Solace at the State’s Expense

Even if Egypt were a very rich country—the richest country in the world—is it morally permissible that condolences published in newspapers by officials are financed from the money paid by taxpayers?

Human societies have historically experienced various roles of the state in terms of its responsibility towards citizens.

Such roles expanded or narrowed depending on whether the state was adopting or refraining from a pastoral approach in which it fully took care of its citizens and their demands. This role of the state shrunk in many cases, especially when economic conditions left the state unable to fulfill its obligations.

During the 1960s, the Egyptian state had expanded its obligations and provided citizens with food, education, medical care, housing, and employment.

However, the government later failed to continue meeting all of such obligations because of the inability of the Egyptian economy to provide adequate resources.

Other reasons for the state failure to meet such obligations were in the government’s failure to reduce waste, the failure to combat corruption within the social support system, and, finally, the inability to reach out to the most vulnarable and needy classes.

Given the difficulty of publicly backtracking on all of these roles, the state continued to provide free education, but backtracked in its role of maintaining the quality of education. This quality has declined significantly, to the extent that free education means the individual gets a certificate regardless of the content he or she has learned.

What happened in education occurred in one way or another in other sectors, too, such as health, housing and employment.

In this regard, I don’t underestimate the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, for the state to continue to provide a package of integrated services in a country where more reproduction occurred than production.

But any observer of Egyptian affairs would find that the Egyptian state—which abandoned providing medical care, education and housing, and offering employment opportunities—did not abandon the practices of offering solace at the state’s expense, a paradox similar to laughter that resembles crying.

By this, I mean condolences at the state’s expense, the practice in which ministers and heads of government institutions publish advertisements in obituary pages in newspapers to mourn their colleagues or associates or to comfort someone after the death of a relative.

These are such noble sentiments that do reflect the gentleness of these officials.

Furthermore, the culture of condolences in Egypt derived its features from Pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic civilization. It was blended and then produced a unique culture that makes death a source of living for many other people.

On an institutional level, publishing governmental condolences in newspapers has become a tool to widen personal relations under the guise of decency and gentleness.

This strongly begs the question of whether it is permissible to use public money to pay for these condolences ads, even assuming nobility of purpose.

Even if Egypt were a very rich country—the richest country in the world—is it morally permissible that condolences published in newspapers by officials are financed from the money paid by taxpayers?

Aren’t there any other priorities, such as education, health or basic services, which are in need for such amounts of money paid to publish condolences in newspapers? Do the worsening economic conditions facing the country allow for such squandering of money?

Does the official who orders the publishing of these obituaries recall that there are patients who cannot pay the cost of treatment, or that there are university students who can’t afford tuition, or that there are families living in homes without a roof and not getting clean water?

My talk about solace at the state’s expense is not a quick impression. Rather, these are conclusions based on a quick study of this phenomenon, having monitored government officials publishing obituaries in Egypt’s flagship paper, Al-Ahram, during the second half of February.

I counted the condolences ads that are directed from government officials. I divided them into two categories.

In first category, the condolences ads have the name of the minister and his aides, and his ministry’s full official name, and then the text of the condolences and the name of the deceased person.

Sometimes the font size of the name of the minster is bigger than the name of the deceased person. Sometimes the font size of the name of the minster is written on two lines in the column of the newspaper. This space in newspapers is being financed fully from the ministry’s budget, i.e. from the money paid by taxpayers.

In the second half of February, I found that there were 41 government ads in obituary pages in Al-Ahram. This means that we have at least 1,000 government ads in obituary pages annually.

Furthermore, the cost for these ads is probably about 5 million Egyptian pounds. Such an amount of money could be used to build a school or to repair ten public school buildings. It could also be used to buy five ambulances, or even to create 100 job opportunities, or to give loans to 500 micro-enterprises.

It’s worth noting that the prime minister issues a memo annually calling on ministers and heads of government institutions to rationalize public expenditures. This memo includes a direct reference to banning the publishing of any ads, such as condolences ads, in newspapers. All ministers most likely read this memo.

By the same token, not all ministers are involved in publishing obituaries in newspapers. The paradox is that the ministries that have the larger shares in publishing obituaries in newspapers are the ministries responsible for enforcing the law. In the same period of study, one of the monitoring agencies, which floods state institutions with remarks about squandering public funds, had published many of these obituaries.

The second type of government condolences doesn’t have the same visibility of the first type.

In this category, obituary ads are published by associations and clubs of workers and employees in specific ministries, employees at a specific judicial institution, or employees at one of the universities. It seems that funding the condolences ads by these associations come from special government funds that are not included in the state’s budget and do not experience the same supervision.

Most of these special funds don’t adhere to the norms regulating government expenditure, and they squander money by publishing these condolences ads through disguised payments.

The number of these ads counts for four times the number of ads published by ministers and heads of government institutions. However, this type of ad is smaller in terms of its size on the obituary page.

This sort of ads, financed from these private funds, requires more supervision in order to make sure that the money is spent on more important issues.

The aforementioned abuses in using public money to publish condolences ads are just an example of the abuse of using limited resources on worthless things in a country that is suffering from an undeniable economic crisis.

But the significance of this example is simply that the squandering of public money is being made publicly through the obituary pages, without fearing accountability or even being shamed for spending such money without taking into account people who are in need.

Regardless of the absence of accountability, which should be applied to eliminate squandering of public money in condolences ads, the public official dealing with money should be replaced.

Such leadership changes demand exceptional leaders that can lead to a positive transformation that puts Egypt on the first step of the right track.

The January 25, 2011, revolution was surely a fitting historical moment to achieve genuine change that goes further than only changing figures to achieve cultural transformation.

However, the absences of exceptional leaders who don’t look under their feet make Egypt lose a valuable moment for real transformation that might take much time to occur again.

Magued Osman is the CEO and managing director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, Baseera. This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk.