By Khaled Diab
Egypt's ‘baksheesh' culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience.
21 January 2011
One sure sign that I've arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country's largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.
With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.
In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel ‘baksheesh economy‘, abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.
In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.
Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.
My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she's never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.
When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum monthly wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.
But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.
Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their “betters”.
In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.
Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers' laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.
The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they're doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.
Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.
Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I'm entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a “never again” vow.
Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I've yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son's birth.
As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.
This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 6 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.