Days Are Numbered for Cairo's Infamous Labyrinth of Red Tape

The Mugamma, downtown Cairo's massive government office complex, is to be closed next June. About 20,000 people visit the building daily.
The Mugamma, downtown Cairo's massive government office complex, is to be closed next June. About 20,000 people visit the building daily. (By Hasan Jamali -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 29, 2005

CAIRO -- If buildings could talk, the Mugamma, downtown Cairo's hulking government office complex, would say, "Come back tomorrow." With a sneer.

Built half a century ago, it was meant to be a one-stop destination for getting births, deaths and everything in between endorsed, with official permits and certificates duly rubber-stamped and signed. But over time, the Mugamma came to signify piles of useless paperwork, surly service and frustration -- and became, in the process, an Egyptian landmark.

Now, under the direction of a new breed of technocrats dreaming of Internet-era efficiency, the building's days are numbered. The Mugamma -- Arabic for "the complex" -- is scheduled for evacuation by June 30 of next year. Its offices are to be dispersed to all parts of Cairo, officials say. No longer will Egyptians wander its corridors in search of hidden windows that open at arbitrary hours and are overseen by gnomish functionaries. No longer will they exit the dark, 13-story labyrinth muttering curses to the absent piece of paper that, like a missing brick at the bottom of a wall, caused the collapse of a long quest for one last official stamp.

"It just became a big nuisance. Instead of a central, competent place to provide all kinds of citizen services, the Mugamma just became a mess," said Sami Saad, the cabinet secretary general for the government of President Hosni Mubarak and his prime minister, Ahmed Nazif. Saad is coordinating the evacuation.

Forsaking the Mugamma -- it produces shock among Egyptians when they learn of it -- is a vivid sign of change in seemingly immobile Egypt. On Sept. 7, the country held its first multi-candidate presidential election, won handily by Mubarak. A paltry 23 percent of the electorate voted. Nonetheless, the election followed three weeks of unfettered campaigning and a year of open criticism of Mubarak, who was once treated with the deference due a pharaoh.

During the year, the Mugamma was a favorite venue for anti-Mubarak demonstrations. When protesters gathered on traffic-choked Tahrir Square in front of the Mugamma, a wall of riot police ringed the building in case the crowd tried to storm it. Ayman Nour, the second-place finisher in the presidential election (he got 7 percent of the vote to Mubarak's 88 percent), held his last campaign rally outside the Mugamma and railed against the inefficiencies within.

The 1993 Egyptian comedy film "Terrorism and Kebab" solidified the Mugamma's status as a political monument. Much of the movie was set on its spiral staircase, jammed with confused hordes looking for unlabeled offices. In the film, a citizen tries to arrange for his son to transfer schools. After much wandering and a confrontation with a bearded, lethargic clerk, he somehow ends up with a rifle. Everyone assumes he has taken the Mugamma hostage. A flustered interior minister eventually asks him to list his demands. The only thing that comes to mind is a supply of barbecued lamb. The accidental rebel eventually walks free in the company of adoring ex-hostages.

"The Mugamma symbolizes Egypt's impenetrable bureaucracy. Its emptying out will be the end of a symbol of the Egyptian state, like tearing down a pyramid," said Mahmoud Sabit, a historian. "I may even miss it."

Now seen as outdated, the Mugamma, constructed in the late 1940s, once symbolized the yearning for modernity. Its clean lines were meant to signify efficiency. The only nods to Oriental intricacy in its plain, mud-colored facade were five pointed arches. Inside, offices radiate from a central shaft. There is no directory in the lobby to the building's 1,300 offices. Long waits provide a ready market for the tea vendors who roam the halls.

The other day, Mustafa Atwa and his daughter Yasmine plodded into the Mugamma. Their hands held sheaves of paper, their faces frowns. For several days, they had made pilgrimages to civil registries and police offices all over Cairo for the papers needed to get a passport for Yasmine. She was born in Germany, where her father worked as a car dealer for 32 years.

Several days of document-collecting climaxed with demands for extra copies of this and that and yet one more form to fill out for presentation to the Mugamma's Movements Office. Atwa complained that a copy maker in Mugamma charged the equivalent of 20 cents per sheet, while at a private office copies were 4 cents each. "And then they make you get a stamp. But they don't sell it themselves. You have to go to another office. Or even another part of Cairo," he complained.

Atwa hired a facilitator named Fikri, one of a legion of unofficial guides who, for a negotiable fee of a couple of dollars, help befuddled Cairenes navigate the Mugamma.

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