Friday, October 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of Bureaucracy

Egypt is really good at bureaucracy. I mean really, really good. Of the country’s 80 millions people, somewhere between 6 and 10 million are employed by the government, which means if you count family members, perhaps half of the population depends on the income of government jobs. The bureaucracy is excessively huge, employing millions more people than necessary. The most conspicuous bureaucratic sector it the tourism and traffic police—men that basically spend the entire day doing nothing. Their salaries are measly, but at least it’s a reliable job. For the ruling regime, the bureaucracy is a way to maintain support. But Egypt is in a trap. Because liberalizing would send millions of people to the unemployment office, the prospects of reform are poor. The bureaucracy also hinders development in other sectors. For example, with more than enough traffic cops, the government has no incentive to provide traffic lights. Instead of providing an efficient, modern system of traffic control found in Western cities, Cairo relies on people. The bureaucracy is so pervasive in Egypt that bureaucracy has become cultural.

I’ve been fascinated by Egypt’s horrible bureaucracy since I first arrived, but I continue to be amazed. AUC, like all of Egypt, loves its bureaucracies. I can’t even remember how many passport-sized photos I submitted to the university. I have three ID’s: my student ID, my housing ID, and my gym ID, two of which I have never used. The students love their bureaucracies too, and they organize everything into committees, even if that means each committee consists of only two or three members.

Here’s a nice case study for a sociologist. Yesterday, the Student Union began its Thursday afternoon film series with a screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (remember that in Egypt, Thursday is the equivalent of the American Friday. TGIT.). But this is where the bureaucracy kicks in. The movies are free, yet I still had to “purchase” my tickets at the Student Union table, and a member wrote my ID number down. I thought this was unnecessary, but I did what I was told. So after my colloquial Arabic class finished at 3:50 on Thursday, I headed down to the main auditorium to catch the latter half of Harry Potter. As I tried to enter the auditorium, a middle-aged man grabbed my arm and asked for my ticket, which I pulled out of my wallet and gave to him. I’m glad I could provide “work” for this man. When I entered the large auditorium, I found it to be about 10 or 20% full at most. The ticketing process was completely ridiculous, yet the SU still thought it necessary to buy paper tickets, keep track of who was coming, staff a table for several days before the movie, and provide a doorman to check tickets. In America, this would be a joke, but in Egypt’s culture of bureaucracy, it was all just standard operating procedure.

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