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Egypt Census on Track Despite Obstacles

December 19, 1986|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — They have been insulted, evaded, cold-shouldered, arrested and, in one case, even taken hostage. But an army of 75,000 volunteers has finally finished collecting the data for the most ambitious census ever undertaken in Egypt.

The census, financed in part by $9 million in grants from the United States, has been under way since June and will continue to absorb the energies of hundreds of statisticians and U.S. computer experts over the next two years as they sort, sift, classify and compare the results.

But the toughest, if technologically simplest, part of the 1986 census was completed earlier this month when the census takers themselves, having pounded city streets and plodded over desert dunes for nearly three weeks, finished surveying Egypt's estimated 51 million people.

Well, most of Egypt's estimated 51 million people.

Although officials at the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) have pronounced the vast undertaking "completely successful," news accounts and interviews with fieldworkers suggest that success did not always come easily.

"I am really glad this is over. It was quite interesting, but I would never want to do it again. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be," said Mohammed Shazly, one of the thousands of recent university graduates who volunteered for the fieldwork in order to help fulfill their obligatory one year of government service.

Shazly, by his own account, spent 10 hours a day seven days a week for more than two weeks surveying 180 addresses in Zamalek, a posh residential quarter of Cairo populated mostly by wealthy Egyptians and foreigners.

"I was successful in about 80% of the cases," he said. "In the other 20%, people were either away or refused to talk to me."

The surveying took persistence. "A lot of people either slammed their doors on me or told me they were too busy and to come back another time," he said.

"I kept coming back and back, and each time they would say from the other side of the door, 'bokra' (tomorrow). Finally, I had to plead with them to open the door," he said.

Where persistence didn't pay off, cunning came into play. Shazly recalled staking out one apartment that neighbors insisted was vacant. When the tenant opened the door, Shazly pounced on his prey.

Other census takers adopted different strategies for flushing out reluctant citizens. One woman census taker made her rounds with her baby in her arms, figuring that people peering through their peepholes would not take her for a census representative.

Sometimes no amount of cunning or cajolery would work. Shazly spoke with particular terror of two elderly women who turned into veritable panthers as soon as he began asking questions. "They slammed the door in my face," he said. Shazly was forced to turn the case over to his boss. "They slammed the door in his face," he added.

Despite such experiences, Shazly was lucky because he was surveying a high-rent district where, as he noted, "people are fairly civilized."

Elsewhere in Cairo, the Egyptian media publicized the case of one census worker who was beaten up by an actor he tried to interview. In another instance, a census taker was actually tied to a chair and held hostage by a suspicious citizen, according to local press accounts. The census taker, missed by his colleagues, was eventually found and rescued.

The main reason for such mistrust is what appears to be the widely shared suspicion--despite official disclaimers--that the information gleaned from the census will be used to assess taxes. While Egypt has been conducting periodic censuses for thousands of years, in Pharaonic times the census taker was also the tax assessor and that connection has stuck in people's minds, officials concede.

Anticipating this misgiving, officials prefaced the census with a massive radio, TV and newspaper campaign assuring people that the information they gave to the census takers was strictly confidential.

"The aim of this census is prosperity for you and me," went one ad. "All of the information you give is confidential and will never be used against you."

Still, a lot of people seem to have remained skeptical. One census worker reported that in the neighborhood he surveyed, he often saw the tips of videocassette recorders sticking out from under sofas and TV sets peeking from behind chairs as people scurried to hide the signs of their wealth before admitting him.

"Let's face it," said a Western analyst, "when it comes to paying taxes, there are a lot of guilty consciences out there. People are apt to be uneasy about any representative from the government seeing what they have."

This year, the collective conscience of Egyptian taxpayers was probably not assuaged by the fact that, unlike the previous census in 1976, which counted only population, the 1986 census was aimed at gathering detailed economic and demographic information, as well as statistics related to living conditions, employment and educational levels.

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