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Egypt: The Hidden Truth

Sherif Abd El Minoem/Handout/Reuters
Newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (center) with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (left), and Egyptian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan (right), at a military ceremony in Alexandria, July 5, 2012

To arrive at the “new” Cairo International Airport is to arrive, in reality, at terminal three—an optimistically shiny marble edifice commissioned at a cost of $347 million by Ahmed Shafik, the former minister of civil aviation, who became the former prime minister and a losing presidential candidate. Built by a Turkish contractor for a higher price than Istanbul’s own airport expansion, the CIA is both deceptively functional and selectively used (it’s reserved mainly for the domestic airline; most international airlines are banished to the old terminal one, referred to as “the hall” or “the old airport”).

Although it has a state-of-the-art computerized system to deal with arrivals, the new airport stubbornly deploys several uniformed officers to triple-check what the computer has confirmed. Armed men glance speculatively at the traveler’s coin-sized arrival stamp bearing the day’s date and a small outline of an airplane, along with six mentions of “Egypt.” Such is the logic of the country—an administration that has achieved supremacy in the creation of idle jobs. Duplicity is its mainstay.

Beyond the sliding glass doors of the terminal, and along the main road leading into the city, the establishments of a titanic and looming administration are everywhere: the Presidential Election Committee, the Technical College of the Armed Forces, the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, the National Accounting Bureau, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the National Information Center, the Legal Department of the Authority, the General Authority for Capital Market, the Military Judiciary Office, the Ministry of Planning, the Public Notary, and various ranks of intelligence offices. These buildings, with their gray façades, their rows of square windows, their sometimes palatial interiors concealed behind miles of wall, and the many and heavily armed and sometimes deceptively plainclothed guards that surround them, form the anatomy of Egyptian life. At the heart of the city, one of them—the Mugamma, the government’s central office building—forms the conspicuous backdrop to Tahrir Square.

It is from within these highly placed institutions that information has leaked and swirled in recent weeks and since the revolution broke out in January 2011. We hear most about the military council—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF—which has been governing the country since Hosni Mubarak resigned. We also hear about the Americans, who had allegedly reached a deal that the council would cede power to the Islamists. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was rightly predicted to win the presidential election. Mubarak was said to be sick, in a coma, clinically dead; or the Mubaraks were in London; Morsi sold the Brotherhood out; the SCAF sold out Morsi’s opponent, Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister appointed by the departing Mubarak; the country was on the brink of civil war.

Two days before the presidential election results were announced on June 24, Al-Dustor newspaper ran across its front page, in big, bold, black and red print, the headline “The Massacre of the Century,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged plan for Egypt, which supposedly called for assassinations and disorder. The paper cited intelligence sources and a secret meeting of the Brotherhood.

By the pool at the Gezira Sporting Club that morning, a group of retired army generals and high-ranking intelligence officers spoke with assurance of Shafik’s coming win. The officer really in charge of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the armed forces, “won’t have it any other way,” so it was said. Later that day, when I chatted with a former Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan, he vehemently contradicted them. “It will be Morsi, it’s what the Americans want.”

These speculations, stories spun by insider sources and cast as fact, the many armed—often young—men in the streets, the deceptive titles of commander of this or that, have been central to the daily life of this country of 82 million (official figure), or 91 million (speculated figure). It was, in the end, these official buildings, the efficient tedium of the line of command in one bureaucracy after another, that kept Egyptians—a sizable portion of them—going through the past eighteen months of upheaval.

It also kept them attentive, wondering what next, debating the different outcomes, shifting their alliances as predictions were circulated and spun. At the Foreign Ministry, a mid-career diplomat tells me that even with the removal of senior ministers, the “chain of production” continues: “You know what to do every day, down to the office boy who runs errands. You keep going.” In the months without a president, El-Tahrir newspaper reported one day in June, the Presidential Diwan, or office, spent $48.5 million—$5 million more than its average annual expenditure. It kept going. The factories of the businessmen who were closely associated with the Mubaraks and were charged and convicted of crimes also keep going. I see one of those tycoons frequently at that same club where the generals sit by the poolside.

In a recent session of the short-lived Parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee—short-lived because the Parliament that was elected by January 11, 2012, was dismissed by the military council on June 14—the matter of government employees was brought up for discussion. The committee had found that the total number of government employees had risen from 2.5 million in 1982–1983 to 5.4 million today, despite a hiring freeze imposed in 1999, when the number of employees was between 3 and 4.2 million, depending on whose count you choose to consider.

Of those, 300,000 were found to have been appointed under the current Cabinet, i.e., in the past few months. “We demand an explanation,” one MP cried out, to no effect. The Parliament and its committees were dissolved before the matter could be investigated further, but if one were to dig a little deeper, one could discover the various studies showing that there were 5.7 million government employees in 2009, and closer to 7 million today.

Meeting with Ashraf Abdelwahab, the minister of state for administrative development, I asked about these numbers. He swiftly mentioned the figure seven, “or maybe twelve.” Million? “Yes, but I don’t know for sure. You know, nothing is sure. It’s hard to come by accurate figures.” I asked him about the agency called CAPMAS (the official source of statistical data and reports on Egypt for all state agencies and international organizations) and the National Intelligence Council (NIC), both a few doors down from the ministry on that same thoroughfare to and from the airport—“don’t they have figures?”

As if to be polite about a naive question, he laughed, and the conversation moved on, to the grand task of his ministry, which is to decentralize government, reform the bureaucracy, weed out corruption, and install automation of public services. “That is, if the ministry survives.” On January 30 of last year, when Ahmed Shafik was appointed prime minister by Mubarak, he decided that the ministry should be scratched off the government map. The following day, its dissolution was announced. “We were a liability,” the minister said. “We had conducted studies on corruption and other sensitive topics, so it was decided that it would be better if we simply didn’t exist; if we were wiped out.” (Mubarak had ordered that these studies stay locked in a drawer.)

But where would they go, the employees of a system that guarantees permanent employment? For a period of fifty-three days last year during Shafik’s time as prime minister and for some weeks after, the ministry was simply hidden from view—wedged in a low-ranking spot in the hierarchy of the Central Agency for Organization and Administration (CAOA). It was renamed an “administrative development department.” “We were still there, working, doing what we do, operating on the full ministry budget, but nobody knew.”

I asked the minister, as well, about the “chain of production.” He laughed. “There is a chain, but it doesn’t produce.” He explained away the 300,000 new government employees (“maybe closer to 450,000, or even a million”) as the result of pressure to hire. People were protesting at the gates of every ministry, so “we had to hire anyone who wanted a job last year. We were repeating the same mistake we’ve been making for decades, which is to use the administration to make angry people feel a bit more comfortable. It was a political decision.” I asked him if he raised the problem of such hiring to the Cabinet. “I didn’t exist then, it was when I was wiped out.”

Some nights later, at dinner with an American friend who has served as a consultant to the government of Egypt since the 1980s, she threw up her hands when I mentioned new employees. “There isn’t a single job description for anyone in government! And as for figures—it’s not that there aren’t figures, but that each ministry, each government body, has a different set of figures! They even have different maps! If you’re lucky, like I was, you have access to the prime minister and you can get hold of either accurate figures, or an agreed-upon compromise of the various sets of figures.”

I ventured from ministry to ministry and into the Nile Delta over the weeks leading up to and past the presidential elections. I met with ministers, desk clerks, town mayors, government office managers, and chatted in hallways with office boys and the women in government buildings who sell toilet paper on a case-by-case basis for a tip.

In some ministries, I was struck by the rectangular dust marks on walls that I took to indicate where Hosni Mubarak’s picture once hung. “The pictures came down spontaneously, there was definitely no written order,” a Foreign Ministry manager told me. “We never had Mubarak pictures here,” a senior executive at the state media empire, Al-Ahram, told me. And when I pressed him: “Or maybe just pictures of the president with important journalists. The picture in the presidential palace came down by mistake, you know.” When I had dinner with the veteran publisher and regime critic Hisham Kassem, I asked him about this. “In some cases they most certainly came down by court decree,” he said.

On June 26, the day after my dinner with Hisham, and two days after the declaration that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had been elected president (he won with 51.7 percent of the vote, to Ahmed Shafik’s 48.3 percent), Morsi’s spokesperson announced that his picture should not be hung up in public offices or schools. And no congratulatory advertisements should be placed in newspapers either, please. “A written order will soon be issued.” On my way to Al-Ahram‘s offices one afternoon later that week, I saw a portrait of Morsi go up anyway—at Abu Al Farag elementary school.

At the supermarket sponsored by the Armed Forces Club on 26th of July Street—commemorating the day in 1956 when Egypt seized the Suez Canal—people were anxiously buying goods on the morning of June 21, the day the election results were to be announced. I picked up a packet of sugar (which sells at four cents less than the price in regular supermarkets), a bottle of oil, and some flour (we were warned to stock up on “staple foods” and I wasn’t sure what I should buy). Banks were closing early, some businesses had given employees the day off, government offices had emptied, and around noon, a memo began to circulate at Al-Ahram asking all staff members to be out of the building by 1 PM.

On Sunday, June 17—the second of the second two days of the election—the members of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued an annex to the constitutional declaration that was drafted and voted on last March, and later amended. The annex limits the president’s powers, giving the SCAF the right of veto over the drafting of a new constitution, as well as legislative powers until a new Parliament is elected. The annex stated, moreover, that the SCAF remains responsible for the public budget, and it gave the right to appoint the head of the armed forces not to the elected president but to the SCAF itself. Both the Islamists and many in the opposition were outraged, calling it a “soft coup” and once again taking to the square.

Just days before, on June 14, in a double verdict issued minutes apart, the Supreme Constitutional Court had dissolved the recently elected, Islamist-dominated Parliament, calling it unconstitutional. The court had simultaneously announced that Ahmed Shafik was eligible to continue his run for president, despite a law banning high-ranking members of the former regime from public office. There was, on this Thursday morning, June 21, four days after the polls had closed, a fear that the Islamists, who had in the past demonstrated in Tahrir Square, would storm government buildings. There was fear of bloodshed. Everyone I know was on edge.

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