Monday, July 20, 2009

On Effectiveness and Efficiency

A frequent question they ask at business schools is about the difference between "effectiveness" and "efficiency." The model answer is "effectiveness is doing the right things, and efficiency is doing things right." In other words, effectiveness is about taking the right decision, while efficiency is about implementing that decision, competently and precisely.

In terms of human resources, Egypt's population of eighty million is a real treasure, if only their time, effort and dedication are channeled into productive outlets. Egyptian society, nevertheless, often fails the test of effectiveness. Two examples in this context are noteworthy.

The zeal and energy with which Egyptians support their national football team are astonishing. During the three-week African Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt in 2006, Egyptians were united on one goal: winning the trophy. Their overwhelming support certainly contributed to the success of the Egyptian team. The same spirit infused 2008 when our team won the African Cup for the sixth time in Ghana, and also very recently with the dramatic defeat of the Italian team, the world champion, in the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

These intense emotions are, however, hardly felt in other vital fields, which makes one wonder: is there no national dream in Egypt other than winning a football cup? As a Third World country, Egypt faces a myriad of economic and social problems, the least important of which is more crucial to the wellbeing of people than the performance of the football team. If the time and effort dedicated to supporting the football team was used to eradicate poverty, develop slum areas, or increase production, we would have had a very different Egypt.

This lack of effectiveness was also witnessed when an Egyptian woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, was stabbed to death earlier this month at a courtroom in Dresden, Germany, at the hands of a xenophobic German. For this incident to cause widespread shock and outrage in Egypt is normal. But the kind of reactions that followed the tragedy revealed other important aspects.

In response to Al-Sherbini's murder, a great deal of time and effort were exerted in both online and offline campaigns exhibiting irrationality, over-emotionality, and the absence of a sense of direction. Among others, these campaigns asked the German government to submit a formal apology to its Egyptian counterpart, set up legal committees to defend the rights of the victim's family, and called for boycotting German goods.

To start with, the crime was perpetuated by an individual, not representing the German state or people in any direct way. These campaigns' references to "German racism" are tantamount to calling any Muslim "a terrorist" just because a group of Muslims hijacked a plane, or demolished a building. It is the same kind of unjust generalizations to which Muslims have been subject since the events of September, 11th.

In addition, casting doubt on the integrity and competence of Germany's judiciary overlooks the fact that Germany is a democratic country, with a fair and efficient legal system that treats all citizens and expatriates equally. Racism does exist in society, but state institutions are immune to their ramifications.

Ironically, the general public that has been so furious at Marwa's murder has never shown the same resolve against fundamental issues, such as Egypt's human rights record, the spread of corruption, or the rights of Egyptian communities abroad at large. Nor did it address the issue of racism inside Egypt, the signs of which are most evident towards dark-skinned African communities.

Obviously, the general public is not always capable of moving between multiple levels of analysis. And for an issue to attract its attention, it has to be sensationally dramatic. In this sense, elections are "too boring," economics is "extremely sophisticated," and politics is a "dirty game." The encroachment upon the rights of all Egyptians in these domains is pardoned, but the rights of Marwa El-Shirbiny, "the martyr of the veil" will "never be sacrificed."

Said differently, the rights of all Egyptians are trampled upon in various ways by an authoritarian, corrupt regime, but nothing much is done to protect these fellow citizens, or preserve their rights. On the other hand, even though the German assailant was caught, and will soon be tried, the pro-Marwa El-Sherbini campaign still draws many followers and sympathizers, because the veil is "sacred," and Germans are "racist." The death of Marwa was a sad tragedy, but juxtaposing these two realities is sadder.

In Egypt, there is no scarcity of energy. There is a scarcity of how to use it.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 16, 2009.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Cultural Renaissance in Egypt?

There is much talk within Cairo's cultural circles of an existing, or imminent, cultural renaissance in Egypt. The increase in the number of new bookstores and new publishers over the past few years gave the impression that Egypt is about to revive its long dead cultural life. A number of factors, however, suggest just the opposite.

To start with, much of the ongoing cultural activity is closer to “imitation” than it is to “creation.” Where creativity is scarce and exposure to the “other” abundant, plagiarism of others' theories and ideas becomes commonplace. Indeed, in Egypt, even the genres through which art and culture are expressed are borrowed from the outside, particularly the West. One cannot overlook the recent rise and spread of a number of artistic genres, which have been until recently alien to Egypt and the entire Arab world, such as standup comedians, TV sitcoms, and self-help books (that aspire to teach you almost everything in life). These genres share one common aspect: they were born and nurtured in the West. In contrast, indigenous forms of expression, such as religious chanting, traditional crafts making and storytelling of epic poems, are withering away.

Similarly, the vast majority of the shows produced by the nearly 500 Arab satellite channels, that broadcast around the clock, are just replicas of famous Western shows. It is extremely rare to find an Arab program that is centered on a creative idea, which is not plagiarized.

In a globalized world, the dominance of the West has been overwhelming. Even religious preaching has been affected by the mindset of the Western civilization. Patrick Haenni argues in L'Islam de Marche: L'Autre Revolution Conservatrice (Market Islam: The Other Conservative Revolution) that the concepts focused upon by the modern, televangelist preacher Amr Khaled are compatible with the tenets of globalization. Unlike preachers of earlier generations, who have reduced Islam to the notion of Jihad, the drive for syncretism between Islam and globalization has characterized the approach of Khaled and many other preachers. These preachers' brand of Islam, described by Haenni as “air-conditioned Islam,” is centered on concepts like self-improvement, personal salvation and economic success. No wonder then that the values of success, hard work, efficiency and self-development are among Khaled's favorite topics.

There can also be no cultural renaissance as long as levels of scientific and cultural production remain as low as they are today. In 2007, the total number of books published in the entire Arab world -- Egypt included -- stood at 27,000. That’s less than the annual production of many developing countries. The tradition of translation, one of the channels for passing on the knowledge of other cultures, has also faltered in the region. To cite just one example, Greece translates five times more works than all Arab states combined.

In addition, the quality of education in Egypt has been rapidly deteriorating for the past few decades. Today, no Egyptian university could be found in the list of the top 500 universities in the world. Graduates of Egyptian universities are not in demand, even in neighboring Arab states, which were until very recently the prime recruiter of the Egyptian work force.

An increase in the number of bookstores does not always indicate a cultural awakening. Indeed, it could point to the exact opposite, reflecting the dominance of consumerism, and the decline of cultural taste. The sales figures of blogs-turned-books are bigger than works written by prominent novelists. One can blame it on new marketing techniques, which have found in the book market a new field, mostly to sell works of shallow content and low linguistic quality. In other words, nothing fundamental has changed with regards to the quantity and quality of cultural production, except for a sly attempt at decanting old wine into a new bottle.

Certainly, a cultural awakening cannot go in tandem with the absence of creativity, low levels of production and a deterioration of standards of education. Indeed, the distinguished Syrian philosopher and poet Adonis argued that because of their negligible contribution to thought and science, Arabs have become extinct:
"If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world."

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 2, 2009.