On wasta for The National

Knowing me, knowing you
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While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale. The National, 2009

When I joined my last workplace, back in Cairo, it was on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance of my father’s. I had gone to meet him in one office to enquire about an opening in another, but he misunderstood my purpose and introduced me to some of his colleagues at the office where we met.

A month later, I had completed one task to the satisfaction of said colleagues, but it took another two months and maybe five more tasks before I was finally invited to meet the boss, who was so impressed with my work he offered me not just a job but an actual position. Having a position meant that, unlike many of the competent staffers who worked there “on a contract”, I would become, officially, and for life – yes, for life – an employee of the government-affiliated institution of which my new-found workplace was part. Circumstances were forthcoming, I suppose, because once I had crossed a few mountains of red tape, I did become, as people with positions are generally known, a true appointee. Competent staffers did not have such positions for one of two reasons: either they were not Egyptian citizens, a legal prerequisite for employment in the government, or the procedure awaited “approval” (which could take months, years, sometimes decades, depending on the humours of an all-powerful but invisible chairman).

When I say “competent staffers”, I should explain that there was at that office a much larger contingent of true appointees who took up space, time and (some) money though they were completely incompetent. If they were indeed competent, you did not see the vaguest sign of it. This, I figured, must be what economists mean when they talk about hidden unemployment. Anyway, there was evidently nothing anyone could do about the incompetents. The only action ever taken against them was that, unlike the competents, who were appropriately rewarded for doing good (or any) work, they received only the official government salary, unenhanced by a very substantial supplementary “bonus”. Such bonuses are the only thing that makes it viable for qualified professionals to work for the government, considering the absurdly low salary levels that continue to prevail. Incompetents were of course nominally equally qualified, but they had been placed permanently at the office against the better judgment of the boss.

They had been given positions there thanks to wasta, that untranslatable social vice: the sine qua non of all professional dealings in Egypt, a very mild case of which was involved in my introduction. Not that I would dream of absolving myself, but my case really was mild: this man was neither a personal friend nor a relative, and I was not offered a position until I had done some work.

Etymologically based on the root word for “middle”, wasatah – from which the colloquial term wasta is derived – refers to an act of mediation or intervention intended to help someone achieve a specific goal. It is closely related in tone to the word shafa’ah, or intercession, which is what the Prophet Mohammed will do for all Muslims on the Day of Judgment: in short, have a word with God.

Wasta means having a word with the person in charge to make something possible for someone, usually a job, or rather a position. In feudal times, wasta could actually be a positive form of upward mobility within a far more tightly prescribed space. It was more stringently applied and its beneficiaries were bound by a strict code of honour, with an imperative to do their utmost to prove that efforts on their behalf had not been wasted. The more power was decentralised, however, the less of a role honour had to play in anything.

Today wasta is in many instances synonymous with nepotism, but there is so much more to wasta: it would be extremely short-sighted to reduce its scope to nepotism alone. A catastrophe of the highest order: wasta implies waste, mismanagement and financial misconduct. It leads to various modes of corruption, obstructing upward mobility, narrowing the professional outlooks of the vast majority and perpetuating class boundaries.

Wasta is the magic dynamic by which a spoilt fresh graduate with neither credentials nor experience arrives at an office already appointed while a perfectly able candidate who has been working at the same office for five years continues to await appointment in vain. But it is equally the attitude whereby, while discussing professional prospects and the obstacles in their way, people will suddenly turn to each other with a hopeful twinkle of the eye, asking, “You don’t know someone, do you?” It is the crime almost everyone is routinely accused of, but also the quality of which braggarts are by and large most proud: “No, no, no. We would never get arrested. The deputy Minister of the Interior is a good friend of my father’s.” It is what mothers consider when, thinking about solving their children’s professional problems, they reach the end of their tether.

Wasta, over and above nepotism or corruption, is a life form. And it is a life form whose territory is being encroached on. Like smoking, like national identity, wasta is a species increasingly endangered by globalisation. While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate and more and more Egyptians become aware of the dictates of the World Bank, wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale.

Some day soon, privatisation will put an end to hidden unemployment altogether; then something terrible will happen: a bloody revolution, a civil war, collective screaming summoning up the most destructive earthquake in human history. All are possible consequences.

Still, no matter: fresh graduates, however well connected, will have to stop being spoilt. And the introduction I received, mild as it appears to be now, will eventually become the only form of wasta left.

Then we will all gather round, hold hands and celebrate our newly born American-style integrity – that profoundly protestant combination of idealistic morality and dog-eat-dog ambition believed to produce some form of “meritocracy”, which rarely functions as touted – wondering where on earth tonight’s dinner will come from now that we have neither a job nor the wasta to get us one.

Already, with wasta required at every turn, the process is collapsing under its own weight. With virtually everyone enjoying some kind of wasta power over everyone else (without a self-employed valet, for example, you will be unable to find parking outside your workplace), with so many economic and political variables involved (the valet must bribe the relevant traffic policeman, who must in turn accommodate his superior, etc.), wasta is fast turning into a vague promise or a hope, unreal as a prayer in the dark. “I know someone, yes,” you say to your relation. “Let’s hope they will do something about it.” But even as you utter the words, you know the chances are they won’t – because they can’t. And then you think of the good old days when you could actually have helped, and integrity – well, the aforementioned kind of integrity, at least – doesn’t seem all that appealing after all.

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