Doing business: ample minuses -- and pluses

For both foreign businessmen and Egyptians, working here can be a monumental challenge - but not without its rewards. Two engineers, an Egyptian and his American counterpart, told the Monitor the pluses and minuses of working in Egypt.

''Nothing here is particularly different than in the United States,'' says the American. ''It is just exaggerated. In many ways, I understand it because I grew up in the 1930s and the Egyptians seem to have a command of modern management like we did in the US in the 1930s.''

The Egyptian says his country's businessmen are having to learn, belatedly, modern business techniques: ''Things stood still for years,'' under the period of socialism between the mid-1950s and the early '70s. ''Now we are trying to move at a faster pace to substitute for the years in which we had no activity.''

Both men agree that organization, services, and basic infrastructure are Egypt's biggest problems.

The American, who has worked on two large construction projects here in one year, criticizes a lack of directness in doing business, a habit of making do, and a vastly overstaffed government bureaucracy.

Instead of advertising for bids on projects, for instance, Egyptians prefer to single out and negotiatiate with one company. Often the price remains vague until a frantic, last-minute bargaining session is arranged, where a kind of auctioning takes place (usually amid much cajoling, smoke, and coffee).

To get a job, the American says, an Egyptian contractor will often underbid greatly in these sessions, against his better judgment. Then, when the job inevitably goes sour, he will try to extract more money or hold back services - and rather than try to salvage a job using his best workers, he is liable to staff it with his least able.

The Egyptian engineer, who usually works on big public-service projects, sees Egypt's faults as more in the area of structure than technique. ''We are really a long way away,'' the Egyptian says, ''but thank goodness we are progressing. My phone, for instance, had been dead for two months. Finally it is fixed.''

The Egyptian points out that because Egypt already has a big cement and steel industry, raw materials are easily acquired. The only delays he experiences are when a project requires imported ''luxury items.''

The American, who works on projects that require great amounts of imported material and equipment, says the Egyptian customs office is a major obstacle. Imported items often require accompanying forms two inches thick. Many companies, he admits, have had to resort to ''backsheesh'' (payoffs or commissions, depending on one's perspective) to expedite clearances.

Still, the American engineer says he is heartened by the honesty, alertness, and courtesy of Egyptian colleagues and subordinates. Egyptian workers are reliable, although most follow rote techniques.

The American suggests that American and European businesses send promising Egyptian businessmen to the US home office for training if future projects in the country are contemplated. A good example of the success of this policy is the American Motors jeep plant here, managed by Egyptians trained in the US.

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