Monday, July 5, 2010

The "Staying Put": An Arab Culture

The other side of Tarek Heggy's argument, however astute, is that in the Middle East, one must never say, "nothing could be worse." Because what follows a change is almost inevitably much worse. Nothing could be worse than Farouk except Nasser. Nothing could be worse than the Shah except Khomeini. Nothing could be worse than Nuri as Said except for every ruller of Iraq who followed, each one worse than the previous oe.

Something tells me that Egyptians will one day mourn Moubarak as some now mourn Farouq. The "staying put" has something to recommend it. In the Middle East, change is usually not a good thing.

Ami Isseroff

The "Staying Put":
An Arab Culture. 

by
Tarek Heggy


For a person to want to remain in a privileged position is a perfectly normal human instinct. But when the instinct turns into an obsession it becomes a cultural phenomenon with political, economic, social and psychological implications. I have watched this phenomenon in play over many years from my vantage point in the international corporation I was privileged to work in for close on two decades. What I saw during my years with the firm was very different from what is happening in Egypt today. Over the last twenty-five years, the desire of people in high places to cling to their posts has grown exponentially, to a degree never before witnessed in our country. Or, for that matter, in any society that enjoys political and social mobility, i.e. in societies marked with a high degree of democracy. As I mentioned, fate afforded me the opportunity to spend nearly twenty years in an international corporation which, since the nineteenth century, has been one of the five largest economic conglomerates in the world. Its revenues from sales in 2005 were three times higher than Egypt's national income for the same period, and much of its success can be attributed to the guiding principles by which it is governed and which it upholds strictly and unconditionally.

    • A general culture based on the premise that the driving engine of success is the institution itself and not any individual, no matter who.
    • A policy that abjures the notion of rewarding an individual for his exceptional performance by keeping him on in the same position indefinitely. For the well-being of the institution itself and in terms of sound management, the belief that no single individual is indispensable and hence irreplaceable makes more sense than the idea that a person who performs his job well and achieves good results has acquired the right to a lifelong tenure of the post.
    • Occupancy of a high-ranking post must not exceed a period of three to five years.
    • Any person who reaches the age of retirement must retire, no matter how exceptionally brilliant, competent and talented he may be.

    Conversely, a culture of "staying put" has pervaded our country in the last quarter of a century. Anyone occupying the top position in any given area – the president of a club, say, or of a professional syndicate or a political party – considers it a lifelong commission. The word "former" when applied to a minister not reappointed in a cabinet reshuffle is tantamount to referring to him as the "late" so and so. Departure from a high post sets the rumor mills rolling: the occupant has either fallen foul of the powers that be or his performance was so poor that he had to be removed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is a normal human ambition to want to hold on to a high post, but when the ambition attains the proportions it has done in our current cultural context it becomes a phenomenon that needs to be studied and, perhaps, treated.

    More than a quarter of a century ago, Francois Mitterrand, then the president of France, called on President Anwar Sadat and, as he was leaving, told Sadat that he would be going on to visit Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. The Egyptian president's immediate reaction to this bit of news was to exclaim: "But I fired him!" President Mitterrand told friends later that he could not understand what that had to do with his decision to meet Heikal: "I didn't say I was going to call on the editor of Al-Ahram; I said I was going to call on Mohamed Hassanein Heikal." When the story was related to me by Mitterrand's daughter, whose paternity he acknowledged shortly before his death, I said her father's inability to understand Sadat's remark was due to the different cultural backgrounds and mentalities of the two men. For Sadat, as for many of our countrymen, a person's worth is measured in terms of the position he holds. Thus if Heikal's value stemmed from his position as editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, then it follows that when Sadat fired him he became a worthless nobody – hence Sadat's surprise that Mitterrand would want to meet him. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Although I differ with Mr. Heikal on most political issues, I know that he is far and away the best journalist in the Arabic-speaking world. I also know that all those who attack him today do so to curry favour with people in high places to whom they are greatly beholden for their good fortune. And, talking of how a person's worth should be appraised, I wonder if the international publishers who published Mr. Heikal's best-selling books would even deign to look at a manuscript presented by any of his attackers. I would like to recount an anecdote here that is self-explanatory. Despite my political differences with Mr. Heikal, I was lunching with him at a London restaurant a few years ago when he called the Spanish royal palace to request an appointment with King Juan Carlos two days later. After only fifteen minutes, the palace called him back to confirm that the king would be happy to see him the day after tomorrow. This is a man whose books have been translated into many languages and read by millions of people throughout the world. As to his critics, it is a fact that they vilify him for no other reason than to ingratiate themselves with their benefactors.  It is also a fact that not a single one of them is capable of putting together a manuscript that would be acceptable to an international publisher.

              "Does Egypt open its doors
              To every slave who kills his master?"

    It is almost certainly what led the university professor and former dean of the Faculty of Law to enter into a pitched battle with his opponents in the party, using live ammunition, in a bid to stay on as party president against the will of its members. Perhaps he would not have been so determined to cling to his position at the head of the party if he had remembered that its founder, who held no official position, was more popular than Egypt's king and its prime minister.
    The same thing happened in a famous sports club, where violent battles were fought over the club presidency.
    These and hundreds of other examples show how far people will go to cling to their privileged positions. Nobody today accepts the idea that occupancy of these positions is a temporary, not a permanent, state of affairs.

    A few weeks ago, Dar el Hilal published a book on the monarchs who ruled Egypt more than five thousand years ago, i.e. from the time of the founder of the First Dynasty in 3400 B.C., the Pharaoh Menes who unified Upper and Lower Egypt. A simple statistical survey shows that these rulers can be divided into three numerically equal groups:

    -        Those who were forcibly removed from the throne
    -        Those who died in office
    -        Those killed in office.

    My search for a single ruler who had voluntarily abdicated proved fruitless. In this connection, I would like to mention the sole exception to this pattern. On Wednesday, October 8th, 1917, the ruler of Egypt, Sultan Hussein Kamel, died. In accordance with the rules of succession, the throne was offered to his son, Prince Kamal el-Din Hussein, who turned down the offer. The throne went instead to the "blackguard" prince, the sultan's younger brother Ahmed Fouad. In a lecture I gave to a class of history students, I asked if any of them knew the name of the man who, less than a hundred years ago, had declined the throne of Egypt when it was offered to him. Not a single one of the history students knew what I was talking about: it was as though the event had never happened. The only explanation for this collective amnesia is that in our culture anyone who actually turns down the chance to wield absolute power must be demented and hence not worth remembering. And so a man of high principle, an idealist who exercised his free will in the face of the ultimate temptation, has been relegated to oblivion. In using the word "blackguard" to describe Prince Ahmed Fouad, I am quoting Bairam el-Tonsi who lamented the accession of a prince best known for his love of cabarets to the throne of the great Pharaohs in a famous poem that goes like this:

              "When in Egypt we ran out of kings,
              The British brought you and threw you in the ring,
              They sat you on the throne to masquerade as a king true,
              where did they find a traitor and blackguard like you."

    A friend of mine with a philosophical bent of mind is fond of quoting the dictum that "answers are blind, questions are clear-sighted." I would like to ask our esteemed historians if they have a scientific explanation for the monstrous growth and spread of the "staying put" culture in our society, a phenomenon that has led us to witness the infamous Gomaa using firearms to remain at the head of a party that no longer wanted him as its leader.

1 comment:

srbuss said...

Without change Ami, there is no growth. And without growth, there is stagnation. And with prolonged stagnation, there is decay and eventual death. The "Staying Put" culture ensures the above. It is not the changing that is bad (as you suggest in your introduction to this great piece by Tarek Heggy), it is the direction in which this change has gone. Stagnation is NOT the answer IMHO.