Omar Shehata

Where do I pick up my passport?

From "Scenes from Egypt"

I walk into the "Old Security Directorate" to pick up my renewed passport, which was the main reason for my trip to Egypt. It's a gated compound with a bunch of different buildings, so I ask the guard out front.

"Excuse me, I'm renewing my passport. Where do I go?"

"Renewing your passport? Why?"

Now, surely that's not what he said, I think to myself. I must have misheard. That's a stupid question. There's no reason he would be asking me this. So I just try asking again, where do I go? He insists, why, are you renewing it?

I tell him because I'm traveling, obviously. "Where are you traveling??" he asks. We get on this whole conversation about how everyone's leaving Egypt now. Finally, he says, "do me a favor and I'll tell you where to go". (He means money).

I see someone walking out of one building with a passport, so I figure I should go there, and I just walk away.

I go up the stairs, follow the signs, and stand in line. I see people in front of me taking out a bunch of cash as they receive their passport. I start to panic because I didn't have any cash on me (because I keep forgetting most places don't accept cards). I figure I'll stay in line, see exactly how much it is, then go to the ATM downstairs.

"How much are the...fees?"

He doesn't answer, and scans the receipt I have. I was confused because I had already paid a few days ago when I submitted my passport for renewal. But he scans it and says, 500 pounds. So I apologize and say I'll need to go and come back with the money.

He looks up at me, pauses, and says, oh okay, it's all good then, here you go. !!!!

Everyone else in front of me in line paid, and others after me paid. I noticed he wasn't giving out receipts for these payments. I don't think it was an "official" payment.

Why didn't he make me pay?

I spent a few days thinking about this. I think it's because when I said "I'll go get the money and come back", he must have thought that I meant "I'll go borrow this money".

Because, there's no reason not to carry cash with you unless you're poor. It's not uncommon for a restaurant's card reader to stop working, for example, so you kind of need to always have some cash on hand.

So, I think it was just a made up fee but he feels bad taking it from people who aren't well off, so he let me go.

Why does corruption happen?

I told this story to a friend who had an insightful answer to this question that I hadn't considered before. We always say, we need to pay government employees more, so they stop accepting bribes. But there's another reason corruption may still remain entrenched even after these people are paid well.

There will always be a lot of supply of corruption payments, as long as there are systems that are slow & inefficient. People want to get their things done fast, and they are willing to pay for preferential treatment to get around the inefficiencies in the system.

So, part of it is when a government employees refused to do the work until you pay. And part of it is when the system itself, when everyone is following the rules, is slow & not working, and people have to circumvent it to keep things moving.

That gave me a more optimistic outlook on it. It's more of a systematic issue we can tackle, rather than purely a cultural "people are just bad & evil" one.

Read more Scenes from Egypt.