Financial security undoubtedly offers people a level of comfort and freedom in terms of weathering the storm of middling political conditions. Wealth in excess affords people freedoms that poorer people couldn’t dream of; one can afford better lawyers, curry favour with government officials and loosen regulations. These effects can be brought about through both legal and illegal means. Alaa al Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of a large cast of main and secondary characters in order to explore social, economic, and political circumstances in the Egypt post-Nasser, a president with a deeply complicated legacy. I am most interested in the stories of the wealthiest characters because while everyone encounters scenarios that strip them of their pride and agency, the experiences of Zaki el Dessouki and Hagg Azzam reveal how circumstantial the legitimacy of the state is. In this essay, I will argue that The Yacoubian Building uses its wealthiest characters to illustrate how corruption hinders social, political, and economic development. I will do so by discussing some of the interactions Zaki el Dessouki and Hagg Azzam have with the Egyptian state before pivoting into the real world ramifications of those interactions.
The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several characters who live in a historical building in downtown Cairo. The occupants vary from the incredibly rich Zaki, who inherited enough money from his father to live a long life as a failed engineer, to Busanya, who is forced to keep working for men that sexually harass and abuse her in order to provide for her family. While there is no single issue plaguing all of the residents, this large cast of characters is used to explore how the social culture and economic realities of the nation affect the lives of Egyptians of all walks of life. It is important to note that these characters are meant to symbolically represent larger groups of real Egyptians, as a result, the broad strokes of their character arcs should be considered more seriously than the particulars of their reactions. I will elaborate more on this as I address the specifics of the characters.
Zaki el Dessouki: Wealth without Purpose
Beyond the signing of documents and ordering his servant around, Zaki is never shown to be doing any work. In spite of this, he lives a life of pleasurable leisure. He is perpetually intoxicated and the author never misses an opportunity to describe the Pasha as an old man ruled by his total lack of self control. Zaki, himself, takes pride in his sexual exploits both past and present; he goes as far as to claim that he has slept with princesses and homeless women alike. His lust is so extreme that half of his introduction is about him loudly 'teaching’ the young men in his neighbourhood the “most subtle sexual secrets” (al Aswany 2002, p. 2). As the son of one of the richest men in Egypt prior to the revolution and as an engineer trained in France before returning home, Zaki seemed destined to play an important role in the development of the country prior to Nasser’s regime. The old man is hopelessly nostalgic for the Egypt of his youth. While he makes passing mention to economic hardship, Zaki is primarily concerned with the culture. He believes that “Abd el Nasser taught the Egyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites” (al Aswany 2002, p.164). Subtextually, it seems that he sees a modern Egypt as a European country that happens to be in North Africa.
The opportunism and the hypocritical moral righteousness of his sister, Dawlat, costs him ownership to the apartment the pair inherited from their father and lands him in legal trouble on ‘moral charges’ for being caught sleeping with Busanya, his secretary and eventual lover, in his office. Dawlat sensed an opportunity to cement her ownership of the apartment the siblings shared by capitalizing on promiscuous sexual behaviour that she had been aware of for years. If it was truly a moral issue then the charges should have been levied a lifetime ago because all characterizations point to Zaki’s apparent ungodly behaviour being a constant over his whole adult life. Furthermore, Dawlat makes a fallacious report to police officers, who she was bribing, in an attempt to get him deemed legally incompetent and thus giving her control over his property. Neither of the siblings are described as religious.
Hagg Azzam: Legitimized Corruption
It is quite late in the text that we learn that Hagg Azzam’ wealth is based on the ‘illegitimate’ trade of drugs. I hesitate to say ‘illegitimate’ because while this empire is technically illegal, it is actively supported by the government under the condition that the higher-ups receive their share of the spoils. The Hagg attends multiple meetings to discuss his bid for public office and through each stage, there are gatekeeping fees. He is not surprised by the high level corruption and sees public office as a way to grow his personal wealth even further. The officials being paid to facilitate Hagg’s elections are all aware of what he does and rather than make any attempt to stop him, they encourage the bid not only for the monetary gain but also because the knowledge of his illicit activities affords them significant leverage over his actions upon entering government.
What also marks the Hagg’s personality is his outward religiosity. He recites the Fatiha to seal deals, marries again to avoid the sin of extramarital sex, and pays lip service to his faith regularly in conversation. In spite of this, Azzam made his millions from illicit drugs, played a part in his wife’s forced abortion and willingly participates in a corrupt government. Despite being possibly the most wealthy of the main characters, much of Azzam’s time is spent groveling to people more powerful than himself in order to curry favour.
Real World Consequences
Corruption is “defined as the abuse of public power or authority for private benefit” and can exist as “bribery, extortion, embezzlement, and fraud” (Goedhuys, Mohen, & Taha 2016). Corruption has also come to include certain forms of patronage, conditionality, exchange of favours and clientelism. Public sector corruption, as measured by the World Bank’s Corruption Perceptions Index is measured on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). While there are not firm statistics on corruption in Egypt prior to 1981, it has been hovering around the mid 30s since then (Yousri & Richter 2013, p 736). While short term (one to three years) public sector corruption can benefit the national economy by expediting ventures and bypassing unnecessarily tedious regulations, over a period exceeding three years, it has been found to correlate with weakened economic growth. When the effects of patronage transition into pilfering of the public purse, it often leads to jarring commodity price changes; when the personal incentives of government officials trump the public’s interests, the economic circumstances for most of the country will falter. Furthermore, corruption hinders the business sector and reduces productivity by making life more difficult for those who face illegitimate harassment for not buying into the corrupt system (Goedhuys, Mohen, & Taha 2016). This difficulty is particularly important when considering foreign investment; much like the Japanese investors in the book, foreign corporations may be uncomfortable settling in a political climate where failing to cooperate with bribery and patronage may hurt their revenue stream. While not shown much in these particular two characters, corruption also has the effects of reducing trust in the government and reducing innovation; Taha is an excellent case of this concept in action. The belief that the state will unjustly claim a large sum of the money to be earned by any given venture can disincentivize economic actors from investing resources into potential schemes (Goedhuys, Mohen, & Taha 2016). It may also encourage actors to pursue capital that is outside of the state which could lead to unregulated black markets--much like Malak, in the book. Similarly, the money and resources spent on bribery and extortion is money not spent on improving the businesses and the resources being stolen from public coffers is not being used to, you know, actually govern.
The rich are more able to navigate these difficulties through virtue of their wealth and the inevitable connections to power that being wealthy to the extent of Hagg Azzam, for example, brings. In fact, this is a key difference between the Hagg and a character like Taha. Both seek official positions and both are met by high ranking gatekeepers who must be satisfied by monetary bribes. Taha reckons the police regularly admits candidates of lesser qualification on the basis of inducement. However, while the Hagg attempts to haggle the extortionate fees he is charged to work with the government but is ultimately able to pay the levies. What is important to glean from Zaki’s arc is the ease at which the legal system is easily manipulated. Zaki‘s wealth, reputation and connections did not save him from the embarrassment of being dragged to the police station but they did ultimately get him out of the situation with no lasting legal consequences. The fact that the professional civil service can be exploited by one sibling to do their bidding and then have their authority overridden by the other sibling’s friend shows the disregard of the law by law enforcement themselves. Their dealings are not clandestine by any means.
The Hagg is also party to a dubious election that sees him enter office. While no confessions are made to ballot stuffing or any outright fraudulent behaviour, it is clear that the election was far from fair. Al Aswany makes brief mention of the powers granted to the state through the perpetual state of emergency law and under Sadat, these powers were used to ban media criticism of a referendum in which there is video evidence of ballot stuffing. The re-election of Mumtaz Nasr in 1979 is important to consider. This state election was enforced by an armed non-governmental group for the sake of accuracy because they did not trust the government (Brownlee , p. 661). This moment in history speaks volumes to the mess of legitimacy of the state. The regime in power does not have the trust of many of the people so it keeps stragglers in line through often violent means. In response to this, a group took up arms against the government and / or in defense of their election to ensure the votes were properly counted.
Zaki’s musings on entering office are born of entitlement and nepotism. Briefly he reminisces on what life would have been without the revolution. Part of his character is constant uncritical nostalgia for generations past but beyond that he has tremendous self-pity for the way life did not happen to him. In his eyes, he was destined to be a minister. It does not appear he did anything to try to levy his wealth and connections into power. In fact, he does very little of anything. His life appears to be a long trajectory of indecision and sloth.
“Is it bad luck or a failing in his character that always drives him to make the wrong decision? Why did he stay in Egypt after the Revolution? He could have gone to France and started a new life, as many children of the big families had done. There he would certainly have attained a position of note as friends had done who were less than he in all respects. But he had stayed in Egypt and started to acclimatize himself to the deteriorating situation little by little until he had sunk to these depths” (al Aswany 2002, p. 116).
Before the revolution, it is not unlikely that the Bey would have lived this life in his head, it would have been through tremendous perseverance on his end, rather, this would be nepotism hard at work.
Zaki and Azzam offer nuanced perspectives into the upper class and their interactions with the state. As the oldest resident in the building Zaki is frequently used as an expositional spot about the “old” Egypt. His nostalgia goes unquestioned by the other characters. In his reveries, both the wonder of pre-revolution as well as the failures of the present are defined primarily in relation to the idealized version of Europe in his head. I say his head because his attention is drawn to the social culture and aesthetics of Cairo; he speaks about the cleanliness of the city, the prohibition on drinking, the monuments and nightlife. Zaki seems concerned with replacing Egyptian culture with an idealized European one; perhaps this is a gentle allusion to the differences in foreign policy between Nasser, who was pan-Arab, and the pre-Nasser elites, who were largely pro-Western. Azzam reveals the grimy nature of the state. They encourage his drug trade so long as they get a cut. Patronage is the most established route to office and that office is seen as a way to increase personal wealth more than one of public service. Culturally, Azzam represents the unbelievers who will act and may even believe themselves to be pious while ignoring morality in pursuit of power and profit. These two characters embody a key consideration when discussing private wealth and corruption. Whilst it may be correct to assume that wealth affords people certain freedoms that the poor lack, Zaki and Azzam are shown to endure precarious situations that can be intruded upon or even ended by the people above them in the hierarchy of power and wealth. This is not to say that the men are suffering through their lives because they both enjoy astounding luxury, it is to highlight that if these two live in insecurity, then what is to become of the Tahas, Busanyas and Abduhs of the country? Wealth can act as a shield to block bureaucratic misadventures and as scissors to cut through red tape but how much more uncertain does life become with neither tool? In transcribing the fiction onto real world Egypt, I have revealed that corruption has largely negative consequences for the country whilst benefiting a select few with the opportunity to capitalize on the widespread malfeasance.
None of the societal faults described above are exclusive to any single country and, to varying degrees, I would argue all of them can be located in the West, albeit with dynamics unique to this settler-colonial context. Rich and / or white people are given much more leeway when interacting with the criminal legal system and in the case of white collar crime, often benefit from their incompetence or negligence. Big corporate entities get tax breaks, weak regulation, subsidies and bailouts at the cost of campaign donations and corporate lobbying which they will have you believe are totally not manifestations of corruption but part of healthy functioning democracies. The people who benefitted from these exclusionary and oppressive histories have a rose-tinted nostalgia for “the glory days of [insert country of choice].” They are more than content to ignore the world they yearn for is predicated on moral depravity, cultural imperialism, and political domination of the working class. Hypocritical self righteous moral figures? We have those in droves. We also have no shortage of politicians ready to gaslight you into thinking everything is fine.
Recommendation: this is just gonna be me rambling
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for something to read. It’s concise at under 300 pages and with such a varied cast of characters it never becomes a dull reading experience. There’s also a movie which is quite good but seeing as the Egyptian government funded it, I’d only watch it after reading the book. The characters are complicated and familiar, the language of the translation is very approachable and the chapters are paced well so the pages fly by. Nothing in this review will spoil the book for you as it is much more about the journeys than the destination in this case. While I only touched on the elites in this review, there are characters across the socio-economic ladder and every story is engaging and well written.
Just a note before you buy: I expect you’ll have to order this book and before turning to one of the big corporations consider asking your local bookstore to order it for you. Spartacus Books and Pulp Fiction in Vancouver have done this for me at no extra cost a number of times and small physical bookstores are something I wanna see post-COVID.
Al Aswany, A. The Yacoubian Building. Translated by Humphrey T. Davies. 1st ed. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Brownlee, Jason. 2011. "Peace before Freedom: Diplomacy and Repression in Sadat's Egypt." Political Science Quarterly 126 (4): 641-668.
Goedhuys, Micheline, Pierre Mohnen, and Tamer Taha. 2016. "Corruption, Innovation and Firm Growth: Firm-Level Evidence from Egypt and Tunisia." Eurasian Business Review 6 (3): 299-322.
Mauro, Paolo. 1995. "Corruption and Growth." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 110 (3): 681-712.
Yousri, Dina M. and Christian Richter. 2018. "Sociological Challenges for Egypt's Development: 1981--2013." International Economics and Economic Policy 15 (4): 727.