Cairo starts to disperse a central symbol of its bureaucracy

The Mugamma building's government offices are being relocated in bid to reduce congestion.

It's hard to miss the Soviet-style Mugamma building, the behemoth towering over Cairo's central Tahrir Square.

Visitors are quickly swept into its dark, intimidating center with no directory to point them to 1,300 offices spread over 13 floors. Many eventually find themselves in endless lines leading to rows of vaguely identified windows framing surly workers.

For many, the 56-year-old Mugamma – built to offer people one-stop shopping for birth and death certificates, passports, visas, and more – is a nightmare to be avoided. In the comic film, "Terrorism and Kebab," the Mugamma's bureaucracy so frustrates the lead that he mistakenly grabs a guard's gun, is labeled a terrorist, and proceeds to take the building hostage.

The government appears to have gotten the message. The Mugamma's offices, which house some 10,000 employees, are being relocated around Cairo and, according to press reports, eventually to the outlying desert to relieve overwhelming congestion problems in this city of 13 million.

Yet city planners remain skeptical. "From an economic and planning point of view this doesn't make sense," says one planner in Cairo, who asked to remain anonymous. "Why are important administrative functions in city centers? Because they're the easiest place to get to."

With about 100,000 people per square mile, Cairo has about 10 times the population density of New York, and ranks alongside Mumbai (Bombay), India, for congestion, according to Siim Soot, director of the University of Illinois Urban Transportation Center in Chicago. Indeed, Cairo bursts with massive traffic jams, cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, donkeys, and people.

The relocation of the Mugamma is part of an ambitious plan to move Cairo's ministries and departments. Cairo's Radio and Television Building on the Nile, for example, will move to Media City in the Sixth of October desert community. This coincides with a general exodus of offices to the desert, including the American University of Cairo, which plans to move to a new facility in 2008, and the US Agency for International Development, which moved a few years ago to the suburb of New Maadi.

Some planners are calling for a more comprehensive program to revitalize the city's once-glamorous center, which has become increasingly run down.

"Twenty years ago, Cairo was a wonderful city, beautiful and elegant. Now it's the other side of the tracks," says Abdel Halim, a winner of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. "I fear [the government's plan] is speeding up the death of the downtown. It's not enough to move out. You have to inject something of value – parks, gardens."

Experts also say that the government must improve public transportation. A recent report by the governmental Japanese International Cooperation Agency suggests building a rail link from Cairo to the Tenth of Ramadan and Sixth of October desert cities, building three more metro lines in Cairo, and establishing bus lanes.

Experts also call for better development of desert communities, an effort that began nearly 40 years ago, creating satellite cities like Sixth of October, 15 miles west of Cairo, and Tenth of Ramadan, 45 miles northeast.

To date, the government has subdivided and sold a vast area outside of Cairo for urban expansion, but only the wealthy have moved there in substantial numbers, experts say, building huge villa complexes, driving cars to and from the city, and often keeping an apartment in Cairo, which just exacerbates congestion problems.

To get more people to move, experts say, the government must improve job opportunities, affordable housing, and services. "You need schools, hospitals, post offices, police," says Maher Stino, former dean of Cairo University's School of Urban and Regional Planning. "We have apartment buildings, not real communities."

No one from the government returned repeated calls for comment.

The Mugamma's fate is uncertain. Deputy Governor Mahmoud Yassin, the building's manager, says that turning it into a hotel or other project would never draw the same crowds. Public response is mixed. "The new location will be more modern, less crowded," says Maha, a legal accountant, who gave only her first name. "Why have a government building in the best location? Why not use that for tourism?"

But Mona Abdel Hadi, a Ministry of Education employee in the Mugamma, was less thrilled: "Sixth of October is far. It will be very tiring to get there. And what will happen to our clients? They'll go all the way there just for a stamp?"

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