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Egypt, Birthplace of Bureaucracy, Launches New Attack on Red Tape

November 08, 1987|DALIA BALIGH | Associated Press

CAIRO — The Egyptian government is attacking a bureaucracy that has been growing for more than 5,000 years. But, as with bureaucracy itself, its attack has produced a book of rules three inches thick, will take five years to complete and will cost $45 million.

The task is a formidable one, however.

An estimated 3.5 million government employees must be persuaded to deal more efficiently and courteously with a public whose daily lives are touched one way or another by a bureaucrat's signature or stamp.

Aside from making life easier, the effort is designed to streamline procedures that bottle up exports--which earn much-needed foreign currency for Egypt--and scare away potential investors that could mean jobs and income at home.

Disney World, for example, sent envoys from the United States with an offer to build an amusement park in the desert near Cairo. Egyptian authorities set up a committee, which in turn formed two subcommittees. The bureaucratic chain ended in August with approval--but it took four years, and the investors have long since gone.

Such delay and procrastination are major targets of the plan to streamline the bureaucracy, which is due for completion by 1992. Hussein Kazem, who devised it, already has set it in motion.

In the year he has headed the government's Central Authority for Planning and Administration, Kazem has turned it into a model. Its offices are clean and organized, and its 2,000 employees spend more time at their desks than in groups drinking coffee or tea--the norm in many government offices.

Never-Before-Completed Task

But it is likely to be much more difficult to apply Kazem's plan to 31 ministries and hundreds of centers and offices around the country. It's a job attempted before but never completed.

"This is a comprehensive plan, which will deal with developing and improving services as well as looking into the problems of employees, increasing their salaries and giving them incentives," Kazem said in an interview.

"We hope to obliterate the phrase, 'Come back tomorrow.' . . . We have given (the plan) to the other ministries, but it's up to each head of department to see that it's implemented."

Whether the need is to obtain an identification card, import a car or export tomatoes, numerous forms are required, each with a bevy of official signatures, rubber-stamp imprints and postage-like stamps indicating payment of fiscal duties.

Baksheesh --a tip--often speeds things up, as does wasta --knowing someone in the right place.

In most ministries, offices are overstaffed, mainly because tradition obliges the government to hire every Egyptian college graduate who can't find a job in the private sector. Egyptian universities graduate about 50,000 students a year.

Kazem said that under his plan, government employees will be trained, offices will be refurbished and regulations and directives will be hung on office walls. Time limits will also be set for services.

Ancient Roots

Bureaucracy began in Egypt when the ancients formed one of history's earliest civilizations 5,000 years ago.

One of the most famous relics of ancient Egyptian bureaucracy is in the Louvre in Paris--the statue of an Egyptian scribe sitting cross-legged and writing on a papyrus between his knees.

That scribe and hundreds of thousands like him faithfully painted on paper or engraved on stone all that went on in their lives, from the accomplishments of the Pharaoh to the tax man's inventory.

Society after society built onto this basis. In recent centuries French, British and Turkish colonizers superimposed their own red tape on the Pharaonic legacy, resulting today in one of the world's most notorious bureaucracies.

There have been numerous attempts to improve the system. President Anwar Sadat, before he was assassinated in 1981, periodically urged his countrymen: "Blow up bureaucracy. Destroy routine."

All to no avail.

After the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952, Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, unveiled the massive 13-story "Mogamaa," which was to have given Egyptians a respite from bureaucracy.

Building Becomes Symbol

The forbidding gray building still stands at one of Cairo's busiest squares, housing offices of at least seven ministries offering services ranging from issuing passports and residence permits to handling juvenile delinquents.

Despite Nasser's intentions, however, the Mogamaa has become a symbol of an inefficient bureaucracy, a building dreaded by Egyptians and foreigners alike.

About a dozen frustrated Egyptians threw themselves from its top floor before the government posted guards there a few years ago.

Some organizations with dedicated managers have succeeded in improving their domains. One is the state-owned but autonomous Suez Canal Authority, freed from bureaucratic requirements by the charter under which it runs the waterway between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Another is the passport department in the Mogamaa.

Such effective bureaucracies, however, are a small minority.

The bureaucracy is criticized, joked about and hated--but also accepted with resignation.

Recalling the paper work involved in shipping the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II to France in 1976 for restoration, Abdelaziz Sadek of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization was somewhat wistful.

"We sometimes get discouraged about red tape in the antiquities department," he said. "But then we remind ourselves that it took Ramses 3,400 years to get an exit permit."

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