From Kafka to Capitalism in Tahrir Square

The Mogamma government building in Cairo was once a byword for nightmarish bureaucracy. Now it faces a different but no less dystopian future

From Kafka to Capitalism in Tahrir Square
The Mugamma (Complex) administrative government building towering over Cairo’s Tahrir Square is lit up on April 3, 2021, ahead of the parade of 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies / Khaled Desouki / AFP via Getty Images

It’s a scene familiar to Egyptians everywhere. An endless crowd jostles and shoves in the entrance of a huge government building. Hundreds trudge along packed corridors, cramming into what looks like a goods elevator or battling up the stairs against those trying to come down. All have urgent paperwork they hope to sort out here, but none has a chance in the cage-like rooms where corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats can be seen doing anything other than the work required of them: praying, preparing vegetables for cooking and using the office phones to make personal calls.

In all of Egyptian cinema perhaps no scene evokes the Mogamma (“The Complex”) better than the opening minutes of Sherif Arafa’s 1992 film, “Terrorism and Kebab.” This massive gray edifice that looms over the south side of Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo had become a byword for impenetrable bureaucracy — the embodiment of a state designed to alienate its people. Before its closure in 2021, the Mogamma employed some 9,000 government officials, and countless ordinary Egyptians flocked there every day. To renew passports, file tax returns or notarize any dealings with state-affiliated bodies, they had to spend time in the belly of the monster.

But depressing as a visit to the Mogamma might have been, people did manage to lampoon it, and it offered a plentiful supply of material for satirists. Not until 1992, however, did that epoch-making film bring Cairo’s least appealing landmark to stardom. “Terrorism and Kebab” is a satire set almost entirely inside the Mogamma, and its first half resonates with the personal experience of millions of Egyptians.

Franz Kafka might have had difficulty picturing the sheer number of people performing those soul-destroying rites, but the Mogamma provided a real-life enactment of “Before the Law” —the parable from his novel “The Trial”:

“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the doorkeeper, ‘but not at this moment’…”

In “Terrorism and Kebab,” Adel Imam — the iconic Egyptian comedian — plays Ahmad Fatehelbab, a put-upon everyman trying to transfer his children to a school nearer his house. And the nightmares of absurdity he encounters in the process are redolent of what drove thousands to Tahrir Square to protest against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

For the 18 days of the revolution, public space outside the Mogamma was reclaimed by the people, and youthful protesters envisaged a city center permanently teeming with grassroots creativity. With all government work on hold, the Mogamma was temporarily abandoned, and the thinking was that it would be either demolished to make way for public space or refurbished for use by those same young people to make money or art.

Many protesters felt that the Mogamma deserved to be demolished, since it was a place where ordinary Egyptians suffered at the hands of the regime’s representatives. But the more subtle among them thought rather along the lines of a squatter community or a space legally given over to spontaneous initiatives — cultural, societal, perhaps even political.

Nothing could be further from that now as the building stands empty once again, the bureaucrats having moved out to make way not for a People’s Mogamma but for multinational capitalism.

On Christmas Eve the building itself was turned into a gigantic advertisement with images of Egypt’s best-known footballer, Mohamed Salah, projected onto its façade – promoting Pepsi. Where subversive and emancipatory graffiti had graced the façade during the uprising, there was now only slick, disembodied imagery.

The Pepsi/Mogamma tie-up is only a foretaste of things to come and could easily be the starting point for a sequel to “Terrorism and Kebab.” Such a sequel would reveal a different kind of alienation, because the whole building is being repurposed to cater to those who can afford a luxury lifestyle. In addition to hotel rooms and apartments, the new development will reportedly include a high-end shopping mall, exclusive restaurants and bars, and conference and wedding venues. An artist’s impression also shows a pool on the roof surrounded by palm trees.

A sequel to “Terrorism and Kebab” would feature not only a glitzy Mogamma but also the new administrative capital of the country (now under construction) and aggressive replanning of the old capital — building countless new bridges and highways while removing street life and cutting down trees. In itself, though, the Mogamma’s transformation is astounding enough. Where it had once been a symbol of Soviet-style state control and bureaucratic incompetence, it is now a scene of gentrification and impoverishment — more likely to disinherit people like Ahmed Fatehelbab than anything his creators could have imagined.

In the 10 years since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and his eventual replacement by another military man — Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — the fabric of reality has altered. The irony is that it took a revolution against Mubarak’s crony capitalism to bring about capitalist measures unthinkable while Mubarak was in charge. In 2016 the Egyptian pound was floated to make an IMF loan possible. Two years later Egypt’s Sovereign Fund was established as a legal and administrative instrument for the sale and rental of state property — privatization unbound. And three years after that the government was handing over the Mogamma to a U.S.-Emirati consortium that has vowed to bring about a Dubai-style transformation.

Tahrir Square itself is being redeveloped — and with an eye on ensuring it will not become the starting point for another revolution. An obelisk from the pharaohs’ 19th dynasty in the 13th century B.C. now stands at the center of an oversize, manicured and sterile traffic island with no public seating anywhere and no opportunity to congregate. Young people have been randomly stopped throughout downtown, wherever the streets might lead to Tahrir Square. And the plainclothes police who search them contravene the constitution by checking their smartphones for signs of activism.

The reality is that by the time its redevelopment is complete, few Egyptians will have the money or clout to step into it at all. Alienation of a different and in some ways harsher order is likely.

Should one of us have the opportunity to do so, what might it feel like to sleep in Egypt’s greatest temple of bureaucracy? What would be the attraction of a seven-star hotel room constructed in a former state employee’s office or a police interrogation chamber?

Aside from “Terrorism and Kebab,” versions of the Mogamma appear in Sonallah Ibrahim’s “The Committee “(1981) and Basma Abdel Aziz’s “The Queue” (2013) – two variations on a theme by Kafka. “The Committee,” about a power-wielding entity reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Castle,” targeted President Anwar Sadat’s defection to the American camp during the Cold War. Meanwhile, “The Queue,” about a formidable Mogamma-like building called “The Gate,” responded to the confusion that followed Mubarak’s overthrow during the Arab Spring. No two narratives could be further from each other historically, but the nightmarish absurdity associated with officialdom is the same in both of them.

Now in his 80s, Sonallah Ibrahim has continued to defend an Arab nationalist and socialist legacy associated with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the humble army colonel-turned-postcolonial leader who from 1952 to 1956 led the overthrow of the monarchy and nationalized the Suez Canal. Unlike Ibrahim, though, Basma Abdel Aziz is a liberal-minded younger writer more traumatized by totalitarianism than anything else. If the January 2011 revolution is the unnamed protagonist of her book, then the Mogamma is not so much a setting as the wicked antagonist.

At first sight, “Terrorism and Kebab” looks like a harbinger of the revolution. “Anything that happens is fine,” Ahmad Fatehelbab remarks in the film. “It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad; the catastrophe is that nothing happens.” According to film scholar Isabelle Freda, this is “the universal tale of the little man, the Chaplin or, here, Adel Imam — buffeted by forces beyond his control, yet able to resist with anarchic spontaneity and humor.” Even the cartoonist Andil, among other high-profile 2011 activists, has commented on what the censors overlooked when they passed it.

But “Terrorism and Kebab” can also be seen as a pro-Mubarak film. This is the second, even greater irony. The film is, after all, a comedy; its main purpose is to entertain. The premise is simple. During a scuffle with an unhelpful civil servant, Fatehelbab absentmindedly grabs one of the police guards’ machine guns and unintentionally fires it. That sets off a spontaneous evacuation as he appears to take over the building and is joined by a motley crew of disaffected characters: a hapless army conscript, a shoeshine man hiding from a vendetta in Upper Egypt, a prostitute and a man who had intended to jump off the roof but didn’t.

Marshaling a sizable number of people on the floor they happen to be on, Fatehelbab and his team go on to improvise a hostage situation. They gather all available butane cylinders to be used as bombs. Fatehelbab uses a walkie-talkie provided by the authorities to confront the minister of the interior in person. But when it comes time to state his demands, the accidental terrorist can think of nothing more consequential than kebab — enough for everyone on the premises.

Fatehelbab valiantly rejects the minister’s offer of KFC lunch boxes instead, and the resulting communal meal paves the way to a happy ending. By day’s end, facing the prospect of the riot police violently storming the building, Fatehelbab decides to let everyone go rather than risk anyone’s life. In return the hostages arrange for him and his troops to disappear into the departing crowd so that by the time all is quiet, the police have no one to arrest.

Viewers might wonder why the regime allowed “Terrorism and Kebab” to be shown, but at the time of its release Mubarak was in only the 12th year of his 30-year presidency and not facing a serious threat to his power. Like many Adel Imam films written by the late Wahid Hamid — a kind of unofficial court poet who acted as the regime’s anti-Islamist envoy to the entertainment industry — the powers-that-be almost certainly saw it as a way for everyday viewers to blow off steam while reaffirming basic principles of patriotism and fellowship. Kebab is as subversive as it gets.

To those protesting in 2011 — two decades after the Berlin Wall collapsed — the Mogamma’s grim façade was clearly a symbol of Eastern Bloc regress. But the building is not quite what it seems. A look at its history makes the ultracapitalist journey on which the Mogamma is now embarking a little less surprising.

The Soviet connotations stem from the fact that by the time construction began, Nasser was already on his way to founding the centralized police state that, with a different ideological orientation, Mubarak was to inherit more or less intact in 1981. As it happens, though, the grotesque face of republican Egypt was actually a legacy of the monarchy, having been commissioned by King Farouk to replace military barracks on what was then called Ismailia Square following the withdrawal of British troops in 1945.

The Mogamma was designed by Mohamed Kamal Ismail, the Egyptian architect responsible for the two grand mosques of Mecca and Medina as well as the Dar al-Qadaa al-Ali Court (another depressing landmark in downtown Cairo). For the Mogamma he adopted a modernist style, not modeling it on any building behind the Iron Curtain, as might be imagined, but on the city hall in Buffalo, New York.

So perhaps the Mogamma was destined to become a capitalist monster from the start, but how much can that ameliorate the shock and awe of its current metamorphosis? In a sense the Mogamma is Cairo, and its fate is the city’s fate. In very broad terms, notwithstanding the revolution, Ahmad Fatehelbab and his companions are a microcosm of the Egyptian people — disinherited, desperate, but also inured to the corruption and conservatism they live under.

The third great irony of this story is that, though he becomes a terrorist by chance, Ahmad Fatehelbab is embittered enough to justify the transformation. And he will be more embittered by the “Hunger Games” future that awaits him than any amount of bureaucratic abuse.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy