9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The extra dayBy Mariz Tadros
Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, is back again. And while many people look forward to a time of spiritual rejuvenation and family gatherings, suffocating traffic jams are everyone's nightmare -- particularly if you live in Cairo. In a bid to streamline traffic -- much to the delight of many state employees -- the cabinet has decided on a five-day working week during Ramadan, giving civil servants an extra day off: Thursdays as well as Fridays.
But not all state employees have reason to celebrate. Civil servants at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education will only get the usual Friday off because of the mid-year examinations starting on 25 December. Public sector employees and those manning public services will also have to work the full six days. It is up to employers in the private sector to determine whether workers will have to work five or six days.
Cabinet Secretary-General Ahmed Abu Taleb said the decision to grant civil servants a two-day weekend was brought on by the need to ease traffic during Ramadan. He argued that the decision is unlikely to affect the productivity of employees since extra working hours will be added during the five working days.
On the contrary, some people contend that the decision could actually boost productivity. Raafat Radwan, head of the cabinet's Information and Decision-Support Centre, argues that employees will come back to work refreshed and full of stamina after two days of rest.
Although Islamic scholars have repeatedly preached that fasting is no excuse for laziness, it is generally assumed that Ramadan is a month of low productivity. Many employees point out that abstention from food between sunrise and sunset is not the problem. The problem is giving up the morning cup of tea or coffee, and for smokers, abstention from smoking, which could lead to the withdrawal symptoms of headaches and irritability.
Many civil servants believe that a five-day working week should be the rule throughout the year, and not just during Ramadan. "If you have any official business to do, you must take time off or take off the whole day to do it, because all government offices and banks are closed on Fridays. So a five-day working week is very practical," a government employee said. He added that it is especially a life-saver for female civil servants who have to juggle a six-day job with managing a household. One female civil servant said the situation gets particularly hectic in Ramadan "because you have to spend more time on shopping and preparing the food. It basically means that many women have to leave work early every day in order to have enough time to do all that before iftar."
While the principle of a five-day working week has been welcomed, some government departments and ministries are not sure that Thursday is the right day to take off. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Trade have pointed out that since Saturdays and Sundays make up the weekend in Western countries, taking Thursday off would be highly problematic, making communication with foreign institutions impossible four days out of the week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday). It is understood that the Ministry of Foreign Trade will seek to change its extra day off from Thursday to Saturday.
Taking Thursday off is also problematic for government bodies that have dealings with banks, which are closed on Fridays and Saturdays. The government-run Insurance and Pensions Department will also try to take Saturday off, instead of Thursday, so as not to delay work for three days every week.
On top of all this confusion, it is debatable whether traffic will in fact improve -- or at least be no worse than usual -- on Thursdays during Ramadan. In terms of traffic, Thursday is reputed to be the worst day of the week -- and a motorist's nightmare in Ramadan. "I plan to stop working between midday and 5.00pm in Ramadan," a taxi-driver said. "I feel I get nowhere, and a 15-minute trip ends up taking an hour; it is crazy."
Presumably, the cabinet's argument is that with less people commuting to and from work, the flow of traffic will improve. Additionally, congestion downtown -- where many ministries and government offices are located -- should also decrease. Sceptics are unconvinced: There are two million vehicles in Cairo and one million more entering it every day. Civil servants constitute only a fraction of commuters, and most of them use public transport instead of private cars. As a result, the difference could end up being minimal.
The governorate of Cairo is also taking action to alleviate traffic in the district of Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein, which is a favourite spot for spending those special Ramadan nights. The number of public and private buses passing through Al-Azhar street will be cut in half to help ease the traffic flow.