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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)

"Now, just give me the number off the civil registrar's paper," Fikri said gently. "No, that's the number from Immigration. I need the one from the registrar. All right, we will start all over again."

Atwa shrugged and said: "We come here, and they tell us to go somewhere else, and then we come back. Then they say, come back in two hours. And then tomorrow. Maybe I lived in Germany too long, but I am not used to this."

After getting the application straight with Fikri, Atwa wound his way to the Movements Office, where dozens of men and a few women waved little pieces of yellow paper at a window. The mob contained people who had been promised passports two days earlier. Atwa had been waiting only a day. "Does this mean I come again tomorrow?" he asked rhetorically.

Yes, it did. He came back the next day, first at 11 a.m. and then at 1:30 p.m. He finally got the passport. "This is definitely not Germany," he pouted.

Gen. Mahmoud Yassin, a former police chief who is the building's manager, says the problem is the crowds. Twenty thousand citizens visit the building daily; 9,500 government workers labor there. "Really, it's just too many people," Yassin said.

He avoids the mobs by entering through a special door, he explained. He sits in an air-conditioned office watching closed-circuit television shots of the hallways and offices. He never steps into the hall to ask visitors how they are being treated. "It's not my job to know how people think," he said. "I have managers for that."

Not all of the Mugamma is dedicated to providing citizen services. The top three floors are controlled by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police. These floors were once notorious as interrogation sites for gay men entrapped by police on Internet chats and picked up on Tahrir Square.

Other bureaus have ambiguous names and seem to be abandoned. A reporter asked a hall attendant whether the 11th floor's Public Funds Office collected or disbursed funds. She didn't know.

The seventh-floor Water and Sewer offices were locked. The third-floor Passports Office was the most modern and lively. Recent customers profess to see improvement in its services. A columnist in the government-run al-Ahram newspaper wrote: "If it is not quite Formula One, it is no longer a slow boat to China with a crew intent on harassing the passengers. You can be in and out within half an hour with your faith in the kindness of your fellows unscathed."

The flight from the Mugamma is part of a general movement to decentralize Cairo by relocating the national bureaucracy. The idea is for ministries to effectively abandon the cluttered and decayed downtown for the suburbs. It's not a new one. In his day, President Anwar Sadat created a district called Sadat City, about 50 miles north of Cairo, as a planned site for ministry offices. It never caught on and is a virtual ghost town.

The Mubarak government has created a prototype for the transfer of 15 ministries to spots along a ring road around Cairo. The place is called Smart Village and was the brainchild of Nazif, the prime minister.

Like the Mugamma's architecture, that of Smart Village marks an attempt to project efficiency and newness. Featuring blue-tinted glass, the buildings are rectangular with antiseptically clean interiors. Exterior walls are set at angles that suggest pyramids and the arches of ancient temples.

Unlike the Mugamma, however, Smart Village is devoid of crowds. It looks like an all-inclusive resort at low season. "We want to reduce the need for Egyptians to come to ministries. We want to be e-friendly. Through e-government, we can empower our citizens," said Saad, the cabinet secretary. "No more Mugammas ever again."

The downtown building's fate is unknown. Newspaper reports say it will be turned into a three-star hotel. Its location across from the old Cairo Museum and near the 19th-century commercial neighborhood make the location appealing. There are, however, no parking lots. "Be assured that the building is solid," Saad said. "They don't make them like that anymore."


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