to uncov­er the legal cause behind the imposed trav­el ban so that I could sum­mar­i­ly launch a counter appeal, but to no avail. Hav­ing exhaust­ed all options, I turned to grov­el­ing and with that unknow­ing­ly inau­gu­rat­ed what would turn out to be the most demean­ing peri­od of my entire life.

For close to a year and half I lit­er­al­ly left no stone unturned, implor­ing any­one who could, even if remote­ly, to help me in my quest to find a solu­tion that would lift the trav­el ban. While some ignored my appeal alto­geth­er, oth­ers offered promis­es, and some, returned emp­ty-hand­ed, to reit­er­ate that my case was so “com­pli­cat­ed” that there was noth­ing they could do for me. My des­per­a­tion had me trav­el­ling to dif­fer­ent direc­torates and remote rur­al vil­lages for an audi­ence with indi­vid­u­als who promised even the tini­est sliv­er of a con­nec­tion or affil­i­a­tion with offi­cers who served in Egyp­t’s secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus, the Mukhabarat. These con­tacts ran a high­ly pro­fes­sion­al oper­a­tion: At the ini­tial meet­ing, you’d fill them in regard­ing the details of your case, after which you agreed to meet again a week lat­er. At this sec­ond meet­ing, your con­tact would explain that in fact his rel­a­tive worked for the sec­ond or third man in the secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus and he would lay out the required stipend: ten thou­sand dol­lars in exchange for hand­ing you over to an indi­vid­ual or an enti­ty that would smug­gle you across the bor­ders to Sudan, from where you would be free to trav­el. If, on the oth­er hand, like myself, you lacked the nec­es­sary funds, then the deal would auto­mat­i­cal­ly be snatched off the table and the once extend­ed help­ful hand of wasta with­drew back to whence it came from.

And yet, even then not all was lost. A sim­ple gift, say of a mobile phone, offered to the offi­cer, may be enough to con­vince him to arrange a meet­ing with anoth­er offi­cer in the secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus to whom you may relay your rea­sons for trav­el. How­ev­er, there are no guar­an­tees at this point although the process will set you back a thou­sand dol­lars. On the oth­er hand, this will secure a twen­ty-minute audi­ence with the pub­lic secu­ri­ty offi­cer at the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty head­quar­ters. From there, it all boils down to lying, cajol­ing and using up every trick in the book to con­vince the offi­cer of your sta­tus as an upstand­ing cit­i­zen ardent­ly sup­port­ive and loy­al to the rul­ing regime that need nei­ther fear you nor feel threat­ened by you. It is imper­a­tive that you appeal to the offi­cer’s human­i­ty so that after you’ve relayed the details of your “com­pli­cat­ed” sit­u­a­tion, shared your fears for your poor preg­nant wife all alone and lone­ly in freez­ing Syra­cuse, in New York, and after you’ve final­ly revealed every sin­gle card in your deck, he is suf­fi­cient­ly moved that he agrees to flex his clout.

Every time you line up to beseech for wasta, a dis­parag­ing feel­ing takes root with­in you, bur­row­ing deep no mat­ter your efforts to feign dig­ni­ty and mag­na­nim­i­ty. Every entreaty feels akin to step­ping into a pas­sage with an incred­u­lous­ly low ceil­ing in which you are forced to bend low and then to remain so until you make it all the way to the oth­er side. Shame­ful and sham­ing is what wasta tru­ly is. 


In Amer­i­ca, what makes wasta less wide­spread despite the preva­lence of lines is that the coun­try’s leap from feu­dal­ism to post­mod­ernism did not come about through rev­o­lu­tions or a redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. How­ev­er, it fol­lows that although we may all equal­ly share the expe­ri­ence of stand­ing in line, the fact remains that white peo­ple, black cit­i­zens, and the new immi­grant fresh off the boat, are cer­tain­ly not treat­ed equal­ly either at the ser­vice desk, nor leaned up against a police offi­cer’s firearm. Addi­tion­al­ly, those with a desire to entire­ly bypass the line with $1,000 to spare are guar­an­teed direct access through VIP gates.

Racial priv­i­lege super­sedes any oth­er priv­i­leges in Amer­i­ca. Addi­tion­al­ly, the exor­bi­tant cost of priv­i­lege means it remains exclu­sive to the very wealthy, the likes of for­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump who paid a measly $800 in tax­es or if you’re mar­ried to the Pres­i­den­t’s daugh­ter, which secures you a par­don that pro­tects you from pros­e­cu­tion for past transgressions.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, when I lived with­in a regime cen­tered around wasta, it was still one in which all cit­i­zens were guar­an­teed equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to access wasta, priv­i­lege and clout, albeit to vary­ing degrees that cor­re­spond­ed to each indi­vid­u­al’s means. How­ev­er, in Amer­i­ca, a lack of social jus­tice means that I, and all the poor and impov­er­ished like me, are con­tin­u­ous­ly exclud­ed from any claim to priv­i­lege as it remains under the strict monop­oly of the wealthy. As such, we demand that jus­tice be served.

trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Rana Asfour

 

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist (b. Mansoura, 1985) and criminal. Naji has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), The Use of Life (2014), and Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He was recently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Follow him on Twitter @AhmedNajiTW

capitalismEgyptian revolutionsocialismwasta

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