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

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.

"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."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company