Spain is still the butt of jokes over its ‘manyana’ (tomorrow) work ethic, which remains a contributing factor towards the country’s sluggish economy. Latin Americans will often say they work to live rather than live to work, which may sound like a positive philosophy until workers begin being laid-off and rates of unemployment burgeon when people’s quality of life diminishes.
When the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias was asked by a British television host to explain the meaning of ‘manyana’ he said it translates to “maybe the job will be done tomorrow, maybe the next day, may be the day after that. Perhaps next week, next month or next year… Who cares?”
Certain countries hugging the Mediterranean and within the Arab World are just as laid back; in some cases, even more so – and they tend to be countries with struggling economies. Those attitudes used to be blamed on the warm climate but that excuse does not wash when efficiency, self-discipline and responsibility are prised within the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf States, for example where laxity at the workplace or arriving late for appointments are not tolerated.
That lackadaisical culture is prevalent in Egypt which is fighting to get back on its feet following four turbulent years. In many of his speeches President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has stressed on the need for Egyptians to roll up their sleeves and take their work seriously, adding there are no quick fixes. I cannot do it alone, he says. However, in my experience, his plea has yet to be heeded.
Egypt requires enforceable rules to be implemented in both the public and private sectors if it is to evolve into a modern 21st century country able to provide for its fast growing population, currently standing at over 91 million. Egyptians are naturally entrepreneurial from the man or woman selling corn on the cob on the street corner to those pursuing innovative tech or service start-ups. The self-employed and owners of small businesses are ambitious; they work long hours and do what it takes. The same cannot be said for employees, no matter their status. During a recent visit to Cairo, I tried to get in touch with various managers and officials around 9 in the morning only to find they had not arrived at their desks. I visited one of the city’s best known and best located five-star hotels hoping to meet with the General Manager, but was told that he rarely shows up before 10 am.
Quite frankly, if he were employed at one of my own hotels he would not last five minutes. I expect to see my staff at their posts at 7.30 am at the very latest just as I always am. I was lucky in that my parents taught me the value of getting up early to face the day’s challenges, a virtue that the Father of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum exemplified. He did not approve of people close to him staying in bed past 6am; he once ticked me off for having a sleepy sounding voice at 5am.
Just as the word ‘manyana’ used to trip off the tongues of Spaniards with ease before Spain joined the EU, one of the words most commonly spoken by Egyptians, when their timekeeping or efficiency are questioned – usually accompanied with a grin – is ‘malesh’ or ‘never mind’. Whether it is trivial error or a serious mistake, they will say ‘malesh’ which can be really irritating to the person tearing out his hair because something he considers urgent has not been done - and even more so when it is followed up with ‘bukra inshallah’ (tomorrow God willing) which is no guarantee that it will ever be done.
Some of the worst culprits are the bureaucrats; they know they have a job for life unless they commit a serious crime and have little incentive to shine. I am told it is not unusual for civil servants to disappear for hours at a time, to find them asleep at their desks, peeling vegetables in preparation for dinner or puffing away under their own ‘no smoking’ sign affixed to a wall.
The culture of indiscipline is reflected on the roads. Egypt’s Highway Code is every driver for himself. Cars, minibuses and tuk-tuks weave their way through the traffic, overtaking from all sides or reversing down busy roads. Driving without lights down highways at night is common and it is normal to see cars moving down a one-way street in the opposite direction. Hardly anyone bothers to wear a seat belt and you will not drive very far before seeing someone at the wheel cigarette in hand or holding a cell phone to his ear.
The roof-racks of taxis are seen carrying assorted furniture piled sky-high, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a motorbike go past carrying a man, his wife holding a baby, two young children and an elderly woman who was presumably their grandmother!
To be honest, there are other Arab states suffering from the same ailment to one extent or another, but Egypt, with an unemployment rate hovering around the 13 per cent mark and thousands of university grads trying to enter the job market each year, needs a shake-up before there is mass discontent.
The government and corporate employers need to get tough on rule-breakers but in the long run children need to be taught the virtues of self-discipline and commitment to country and career in schools, so that coming generations will be excited to build Egypt anew and feel proud of the small part they have played in making their homeland great again.
Government departments could hold workshops in colleges and youth community centres and air infomercials on television to get the message across that a disciplined society is a successful society and also to stress the personal benefits of self-control. Research published by the Journal of Personality found that “High self-control does make you happy”. Now that is a real selling point!
The Egyptian people may not be the most self-disciplined or organised on the planet but they have so many other attributes; they are among the most hospitable and they are blessed with human warmth as well as the ability to joke about their troubles.
It is because I truly love Egypt and want so much to see it blossom that I feel the need to open the government’s eyes. A culture cannot be changed overnight but if Singapore and Hong Kong were able to exchange organised chaos for economic vibrancy, there is nothing to prevent Egypt from doing the same.