A resilient complex
reports on the impending scattering of Cairo's oldest multi-purpose state building
The seat of Egypt's major socio-political changes over the last 50 years, millions of Egyptians have passed through Al-Tahrir complex, flooding in and out of the building in the hope of a government stamp or some official papers. Out of ten elevators, only two have queues in front of them -- the rest don't work -- while, upstairs, crowds jostle across hallways, employees overcrowd seal-studded desks -- and paper can be seen everywhere. After a visit by President Hosni Mubarak in the early 1990s, a million-pound maintenance and renovation project was announced but, so many years later, rubbish and dilapidation still define this hallowed centre of bureaucracy.
Popular belief holds that the Mugamma (as the Tahrir complex is popularly known) was built under Gamal Abdel-Nasser; in fact it came into being right before the 1952 Revolution with the aim of cutting down expenses and integrating bureaucratic services. Today the building is home to 14 government departments: built on 5,000 sq m and rising up to 13 floors, it houses 1,365 rooms with some 18,000 employees, and receives an average of 25,000 visitors a day. Blamed for traffic jams, among other things, the building was to be evacuated by 2006 (according to the prime minister's Decree 1455); some departments like the State Judicial Body and Academic Study Abroad Department have since been relocated; at one point rumour had it that the edifice would be turned into a five-star hotel complex. According to Mahmoud Yassin, chairman of the board of the Tahrir complex and Cairo governorate deputy for the western district, "it has taken that long to consider the fate of 18,000 employees and 14 government departments. The complex was intended for 4,000 employees only."
Yassin says the building originally had two objectives: to cut down on the government's rental expenses; and to offer citizens multiple services. So many years on, the Mugamma has huge psychological associations for both employees accustomed to working at the heart of town, and the citizens' logistical convenience. But, says Yassin, the evacuation is a gradual process; and with a multiple-complex system, it will be possible to relocate employees within their areas of residence. As for the five-star hotel story, Yassin flatly denies any such plan. The fate of the building, he says, is yet to be decided. Speaking on condition of anonymity, on the other hand, employees of the Education Department of western Cairo -- for example -- have much to complain about. "The advantage of being here is its closeness to our neighbourhoods," one pointed out. "Our job is to monitor schools, so if the rumours are correct and we really are transferred to Abassiya, in order to monitor schools downtown and in the Zamalek district, then time will be wasted in the crowded transportations and our work shall never be done. Also, who is going to pay us the extra transportation?" one employee queried.
"This location is ideally central. I live in Abdeen, for example, and I've been walking to work every day for 20 years now, to avoid a hectic journey on public transport. What will become of me now? No, we are against the move." Another employee agreed, if for a different reason: "As a department, we occupy 48 rooms here. Where will there be enough space to accommodate us all?"
The department's head of employees' affairs, Hanafi Abdu, had no qualms about speaking in his own name: "I've been working here for 36 years. This is the only administrative centre for education in western Cairo, and if we are separated, there will be chaos." Another office manager, Magda Kamel, went even further: "We have to be moved either somewhere else downtown, or onto the plot of land that's been allocated to us; otherwise we strongly object to being moved." While perfect in theory, a central, multi-purpose complex proves chaotic, absurd and shoddy enough in practice -- a local synonym, as it has become, of Kafka's Castle. This is the real concern. As Olfat Helmi, who identifies herself simply as a citizen, points out, "I am all for the idea of moving the governmental bodies out of Cairo, Al-Tahrir complex included, because of the way they obstruct traffic, if for no other reason. I am strongly against the idea, though, of scattering all the governmental bodies of the complex across the city; that would be a tremendous hassle -- having to go to several quarters on the same day. I truly believe that the move will only be a change in form and that the real problem will very likely remain since this move is, again, another of those endless procedures that stall, rather than facilitate, procedures."