COLUMN ONE : Woe Awaits in Tower of Babble : Cairo residents hate to enter the concrete behemoth that houses the central bureaucracy. Frustrated patrons have leaped from windows. Visits inside evoke images of Kafka at the DMV.


In Egypt, the bureaucracy is not just an engine of policy, or even a state of mind. It is a semicircular concrete behemoth in the center of this city’s central square.

In this towering edifice--the Mugama (“Uniting”) Central Government Complex--office opens onto office, crumbling stairway onto stairway, and the circular corridors that wheel 14 stories high around a dusky inner courtyard seem to have no end.

A clerk in the social rehabilitation programs office sits with her feet propped on a nearby chair and stares into space. Next to her, two more employees sit silently sipping tea. A fourth has rested her head on her desk and lies there, unmoving.


In the immigration office several floors below, throngs of people make their way in dazed confusion past banks of numbered windows, grasping papers and passports.

In the housing department a few floors up, dozens of people mill in the corridor, occasionally going up to the locked door of the department manager to pound and scream. Some wail. Many slip to the floor and sit silently at the edge of the corridor for hours, waiting, apparently, for a certain Mr. Nashed who is supposed to complete their paperwork.

But Mr. Nashed never comes.

The Mugama holds 20,000 public employees in 1,400 rooms. It is headquarters to 14 government departments. So deep is its reach into the everyday life of CairenEs that most adult city dwellers will find themselves forced to visit it several times a year. Upward of 45,000 people pass through its portals each day.

Perhaps unrivaled anywhere in the world as a symbol of government dithering and public despair, it is at once the most feared and hated structure in Egypt and the evolutionary product of millennia of bureaucracy on the shores of the Nile.

Twelve hapless clients of the Mugama have hurled themselves from its broken windows or from the soaring circular balconies that ring the central lobby up to the 13th-floor dome. A generation of Arab social engineers, who threw off a monarchy and seized Egypt in the name of its poor and unrepresented, planted their dreams in the Mugama’s corridors and largely watched them die there.

Now a new committee has taken over stewardship of the building, engineered a $388,500 renovation and ordered six major departments to move to other government premises in the hopes of making livable the space that is left.


“The case we began with was very bad. Very, very bad, thanks to the lack of responsibility for the building in the past,” Cairo’s deputy governor, Gen. Mohammed Youssef, who leads the renovation committee, said in an interview in his office on the ground floor of the Mugama.

In the past few weeks, Youssef’s committee has installed new fire hoses, sent construction crews to overhaul the bathrooms, put in security systems and begun pulling out the old water pipes. Massive new work is on the way. But can the soul of the Mugama be changed?

“The Mugama is to Egypt generally a symbol of 4,000 years of bureaucracy, and for the average Egyptian, it means all that is negative about the bureaucracy: routine, slow paperwork, complicated paperwork, a lot of sigNatures, impersonality. It is a Kafka building,” said political sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

“You enter there, you can get the job done--the same job--in five minutes, in five days, in five months or five years,” Ibrahim said. “You can never predict what might happen to you in that building. Anybody who has dealt with that building for whatever reason knows the uncertainty of his affairs there.”

In Egypt, the legacy of bureaucracy dates back to the time of the pharaohs. Temple walls and statues depict countless scribes, papyrus and pen in hand, taking down for the files of posterity everything from the deeds of the Pharaoh to the tax man’s inventory. Subsequent French, Turkish and British occupiers refined Egyptian red tape to a fine art.

Today, it takes 11 different permits for a foreign resident to buy an apartment in downtown Cairo. A bride wishing to join her husband working abroad in the Persian Gulf region must get stamps and signatures from the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the prosecutor general, the local court in her district and the regional court, a process that one Cairo newspaper referred to as “legalized torture.”


One young physician recently left the Mugama in tears after three days of trying to resign from her government job.

“They told me finally it would be easier if I just took a long sick leave,” she said with a sigh. “But I’m leaving the country for a year!”

The Mugama’s forbidding visage rises above Tahrir Square, the capital’s main plaza, a centrifuge for traffic in a city already drunk with cars. Inside, its dark corridors, their windows long ago crusted over with dirt, house some of the most important government departments in Egypt, among them the departments of social services, of education, of waste water and sewage; the offices for registering industrial inventions, for passports and for firearm licensing, for public fraud and public housing, for court records and for women’s services, and, on the top floor, Cairo Vice.

On any given morning, an average of two of the Mugama’s 10 elevators are in service, while the four others that actually work get to rest for a few hours. Trash chutes and sewer lines have been blocked for years. When the local press did a survey recently, there was one single toilet functioning among 71 in the building. Dust-covered files tower perilously along the corridors; desks, chairs and cabinets spill out of the offices, set up for business on two of the four corner stairwells.

Opened in 1950, the Mugama soon became the centerpiece of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dream of transforming an out-of-touch monarchy that served the interests of foreigners and the rich into a government that could be all things to all people.

Egyptians would no longer have to hope for favor from some remote ministry; all important services would be provided by the government, and those services would be housed under a single roof readily accessible to the public in the heart of Cairo. Services would be provided by Egypt’s new army of college graduates, all of whom would be offered jobs in the burgeoning new state infrastructure.


What Nasser, and the designers of the Mugama, never envisioned was a five-fold increase in Egypt’s public employees. Since the Nasser era, public-sector employment has swollen to 5 million, more than 4 million of them civil servants. Administrative costs take up 72.6% of the Egyptian budget, or $12.1 billion a year--more than five times the United States’ annual aid to Egypt. The waiting list for government jobs among university graduates is eight years long.

This is the bureaucratic monster that now inhabits the Mugama, investing it with an atmosphere that is more than mere concrete and physical fittings can create.

“We went into the very interior of the Mugama, and I can tell you there is a misery in this place. I had the feeling that I have to go out of this place very, very fast. I have to end this film, because I don’t want to be crazy,” said film director Sherif Arafa.

Arafa made a movie about the Mugama last year, and it was a hit. “Terrorism and Kebab” depicted an ordinary Egyptian government worker who goes to the building to change schools for his children. He spends days looking for the proper clerk to handle the paperwork and winds up leading a band of unlikely Cairenes who take over the Mugama and hold it hostage.

Its dreamlike sequences of citizens propelled by a system beyond their control are often indistinguishable from the Mugama’s reality, a soporific vision of frustration and inefficiency, corruption and despair. In real life, the scenes represent what can happen when an inaccessible government decides to try and make itself accessible to its people.

On the roof, outside the head offices of Cairo’s vice department, a dozen filthy, sad-eyed young boys, none more than 8 or 9 years old, crouch warily along a wall, detained for unspecified crimes.


A young Zairian woman tells of once seeking residence papers at the Mugama only to stumble unwittingly into a roomful of shackled Africans awaiting deportation.

The housing department is a scene of almost constant bedlam as desperate Cairenes displaced by the Oct. 12 earthquake seek new living quarters.

“I have written approval to receive housing since February, and until now I have nothing. They tell us to see Mr. Nashed, and Mr. Nashed is never here. They deserve to be hit with shoes on their heads!” exclaimed Mohammed Abdullah Abassaya.

One foreign worker seeking a residence permit in the immigration section tells of waiting two days for her passport and then dropping by the window where the final stamp was to be affixed. With her was an Egyptian “fixer”--it’s a cottage industry at the Mugama whose practitioners include those who take photos for documents, who help fill out forms, who walk the forms around the building or who simply stand in the Mugama’s lobby pointing people in the proper directions in exchange for tips.

The fixer, she says, thrust a one-pound bank note toward the woman behind the window and asked for the passport. The official searched through a stack of passports and pulled it out.

The man thrust another one-pound note through the window. She opened the passport.

He passed in a 50-piaster note. She picked up her stamp.

Another 50 piasters. Rubber and ink hit paper with a tidy thwump .

“I was just watching; I couldn’t believe it,” the woman recalls. “But it worked.”

One Cairene got a measure of revenge recently when he spent three days at the customs office trying to hand the government a check for $17,600 in duty on his $15,000 Peugeot. First, the customs office wouldn’t accept the check because it was in dollars. The next day, the office wouldn’t take it because it was in Egyptian pounds.


On the third day the man brought in a check with the proper exchange receipt from the bank and was directed first to a man named Mohammed, then Ahmed upstairs, then Sayed down the hall, then finally back to the first Mohammed.

“He looked at me and smiled and said something to the effect of, ‘Gotcha,’ then signed the papers,” recalled the man, a foreign resident.

“While I was waiting for the cashier to fill out the forms in quintuplicate . . . somebody took pity on me and asked me to have a seat in what looked like the boss’s office. When I went in, I saw a huge wad of keys sitting on the desk that looked like they might be important keys. So I picked them up and put them in my pocket.

“I got in my car with all the papers in my pocket, drove back and stopped on one of the main bridges on the Nile. That was the last I saw of the keys.”

Maybe it was the fact that the Mugama lost out in Arafa’s “Terrorism and Kebab” that sent crowds flocking to the theaters last year, or the idea that a waterworks employee, a prostitute, a shoeshine man and a soldier could join forces and demand justice from a system seemingly insensible to the idea of delivering it.

In the opening scenes, crowds rush past government offices so fast that one man confesses he’s been swept along, trying in vain for the preceding week to eject himself from the moving mob near one particular office.


The hero searches for days through the Mugama for the elusive Mr. Medhat. In an office full of tea-drinking, telephone-gossiping, five-times-a-day-praying workers, he’s apparently the only man who can get the school transfer for the hero’s children.

Then an accidental scuffle leaves the hero shocked and in possession of an automatic rifle; coming to his senses, he grabs hold of the rifle and begins screaming, “Medhat!”

When pressed, he and the band of Egyptians who join him can think of only two things they really want: kebab, the Egyptian national delicacy, and justice. In the end they and their hostages walk out of the Mugama, and no one can tell, or really cares, which was which.

“I’ve always listened to the government, this government and the one before it,” the man reflects at one point in the film. “I will listen to this government too, because if I don’t, what will happen? Nothing. I will just bang my head against the wall. . . . I’m just like all of you. My back is against the wall. I’m only asking for my humanity. I don’t want to be humiliated in my home, or at work or in the street.”

In the shadows of the 11th-floor stairwell, Brahim Ahmed Bedair, a shoeshine man whose territory has included the Mugama’s 10th, 11th and 12th floors since the day it opened, wastes no time reflecting on humanity, or humiliation. He works and earns his living, as he has since 1920, as his father did before him, long before there was a Mugama.

“It’s a good building; there’s good business here, all the employees and officers and so on,” he said. “I start here between 8 and 9 in the morning, I make four or five pounds (about $1.50), and I go home. I have nine children.”


He was asked if he had seen the movie about the shoeshine man who turned into a terrorist and had a few moments in the sun taking over the Mugama. No, he said. Hadn’t seen it.

“I mind my own business,” he said, shrugging, picking up his rags and sidling down the stairs.