The Center of Egypt's Sprawling Bureaucracy
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Mugamma, literary meaning combined, is Egypts government office complex located on the south side of Midan El Tahrir in Cairo, Egypt, where all the paperwork is done. Its a twenty story tall building with narrow hallways, unlabeled doors and a billion people (seemingly) all shouting at the top of their lungs trying to get their paperwork done at the many government agencies located in this one building. The agencies there include the Fire Fighting Organization, the Tax Evasion Investigations Offices, the Passport Offices and the High Committee for Sports and Youth, as well as many others. This is where one goes to get a marriage license or a driver's license, or for that matter, most any other license one can imagine. If one has business of almost any kind to transact with the country of Egypt, this is the place
Although the Mugamma opens daily from 8:00 am until 3:30 pm, except Thursdays and Fridays when its closed, individual windows can close at any time, especially after 1:30 pm. Many Egyptians dread having to go there, stand in endless queues for long hours, and sometimes days depending on the individual government employee's mood. The average Egyptian citizen always tries to find an excuse not to go unless a government service is absolutely needed or required. Most businesses have resorted to hiring someone whose main duty is to navigate through the Mugamma.
Egyptian citizens have developed certain skills needed when going to the Mugamma. They never stand patiently in lines. They are constantly on the move. You have to look carefully at the man or woman sitting in the window. This is the only way to tell how long it will take and decide if you still want to stand in the queue, Mohamed Ahmed, a 54 year old employee at El Salam Hospital said, while trying to get passports issued for his family. The Mugamma is not so hard if you are familiar with it. You can navigate quickly if you memorize the locations of the departments, but of course you need years to gain such experience, he adds.
The Mugamma seems to exist in its own little world. It seems to generate a continuous headache-producing noise. Many people have their breakfast there, while children play, and others are trying to find an employee in a good mood to stand in his queue, said Ahmed.
Outside on the pavement of the building, others take advantage of the traffic created by this centralized government building. Its a market out here. You have people selling toys, kitchen ware, socks, shorts and even glasses. Almost everything is found in front of the Mugamma, and why not. There are millions of people going into or passing by this building adds Ahmed.
Were it not for the tour companies and hotels, the Mugamma would also be on the itinerary of many tourists, as they would be required to register at the Mugamma and obtain some permissions for a few destinations. This would be very daunting, considering that many of the government employees only speak Arabic, but luckily, most tourists are probably unaware of the building since these matters are handled for them. Nevertheless, in special situations such as for visa extensions and any number of matters for independent travelers, a visit to the Mugamma may be mandatory.
Now its not like the Egyptian citizens who must visit the Mugamma are the only ones frustrated by the experience. So too are the governmental employees. "I have to wake up everyday at 6:00 am to be here at 7:30 am. Then I get to meet rude, impatient people all day long who think our job is easy, but it's not," said Mahasen Metwaly, a 37 year old employee at the passport offices. "We have very few computers, but tons of dusty stacks of paper we must search through manually. Imagine looking for someone who has an identical name, year of birth and other details with a million other people," she says, while pointing to a mountain of black folders that are stuffed with papers. "And remember, we mostly all make very small salaries, and then are expected to feel happy and smile through it all," she adds.
The Mugamma has been through a lot of improvement plans, though one must expect such bureaucracy to only slowly change. Computers are being introduced to many departments, and almost all the departments have started the process filing documentation on computer rather than by hand. However, not only must the computers be purchased, but the employees must also be taught how to use them. Many offices are buying fans for their employees to save them from suffocation, but very few are getting air conditioners. The entrance has also been re-cemented and a few flower pots are distributed in the building. Despite the changes, the beast's true character remains untouched.