No Code

05Dec06

This is something that’s been bouncing around in the back of my head for about a week.I’ll start with a mundane example. As anyone who’s lived in Cairo knows, transportation is a bitch. Personally, I drive, although sometimes i wish i wasnt so reliant on the storage space. It’s such a stressful, nerve-wrecking ordeal. And it can be really really crowded. I’ve gotten cramps in my left calf from inching along for 2 hours. Luckily, over the years, i’ve gotten better at dealing with the road though. I scream out the window much less, at least. But some things continue to get at me. Here’s one: You’re at an intersection. The light is green. However, immediately after the intersection there is no where to go. The cars are backed up to the edge. Why the hell do Egyptian drivers invariably insist on proceeding through the light, ending up stuck in the middle of the intersection, and consequently blocking the other direction. Why? You gain nothing! See, i’ll kid myself not. I dont have liberal ideals. Well, I do. I just dont expect them much. I expect people to do what’s in their interest. But there’s just no explanation for blocking traffic without getting any positive benefit for oneself. It’s not just a jungle, it’s an irrational one.

Similar examples crop up everywhere. In any interaction with the bureaucracy for example. In the metro. In any line, obviously. This got me wondering why Egyptians dealt so horribly with each other.

Cogitating on this while driving, i found it very difficult to reconcile with the fact that there is undoubtedly a very rigid, albeit unwritten, code on what is or isnt acceptable in dealing with people: How to address various people depending on their age, sex, marital status, profession, rank, degree.. what’s expected of each party in the case of hosting, engagement, employment, marriage, death.. And generally, Egyptians seem very keen on upholding this code.

It seems to me that although Egyptians have a very rigid set of interpersonal behavior regulations, this seems , at least for those in Cairo, to apply only to direct connections: relatives, friends, work-related acquaintances. There is obviously neither a sense of respect nor consideration involved during interaction in the public sphere. As such, people have no problems stopping in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. Or parking second row and leaving the handbrake up. Or cutting into an obvious (believe it or not i’ve seen a rare few) line. Whether or not this ever existed, i wouldnt know. After all, if you go back only a couple of generations (prior to mass transport and urban migration), you could make the argument that everyone anyone interacted with during their lifetime fell into the acquaintance category.

Anyway, while this lack of respect and consideration is a general problem, it is manifested much more acutely with marginalized/disenfranchised groups. This is obvious in Muslim interactions with, perceptions of and attitudes towards Copts. Think fish and sharks; Or Alexandria riots. But those are just big issues of a much more pervasive problem. To give an example, a (Muslim) friend of mine who was conscripted would tell me stories of how the Muslims used to take all the food and then give the Copts the leftovers. They started giving him a hard time when he tried to protest this treatment.

It is even more evident in the treatment of women, especially in public. The way women are treated on the street is absolutely inexcusable and infinitely repulsive. The Eid mass-sexual assaults highlighted an already long-standing problem.

I think that Egyptian society needs to develop a “code” for public interaction. A social contract, if you will. But from where i’m standing, it sure as hell looks like we’re going in the opposite direction.

ADDENDUM: It seems I was misunderstood, so I’m adding this addendum.First, I’m not making claims about whether or not people think about what they’re doing. I believe that when making decisions the vast majority of people do not have respect for others they come into contact with in the public sphere. They are inconsiderate.

Second, I do not, under any circumstances, believe that we need to legislate a code for behavior. I ultimately have little faith in laws and their implementation. In any case, I think that laws – or, rather, legislation in a representative system as opposed to edicts (or rubber stamping) – are little more than a formalization of something that is already generally accepted in a society or community. What is generally accepted in a group most definitely evolves. And that is precisely what i’m talking about. Whether this is inculcated through school, the home, or public service announcements (although, if you’re talking about top-down enforcement and restricting freedom, i’m not so sure how different incorporating behavior into the “national curriculum” is from legislating it) may be subject to opinion. But the need for this sense to evolve is undoubtedly there.

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4 Responses to “No Code”

  1. 1 moose

    you’re absolutely right, i like the analogy u’re making towards linking traffic violations to sexual abuse and the violations of the rights of individuals to the state (muslims & christians). many would argue that it’s silly to try to link those things together, but i truly believe that if the population started fixing up the “small” things, it would be a lot easier for the bigger things such as racial and sexist issues to be resolved. it just has to start somewhere and continue escalating in the right direction, a slow and painful but extremely necessary process.

  2. 2 The Realist

    I agree with the problems mentioned, although I can find logic in what some of these people do… the logic might not appeal to everyone, but it exists. I find it wrong to think that people do things without thinking about them, Im sure that they have thought about them, but maybe not reached the same conclusions that others have. However, I dont think that there is a need to develop a code or any such thing to allow for a particular way of interaction which some might find better than the existing one. I also dont agree that this is where the changing of the society should begin.

    The way people deal with one another and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs and norms that people are used to are all aspects of the cultural experience of a city/country/people. These things are changed through education of what is right and what is wrong, and the ethics and values that one should follow in his life. However, this will be a slow and gradual process. There are many more important things that need to be done first I think, such as improving education (since, in my opinion, this is the way to solve the problems stated above), decreasing the income gap, improving infrastructure and planning…etc.

    Its a good thing to state these problems, but for the most part, I think that any “code” or “regulated” way of behaviour is just wrong. That is the purest violation of freedom, since it is either based on the experiences of other countries (which do not share our cultural experience) or the opinion of the few (ie: decision-makers). I believe that in order to preserve personal freedoms and the culture that is unique to this country, it needs to be a process that stems out of mass change will will occurr if the people are better educated… so on and so forth.

  3. 3 forsoothsayer

    regarding the copts…a copt i know told me that he thinks it’s more about status than anything else. when he was in the army, he was treated a lot better than many of his fellow muslim conscripts because he was from a better socio-economic background. of course your observations hold true, but i do think that “status” and money and power are a lot more important than gender and religion.

  4. Ride on!


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