Hopes for a new Egypt marred by pervasive corruption (REUTERS) By Yasmine Saleh CAIRO, EGYPT 04/27/12 11:37am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - At a Cairo vehicle license bureau, despondency finally
gave way to despair. In the heaving crowd, which had been waiting
with little to do but watch the insects creep across the walls,
scuffles broke out.
The clerk behind the glass sat sipping tea, apparently unperturbed by
the tumult. With no waiting list, he smiled across the crowd at the
best-dressed man in the room and a woman wearing pricey sunglasses,
who acknowledged his glance and pressed forward to be served first.
It is a scene that is sadly familiar to many Egyptians, who dread
applying for official documents knowing they may have to spend hours,
days or even weeks waiting in grubby offices to complete the
paperwork that consumes their lives.
In spite of the seeming chaos, a finely-tuned system is at work, one
that lines the pockets of state employees, deprives poorer citizens
of the right to basic services and stifles the economy.
Pervasive corruption - petty and on a grand scale - was one of the
main grievances that brought Egyptians onto the streets to topple
President Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Mubarak, his sons and several members of the political-business elite
they nurtured are now on trial, charged with creaming off national
wealth while millions suffered in poverty.
Some Mubarak associates have already been jailed, stirring hopes for
a new era of accountability, especially once an elected government is
in place following the country´s first free presidential election in
May and June.
But that spirit is still in short supply at state offices across the
capital. Some people waiting for paperwork complain that low-level
graft has become even worse since the uprising because of lax law
Weary citizens list an entire vocabulary of gestures, glances and
phrases to show a palm must be greased.
"I wish you a trouble-free day," "Offer me a cup of tea," and "Help
me buy something nice for the kids," are often accompanied by a
knowing smile. Many Egyptians refer to bribes with the euphemism "al-
halawah" - "the reward".
"It turned out that ousting Mubarak was easy but removing his
corruption is mission impossible," said Tarek Mahmoud, a tall, thin
35-year-old with a slim black beard and dark eyes.
Mahmoud said he had been waiting months for a license to set up a
snack stall after an accident ended his work as a taxi driver and
left him unable to walk without sticks.
"I have no connections and no money to pay bribes, so not a single
official will even listen to me," he said. "I don´t want to go home.
I would rather stay on the streets than face my wife and six children
who are waiting for me to bring them food."
Transparency International´s Corruption Perception Index put Egypt at
112th out of a total of 182 countries in 2011, with 1 representing
the country with the least corrupt public sector.
HOW IT WORKS
A policeman in his thirties, one of three state employees who told
Reuters they take bribes, boasted of his technique.
He waits outside state buildings where car licenses and other
documents are disbursed and offers to speed up routine paperwork in
exchange for 50 Egyptian pounds ($8.27) per client.
"I find someone who looks like they´re in a hurry to get the job done
and are willing to pay for it. I have a talent for spotting such
people," he said with obvious pride.
Government officers go along with his scam and in return he gives
them easy access to police services, or just a cup of tea. The
kickbacks, he said, often total more than his entire salary of 650
Egyptian pounds ($110) per month.
"That is why jobs like mine are in demand," said the policeman. "I
would not call what I get from people for doing them services bribes.
I would rather call it financial support."
A 50-year-old court secretary said he can make up to 1,000 pounds in
a day from bribes he takes in exchange for providing access to court
documents. His monthly salary is 800 pounds.
"All lawyers need court documents for their cases and if the lawyer
is famous or is handling a big case I ask for 100, 200 pounds or
sometimes more," he said. "But if the lawyer is not a top one, I only
ask for 10 pounds."
A civil servant in his mid-forties who works in a state office where
citizens go to register official documents said he made around 700
pounds a month from "informal" payments.
"I don´t ask for anything, but when I see a citizen standing at the
end of a long line I offer to finish what is needed quickly and get
paid in return," he said.
All three state employees said most of their colleagues also take
Many work in dirty, decrepit buildings with nowhere for clients to
sit and no toilets.
"The offices are designed to make people hate to stay there and feel
obliged to pay bribes," said Amr Adly, a lawyer with the Egyptian
Initiative for Personal Rights, a citizen advocacy group which filed
many corruption lawsuits against the state during Mubarak´s tenure
Successive ministers during Mubarak´s three decades in power pledged
to tackle graft but the problem has persisted, hardened by poverty,
the weak rule of law and a bloated civil service with ill-defined job
Civil society groups´ efforts were held back by a state of emergency
lasting decades and still partially in force, as well as a 2002 law
restricting the activity of non-government organizations.
The current army-backed interim government, which is due to leave
office in June, has avoided making sweeping commitments on the
problem. Activists say the more accountable administration due to
take power in July will be under heavy pressure to improve the lives
of those who elected them, and petty corruption will be high on the
Adly predicted it would take more than a decade to uproot graft,
however, because new legislation must be passed to give power to anti-
corruption agencies and make it easier to fire employees for
"How long it takes will depend on the answer to one question: will
our new rulers be willing to expose corruption and face losing the
state´s administrative bodies? Or will they follow the army´s
footsteps and do nothing?"
($1 = 6.0450 Egyptian pounds) (Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Sonya
Hepinstall) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 04/27/12)
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