Last week’s trending topic in Egypt was about a girl named Mariam Malak. Mariam is an A student, whose exam results in previous years ranked her among the best students in the country. Wanting to become a doctor, Mariam was confident she would attain the scores needed for medical school.
Yet, when the scores were published, she discovered her name was no where near the top of the list. In fact, Mariam found she had scored zero out of a hundred points on six of the seven entrance exams she had taken (and only slightly above zero on the seventh). The result was a personal disaster for Mariam, but she refused to take it lying down.
Given her ridiculously low results – a student must practically leave his papers blank in order to score a zero – and the corruption known to permeate the Egyptian educational system, Mariam suspected some official had been bribed to swap her papers with those of a subpar student. Fearing these allegations would only be suppressed by authorities, Mariam decided to take a different tactic.
In addition to filing with the school and starting a legal procedure, Mariam Malik turned to the Egyptian media. In a live show on the network al-Hayat, she presented her case to the Egyptian people. Showing a certain political flair, Mariam referred to her patriotic intentions in wanting to ‘serve her country as a doctor’ and went so far as addressing President Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi directly. Mariam told Sisi she she viewed him like a father, since her own father was deceased.
Thanks to these efforts, Mariam quickly generated substantial support for her cause. The hashtag “I believe Mariam Malak” soon went viral and a Facebook group named “Mariam’s tears” – referring to the tears she had shed during her televised appearance – has so far gathered over 37,000 likes.
As the public outcry increased, the Ministry of Education reported on the 29th of August that a review of Mariam’s case had found no indications of foul play. Again, Mariam took to the airwaves, including making an appearance on the popular show “Here is the capital,” where she refuted the Ministry’s claim that her handwriting conformed to that of the faulty exams. As of yet, the Ministry has declined to review its stance on the matter.
Government corruption in Egypt is not, however, limited to the Ministry of Education. On Monday, September 7, the Minister of Agriculture, Salah Eddin Helal, was abruptly sacked. Immediately after being dismissed, Helal was arrested on charges of corruption – for both dramatic and symbolic effect, his arrest took place in the middle of Tahrir Square.
The details of the indictment are unknown, although reports suggest Helal had received various free memberships to clubs, group travel to Mecca, and an apartment for personal use in Cairo’s 6th October suburb, in exchange for granting construction licenses for private companies to build on state land.
The Helal and Malik cases reveal different sides to the broader culture of corruption that has long festered in Egypt, especially during the reign of deposed president Hosni Mubarak. As the Helal case demonstrates, corruption reaches the very tops of the Egyptian government, and, as Mariam’s case shows, it has devastating effects on innocent citizens.
At the same time, the two cases also reflect discrepancies in how corruption is handled in the country.
On the one hand, arresting and holding corrupt government officials accountable for their actions is important. After all, one of the frustrations that led to the 2011 revolution was with the culture of corruption inside Egypt. Doing something about this situation is necessary, in and of itself, as well as a tribute to the many who lost their lives fighting this culture. If Helal’s arrest represents such an effort, then it should, of course, be applauded.
On the other hand, cases like that of Mariam Malik need to be taken more seriously by the state. As long as children are taught that bribes are a more reliable ticket to success than studying, and that national television offers a more effective platform for vindicating rights than the judicial system, then little will change for the better. Egypt will remain a society in which bribery is the norm and politicians prioritize personal interests over those of the nation.