- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

CAIRO — Looming 13 stories above the chaotic streets of Cairo, the concrete facade of the Mogamma is about as blank as the faces of the bureaucrats inside. Clerks stare from behind glass screens at the crowds of Egyptians desperately pushing and shouting, many on their second or third visit in quest of some document that makes their lives go round.

In one office in the vast Stalinesque building, four civil servants in charge of issuing visas to foreigners sip tea, gripe about the asthmatic air conditioner and share a single phone, desultorily stretching its grimy cord from desk to desk.

When it opened in the 1960s, the Mogamma, or Complex, was supposed to revolutionize the lives of Cairo residents by providing one-stop shopping for their every bureaucratic need — birth certificates, passports, electricity bills, driver’s licenses, import licenses and permits to change children’s schools.

Instead, its lethargy and cumbrousness have made it the problem. It epitomizes the challenge faced by Egypt’s unusually youthful government as it sets out to push the country into the 21st century.

The ruling National Democratic Party says a priority is to change the bureaucracy’s “bokra, inshallah” — “tomorrow, God willing” — instincts and to address high unemployment, industries ill-equipped for the global marketplace and rising demands for political reform.

The trappings of a new, outward-looking government are there. Ministers give press conferences and hand out their cell-phone numbers. The new political star is the president’s 40-year-old son, an investment banker who heads the ruling party’s powerful committee on reform and might become Egypt’s next president. The government has a new Web site, www.egypt.gov.eg, and promises to replace those Mogamma bureaucrats with an online service.

But many of Egypt’s 70 million people are likely to be skeptical: For one thing, only one in 100 has Internet access. For another, they have heard the promises before.

Still, there is a sense of urgency never felt before — a conviction that unless Egypt moves fast, it will miss the global boat, and its government will become ever more squeezed — by Islamic fundamentalism feeding off poverty and despair, by reformists demanding real democracy now, and by a Bush administration with a stated ambition to plant democracy throughout the Arab world.

Egypt’s future matters hugely to the region, even the world. It is the most populous Arab country and the biggest Arab recipient of U.S. aid (about $2 billion a year). It is the only Arab country with the clout to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians — Israel’s plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip next year depend heavily on Egypt’s help. It has produced the Arab world’s only Nobel literature laureate (novelist Naguib Mahfouz), the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel (Anwar Sadat) and the lead September 11 hijacker (Mohamed Atta).

Despite the installation on July 14 of a Cabinet with a fresh-faced, technocratic look, real power still rests with 76-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in office for 23 years and shows no intention of stepping down. The severely circumscribed electoral system guarantees the overwhelming dominance of his National Democratic Party, and if his son, Gamal, succeeds him, reformers fear Egypt’s future will look a lot like its past: a virtual one-party state led by a Mr. Mubarak.

Still, parentage aside, the younger Mr. Mubarak would seem a good choice for a 21st-century president — a Western-educated man of finance who says he knows what it takes to whip a Third World country into shape for the global marketplace.

Likewise is the 34-member Cabinet, whose 14 new ministers are mostly in their 40s or 50s — two decades younger than the norm.

Typical of the fresh look is Ahmed Darwish, 45, the minister in charge of the civil service and the computer specialist who designed the government Web site.

Until he was brought into party policy-making in 2001, “I used to read; I used to have my own opinions. But I never got involved in politics,” he said.

Now he is an enthusiast — struck, he says, by the brainstorming atmosphere at party policy meetings and the willingness of older, established members to “accept opinions from the younger generations.”

“We are seeing less centralization, more people are freely expressing their opinions,” said Mr. Darwish, an earnest man in rimless glasses and neat mustache.

Another example is the new youth minister, Anas el-Fiqqi, 44, who inherited a national humiliation — Egypt’s failure to win a single vote for its bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup. Far from sweeping it under the carpet, Mr. el-Fiqqi called a press conference to announce that prosecutors would investigate what happened to the $7 million budgeted for the campaign.

“The people should know the truth about how every penny has been spent,” Mr. el-Fiqqi said.

The new government has made truth-telling its watchword, and Mr. Darwish is a case in point. He got the Cabinet job despite a record of straight, unflattering talk. Asked by Business Today Egypt, a monthly, why he was reluctant to ballyhoo his brainchild, the government Web site, he replied that he was suspicious of grandiose promises.

“The Egyptian masses,” he said, “have been deceived and annoyed too many times by public officials making big announcements, promising that their lives were going to be easy and rosy the next day.”

Mr. Darwish wants to build “a bridge of trust” between people and rulers and plans opinion polls to determine what Egyptians want from their government. He wants to decentralize services and said he will count himself successful when all citizens can leave a government office believing that they have been told the truth about how long it will take to get whatever it is for which they have applied.

It’s a tall order, judging by the popularity of the 1992 comedy “Terrorism and Kebab,” in which the hero goes to the Mogamma for a permit to change his son’s school and becomes so snarled in red tape that he ends up taking hostages almost by accident, while his demands evolve from a meal of kebab to a better government.

In real life, the opposition wants the ruling party not just to improve itself, but to accept fair competition.

Gamal Mubarak insists that he has no designs on his father’s job, but doesn’t rule out anything and is widely regarded as the heir apparent. In one sense, it would be a huge leap forward: He would be the first president to emerge from outside the military, which established the modern Egyptian republic with a 1952 coup.

But reformers worry about settling for the dynastic traditions common in other undemocratic Arab countries and note that the ruling party’s reform agenda gives little weight to calls for direct presidential elections and for more leeway to form opposition parties.

Tourism Minister Ahmed El Maghraby, 59, a former investment banker seen as close to Gamal Mubarak, said those clamoring for swift political reform have it wrong. Economic reform “should be a priority,” he said. “We still have a big population, and we still have to develop a lot of services for them.”

Ruling party officials say the Muslim Brotherhood is a reason to go slow. They note that Egypt only recently emerged from its bloody decade-long war against Islamic extremists and say the fundamentalists would exploit any political opening to impose a religious dictatorship.

The Brotherhood says it renounced violence in the 1970s and now believes that Islam and democracy can nourish each other.

The Brotherhood is officially banned, its members regularly rounded up by police before elections or denied places on the ballots. Still, they managed to form the largest opposition bloc in the 454-seat parliament in the 2000 election. But their 17 seats barely dent the ruling party’s 395.

“The National Democratic Party’s intent is to have the status quo: the continuation of the National Democratic Party in power,” said Essam el-Erian, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member.

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