In 1993 I had my first sapping experience of what it must be like to live under a truly authoritarian state. My misfortune took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It is no surprise to me that this place has now become the focus of popular rage against the State. My own Orwellian brush with petty officaldom has left me with an aversion to ‘big government’ that still influences my politics today.
It was the winter months and the much younger, slimmer me was backpacking around that part of the world. I’d come down into Egypt by bus from Israel. My original plan was to stay a couple of weeks, maybe hit North Sudan then get a sail-boat back up the Nile, get over to Suez and then ferry over to Jordan. More aware travellers told me I had no chance of getting into Jordan with an Israeli stamp on my passport – the two countries were still technically in conflict so if I turned up with my current passport they simply wouldn’t let me in. No problem – I could get a clean UK passport from the embassy and carry on with my plan. Fair play to our consular staff, three days after I turned up at their door I had my nice new passport. I was told I would have to go to the interior ministry to get a replica entry visa in my new clean passport or I would have trouble leaving. The place I had to go to was called the ‘Mogamma Building on Tahrir Square’. Now my problems started.
The Mogamma was an enormous 1950s Soviet-style-architecture building which acted as the hub for all aspects of the operation of Mubarak’s state machinery. If you lived in Cairo and needed a licence for anything (and you needed a licence to do just about anything you may wish to do) this was where you had to go. It teemed humanity. Folk wanting permission to open shops, permission to import goods, permission to export goods, permission to go-to-university, permission to employ foreigners, planning permission for new buildings, permission to keep animals, permission to install satellite TV etc. all had to find the relevant official, with the relevant Government stamp somewhere in this building. They then had to convince the official to press that stamp on their piece of paper. That step, as I found, could never be taken for granted.
I expected a long haul. I got there at 9 in the morning and joined a queue. Three-and-a-half hours later I got to the front. I explained what I needed, I was given a desk number and told to report there. Another long trip through a seemingly endless Labyrinth and I found my ‘desk’. My heart sank. Another enormous queue of people with tickets for the same desk. I stood in line for another two hours. I got to the front and was confronted with a stout, middle-age lady with a black Islamic head-dress and as stern-a-face as I’ve ever seen. She looked me up and down and curled her nose and lips. Body language is broadly universal, so I don’t need translation to know when someone is looking at me with disdain. “What?” she barked. I explained I needed a new entry visa. She sighed. “Give me your passport.”, she ordered. I passed it under the glass. She opened her top drawer, dropped the passport in and slammed the drawer shut. She did it in one fluid motion without breaking her gaze of resentment at me.. “Come back this time next week – now go away”. She sneered. I tried to clarify. She looked around me and shouted what I assume is the Arabic equivalent of “Next!” – I tried to hold my ground and ask for a receipt at least. “This time next week. Go Away.”.
You couldn’t travel outside Cairo without a passport so I spent the week exhausting the city’s charms. The Egyptian museum is truly astounding – but other than that the technical description I would use for the place is ‘a shit-hole’. The next Tuesday could not come fast enough. I got there even earlier. There was still an hour and a half queue to see my charming lady. “You.” she said. For a small moment I was pleased she recognised me, it saved having to explain why I was there again. “It’s not ready. Come back next week.”. I was dejected. Again, I tried to protest. She again looked around me and called the next person, and told me in perfect English to “Shut your mouth and go away”.
Another week to kill. A miserable time, the local food had got to me, and I spent the week reading in the hotel room not able to get very far from a bathroom. For my next weekly visit I had to bung up on stomach drugs in the hope I could last out the queue without disgracing myself. A very uncomfortable queue (usual couple of hours). Exactly the same script. It required my every ounce of self control not to lose my rag. I decided I was not going to move. I demanded to see a superior. She barked behind the glass to someone in her office. They muttered to each other in Arabic. The man came around to my side of the screen and told me “Sir, you must go. Your passport will be processed by next Tuesday.” I pointed out I’d been waiting two full weeks. He looked at me earnestly “Sir, if it is urgent we can have an express service for 100 dollars. It would be ready by end of day.” Suddenly I realised I was being shaken down. Two things stopped me just paying up. The first was I was actually on quite a tight budget, the second was that I was still quite ill and realised that even if I got my passport that day I would still probably be stuck in my hotel recovering for another few days going nowhere fast. I told him I didn’t have that sort of money, and would come back next week – when I expected it to be ready. He said very politely “As Sir wishes”. That was it for another week.
I was feeling much better on the final week. I’d spoken to the embassy for advice and had my plan. I got to the building before it opened. I raced to the desk and was still beaten by a couple of others but this time the wait was only 15 minites. As predicted, we went through the now usual weekly ‘not yet ready – so piss off’ dialogue. I smiled, and told her I ‘would see her later’ – and made my way to the Egyptian Tourist Police Station. The ‘Tourist Police’ in Egypt are an agency dedicated to stopping Tourists from being ripped off. Mubarak knew that Tourism was vital for his country’s economy and anyone who went home bad mouthing Egypt could harm that revenue. So he had a whole separate police-force just to look after people like me. I explained my story. The captain sighed wearily. “Come with me.” We marched over the Square, back into the building, up to the desk, he ignored the queue, banged on the glass and gestured with his thumb to the ‘lady’ to head to a corner office. Her eyes narrowed and she snarled at me as she went to join him. You could see through the window her standing arms folded as he jabbed his finger at her whilst shouting. She half-shouted back, and for a moment I thought he was about to punch her. She walked out the office, back to her desk, opened the drawer where she had dropped my passport three weeks earlier, pulled it out, opened the back page, picked up a rubber stamp on her desk and pressed it down. She passed it through the glass and said. “It’s done. Go away.”
The passport had never had to go anywhere. The stamp could have been done in five seconds flat entirley at her gift. She waited three full weeks and would have kept going until I paid her. The policeman shouted at her once more and we left. “Enjoy the rest of your stay in our Country” he wished me as he went back to the station.
Now as ‘police state experiences’ go I got off lightly. I don’t even register on the scale of possible abuse of power. I was merely delayed for a few weeks in a crappy hotel. I wasn’t held in a cell, or tortured with electricity or any of the other nightmare things that citizens of dictatorships endure. But it did give me a tiny glimpse of how crushing to the soul it must be live in the kind of place where your every interaction with government has the potential for you to be held to ransom simply because some minor official is bored by their pointless job and wants to show off their minor power or increase their pathetic state salary. I imagine all of those thousands of people in that building, all chasing their licenses for this and that, and all being frustrated unless they had the means to pass on the expected ‘baksheesh’ to grease-the-wheels. I imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who must have been frustrated by officialdom in that building over the last 18 years. Those people who would have no ‘Tourist Police’ agency to help them solve their nightmare. The collective frustration. The accumulated economic damage to the Egyptian economy. The simmering resentment of Mubarak and his elite.
So it is no surprise to me at all that they camp in their thousands outside the Mogamma building in Tahrir Square. That the place hasn’t been flattened or burnt to the ground by the protesters is, in my view, testament to extraordinary restraint of the Egyptian people. I wish them well.