Egyptian bureaucracy and visa

Sent On: 
Thu, 2017-08-03
Newsletter Number: 

Yesterday I obtained a residence visa for three years based on marriage to my Egyptian wife Sawsan. I  spent the entire day ( from 9.00 am to 3.00 pm) in the Mugamma, an administrative governmental building operating under the Ministry of Interior where official and residency documents are processed. This  includes passports, visas, driver’s licenses, tax investigations and other government documents . The 14-story building is the workplace of an estimated 18,000-30,000 Egyptian public servants. Tens of thousands of citizens visit the Mugamma daily to process their documents. During office hours the building is overcrowded;  behind each service window, one sees people pushing and struggling to get their paperwork finished. Visitors are not assigned numbers,  hence the chaotic jumble to be served first.  To make matters worse,  one often does not know which window to go to. These leads to a lot of confusion and waiting in line for one window only to hear that one needs to go to another window (where it is possible that one is referred to yet another window!) Mugamma employees speak little to no English. It is no surprise then  that the Mugamma is a place that many people, both Egyptian nationals and certainly foreigners, would like to avoid but cannot unless one pays for a lawyer to do all paper work.


 Mugamma: Photo Wikipedia


I first went to the office of the Press center so that I at least would get the number of the window where I could start. That was Window 38. At Window 38, I was referred to Window 12. At Window 12, I was told to go to Window 30 and at Window 30 I was told to go to Window 36, which indeed turned out to be the spot where my residence permit was processed. When you wait for hours at a window you also pick up the name of an employee or two. The lady who helped me was Heba, a nice hardworking young lady in her twenties and veiled with a light green veil. She found my file and looked at the various things scribbled in the file, took my passport and asked me to pay 1755 EgP at a bank in the Mugamma. I was not prepared for this large sum. Thus I asked office manager Adel Rizkallah to send our office boy Peter with money from the office. I paid  the requested sum, and went  with the correct documents to Window 36. Tens of people were now pressing at her window, including a group of Niqabi women. A man waiting in the crowd suggested that I should  wave my papers at Heba since she had helped me before. Heba was very busy but at a certain moment noticed me and took, over the head of others waiting at her window, the proof of payment from the bank, put it in my file and continued with other work. It was now11.00 a.m. and I was asked to return to her window at 1.00 pm. That was insufficient time to return to my office in Maadi and thus I used my free time to visit the Foreign Press Association.


When I returned at 1.00 pm, Window 36 was absolutely packed with waiting people. I saw a room where a police officer was processing files. I then went to a table with several other people who were writing in large registration books.  The passports then went to Heba and a colleague of hers. They put the visa stickers in the passports and put smaller stickers with numbers of the visa in the paper file. Then she called out the names of passport holders. Of course, behind a glass barrier no one could hear what name she was calling out.  Thus, people close to the window repeated the names. This strategy proved effective as  I saw people responding. Passports were passed on to the person whose name had been called. I found it strange that no check was made of whether the passport went to the right passport holder. At one moment, a woman with niqab picked up her passport but because of the niqab no one could see if the photo in her passport matched her face. I was gradually pushed into the direction of the window and from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. I stood there. I asked Heba a number of times if my passport was ready but no, it was not. People who came for the various passports were Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and a Bangladeshi. As far as I could see I was the only European waiting here. Finally at 2.40 p.m. I received my passport with a residence permit beginning from February 18, 2017 (the date of application), for a period of three years.


What one sees through the windows is piles and piles of papers and manual clerical work. There must be somewhere computers in the office, but most work is still done manually. It is amazing that this is done in apparently such a method  that documents can be traced back.


The request for such a residence visa had become necessary after my residence permit based on journalism was not renewed. This had taken me by surprise as,  since  I first arrived    in Egypt October 1994, my journalistic visa has been renewed every year. As usual, I applied for renewal in June 2016 when my journalistic visa expired, however I  received no response. Different visits to the Egyptian press center did not provide any clarity except that they are an executive branch of the Egyptian government. Decisions are made, as different sources have informed me, by the Egyptian security. However, one never meets these decision makers. I tried different applications, first under the name of Arab-West Report and later, upon the advice of Ms.  Hala of the Press Center, the Nederlands Dagblad. The Dutch Embassy supplied me in September with a support letter, but it changed nothing. I made many different visits to the Press Center to make inquiries but no visa, neither were any reasons provided as to what the reasons were for not responding to my request for renewal.


A year ago I came to know  a colonel in the Egyptian police. Though he does not work with the security that deals with visa applications, he advised me to apply for a residence based on marriage. But such a visa can only be requested by the Egyptian spouse: my wife Sawsan. Sawsan came in February and went from office to office in Cairo to get various documents ready for my visa application. It turned out, for example, that the priest who had married us in 1988 had not registered this in court as he should have done. These are procedures in Egypt. One first marries according to his/her religion and then gets the marriage registered in court. He had not done this since he thought we would anyhow go abroad and thus why, he told Sawsan months ago, would he make the trouble of registration? As long as we were living in the Netherlands and later in Egypt I had a residence visa based on journalism the Egyptian marriage certificate was indeed not needed. Sawsan needed to go to Alexandria to get his signature (fortunately he was still there, if that would not have been the case correcting this would have been virtually impossible) and go to court to do so in person. Earlier efforts to try to solve this through a lawyer with connections to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral did not work. Thus finally we were also married according to Egyptian law (until that moment we did not know we were not married according to Egyptian law). Other issues also played a role such as the name of Sawsan’s father Gabra that had been differently spelled in different documents. That needed correction which consumed time. But on February 18, Sawsan and I were ready with all documents and went to the Mugamma to file the request.


Egyptian friends had advised us to make use of “an Egyptian with relations” in the Mugamma. We found such a person.  Our contact helped us to file the request for the residency visa and then after months of waiting…..nothing. We repeatedly asked for updates. “It was complicated,” he said. At another time, he suspected “security considerations” and we were asked to provide gifts for an officer we had never seen. We never know if indeed the officer asked for this or if our middle man needed such gifts for other reasons. During the process, I heard of many other foreigners who had made use of the services of such middle men. They usually make  good money out of their services. On July 1, I had returned to Egypt and our middle man was unavailable. No responses to any phone call or any message. Was this because he had not been successful? We don’t know. Thus I went myself to the Mugamma, waiting in lines, and going from window to window. Today, after many months of tribulations it finally paid off with a residence permit.


It is not easy for anyone to go through myriad bureaucratic procedures. It is certainly not easy for a foreigner who knows no Arabic to go through this process. Thus, there are many people are ready to make money out of this. I would wish these procedures would be easier so that such ‘relation’ people or middlemen would not be needed. Other foreigners do not go through the procedures and thus it is possible to find a Dutch woman married to an Egyptian who was living for four years in Egypt on a ‘tourist’ visa after which she received a residence permit. Other non-Egyptians have been in Egypt for over ten years on basis of a tourist visa. While that is possible, that is certainly not recommended  since a tourist cannot own property in Egypt, cannot get an Egyptian drivers license, and are faced with difficulties in opening a bank account. This  does not make life in Egypt easy for many expatriates. Any country needs to be able to exert control over expatriates in that country but it could be made so much easier.


One should not blame individual employees who are simply doing the jobs as they had been instructed. This recounts my own experiences  in navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Mugamma. This is as much a class issue as it is a nationality issue; money (hiring a middle man or a lawyer) and personal connections of the middle man could significantly expedite a process that is often painfully difficult for foreign nationals and lower and middle class Egyptians.


Cairo, August 3, 2017

Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report