Monday, November 17, 2008

Living in a Lawless Land

It's an oft-repeated adage that rules are meant to be broken. By limiting yourself only to what is allowed you miss the opportunity for innovation; by bowing to authority without dispute you may be failing to challenge narrow-minded or antiquated ideas. Many of us would agree that a certain amount of intelligent examination of the rules in place around us is wise. Maintaining well-informed opinions on whether or not, and in what circumstances, our governments should forbid us from doing certain things is the key to having a free, just society.

The Arab world, however, has a tendency to take the old adage rather too much to heart. In general, laws are treated here with a mixture of extreme suspicion and casual disregard, the proportions of the two varying from country to country.

In the UAE, motorists ignore traffic signs and make u-turns where none are allowed, boldly drive the wrong way on parking lot ramps, and leave their cars sitting in the middle of the street for hours. The alcohol laws ban bars from serving Muslims and prohibit the sale of bottled spirits to anyone without a liquor license. Yet Emiratis, unmistakable in their distinctive white kandoras, are as common as foreigners at many upscale hotel bars, and my fellow expats and I purchase beer and wine every week without a license from several local liquor stores, who don't care as long as we don't use a credit card and sometimes not even then. The other day when the time came for me to pay, the cashier asked me if I had a license, and when I admitted that I didn't, she simply told me the price of my two bottles of wine, took my money, and told me to have a good day.

In Egypt, the situation is far worse. There is no adherence to traffic rules whatsoever: stoplights are disregarded, divisions between lanes are rendered meaningless, speed limits on city streets are routinely exceeded. Bribes are a normal part of any dealings with the police or the government, as I found out once when an Egyptian guy I knew was caught carrying hash and some American friends and I had to raise money to pay off the policeman who would have arrested him. Illegal housing developments are as much a part of the Cairo skyline as the pyramids, and utilities like water, electricity, and satellite service are widely considered fair game for stealing if you can get away with it. With a population of 20 million, the number of laws, large and small, that are broken every day in Egypt must be astronomical.

At home, I was uneasy filching paperclips from the office or smuggling bananas out of my college dining hall, and when I'm stopped at a red light, even if it's the middle of the night and there are no other cars around, I still won't run it. I shudder at the thought of overstaying the limit on my parking meter. So why doesn't this same respect for the law exist here?

When it comes to social behavior, which is determined by the dictates of religion and longstanding tradition rather than by the government, Arab societies are models par excellence of how to follow the rules, which is why I don't buy the arguments some people make that Arabs are an inherently disorganized, disorderly race whose predilections for reckless driving and cutting in line are indicative of an innate lack of civilization. But the fact is that laws are simply not important to many Arabs. A large part of it is a lack of proper enforcement. In the UAE, the police are impotent and ineffectual, victims of the hierarchical social structure that puts Emiratis on top and everyone else at the bottom. In Egypt, the legacy of the unspeakable brutalities committed by policemen long ago cost them the respect of the Egyptian public.

But I would argue that it goes beyond this explanation alone. It is as though, being set in place by human beings rather than by divine decree, there is a sense among many Arabs that laws are worthy of only as much respect as the men who created them. I am inclined to think that there's something to be said for this attitude. With dictators, monarchs, and tribal oligarchies running the show around here, I'm not sure I'd put my trust in their laws either.

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