Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 October 2005
Issue No. 764
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A myth dismantled

It's been officially verified: Mugamma Al-Tahrir, Egyptian bureaucracy's answer to Kafka's Castle, is to be re-invented. Fatemah Farag looks back on the building's illustrious and surprising history

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: crowded offices have become a hallmark of the Mugamma; a panorama of the 'complex' and its environs; faulty plumbing has taken its toll; the gracious curvature of the interior of the main hall

The word mugamma is a corruption of majma', a collection or, more accurately in this case, office complex. The construction of the formidable building it refers to in Tahrir Square began in February 1950 -- an ambitious project involving 4,500 square metres of land, 1,500 tonnes of metal, 3,000 tonnes of cement, 15 million bricks, 4,000 workers and LE1 million. By October 1951 the combination had yielded the frighteningly familiar 55-metre high, 13-floor building; its 1,400 rooms, four stairwells, 10 elevators, 60 toilets and 300 faucets were finally open to the public.

While it remains, in the collective memory, the product and reflection of the post-1952 regime, the Mugamma emerged out of an urban renewal programme of King Farouk's covering Ismailia (later Tahrir) Square. Roger Owen's Cairo's Midan Al-Tahrir asserts that the project did happen within the nationalist, anti-colonial context of a late-1940s Egyptian military march targeting a near-by British barracks. According to a 1947 issue of Al-Musawwar magazine, however, even the plan of replacing that barracks with two buildings -- a municipality and a parliament -- was part of the monarchy's original plan. "Ultimately," Owen goes on, "only the Municipality building was constructed." The original plans envisaged "a large number of bureaucratic functions... under one roof, including many carried out by the ministries of interior and education, as well as the new Cairo Municipality itself". The mammoth structure -- probably already known as the Mugamma at this point -- was designed by Egyptian architect Kamal Ismail -- he was to describe the design as "a simplified form of the Islamic style" -- and built by an Italian-owned company, EGICO.

Sadly no sooner had the Mugamma become functional than it became synonymous with a populist regime's centrally oriented bureaucracy. Andre Raymond's Cairo: City of History offers an apt summary of the image it still conjures up: "The Nasser government must nonetheless be credited with a serious campaign of public spending to reduce overcrowding in the city. In some instances there was clearly a political agenda, as with the renovation of the large public square of the Midan Al-Tahrir, which, rid of its cumbersome British barracks in 1946, was graced with the hideous state office tower, the famous Mugamma, a concrete hymn to the inefficient and harassing bureaucracy of Nasser-style socialism." Likewise Max Rodenbeck in Cairo: the City Victorious : "Nasser's guarantee of a government job for every college graduate became a fiasco. Bureaucrats showed up once a month to collect their paltry pay; their despairing bosses preferred it that way, because offices simply did not have enough chairs to seat them in. A peek in those days into the rooms at the Mugamma, the colossal state office building on Tahrir Square, would reveal secretaries diligently peeling potatoes, darning socks and knitting sweaters for their children."

Beyond frustrated citizens and civil servants, however, there lies a history seething with drama. The head of the General Administration for Nile Transport, for example, while undergoing investigation on charges of embezzlement, threw himself out of an 11th- floor balcony. On a lighter if no less absurd note, in 1983, the manager having passed away, his office attendant took over the space, housing his entire family; he was not found out until two months had passed, when he explained that his wife had been haranguing him about the room in which they lived being too small. In 1994 a similar case was uncovered: this time it was a civil servant, and he had been living in the office since the mid-1970s.

Blamed for, among other things, bureaucratic inefficiency and over- crowding of Midan Al-Tahrir, the Mugamma has suffered as much as it has caused suffering -- notably from inefficient management. Though it was handed over to the Cairo Governorate in 1960, no serious attempt at maintenance was made until the mid-1980s, and by the time President Hosni Mubarak visited the Mugamma in 1991, he was appalled by the condition in which he found the place: one consequence was that the then prime minister Atef Sidqi set up a board headed by the deputy governor responsible for the management of the building and an LE3.7 million budget was allocated to the development of the building in 1992; another LE2.6 million was added in 1998 -- all to no avail. Recent visits reveal the same picture of long queues gathering before decrepit elevators, the broken plumbing of unclean bathrooms and horrendously overcrowded offices. Which is not to say that the Mugamma, the principal landmark of Cairo's busiest square, has not been at the centre of activity for over 50 years now, housing 14 ministries and 65 government departments which employ an estimated 18,000 civil servants who cater to the bureaucratic needs of some 30,000 citizens every day.

An overbearing load for the walls, however thick they may be, it has finally driven officials to declare that the city can no longer sustain its principal bureaucratic hub; Cairo already bears the burden of some eight million inhabitants, with an additional six million in the periphery and three million visitors a day; also two million cars traversing some 6,000 streets. The prime minister has duly issued order 1455 -- ruling that the Mugamma should be emptied by September 2006. According to press reports Sami Saad, the cabinet secretary-general, said the building had become "a big nuisance" and "a mess" -- a far cry from "a central, competent place providing services". A specific plan of action and time frame has yet to be announced, however; and Mugamma employees, understandably concerned, have entered into a conflict with the relevant ministries and the Cairo Governorate. Advocates of the move point out that, with the Radio and Television Union relocating to the Media Production City in 6 October and the American University in Cairo to the outskirts of Heliopolis (the latter by 2007), evacuating the Mugamma is a sure answer to downtown congestion.

This leaves the problem of alternatives open, however. Dismantling the Mugamma may be a revolutionary idea from the view point of administration, but both employees and urban planning specialists are concerned that the process of replacing it -- relocating to what will be in effect "desert outposts" for which there is no adequate transportation infrastructure -- will only further complicate matters. Ahmed Tawfiq of the Cairo City Council, for one party, thinks the implementation of decision 1455 will prove "extremely difficult" until the government has come up with an alternative. Since 1992 many decisions to empty Cairo of cumbersome bureaucratic centres have been taken, he points out; for the same reason, none have been implemented. And the same is true of the future of the building itself: its fate has yet to be determined; and rumours of demolition and replacement with a range of capitalist investments -- all in the context of privatisation -- are taking the city by storm. Perhaps the building has suffered enough to justify a ruthless end.

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