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Conspiracy Or Bureaucratic Neglect In Egypt?


Earlier this month in Egypt, just after Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power, something strange happened: The electricity came back on, and long lines at gas stations disappeared almost overnight. This has led many in Morsi's camp to cry conspiracy. They say the so-called deep state - the army, the police and the massive bureaucracy nurtured by longtime leader Hosni Mubarak - actively worked against Morsi. But as NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Cairo, the reality may be more benign.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This is Mogamma. It's this big, hulking, Soviet-style building. It's a place where Egyptians have to come to get visas, passports, travel documents, any number of documents to go on with their daily lives. This building is the symbol of the bureaucracy here in Egypt. The joke is that you can come in, but you never come back out again.

It's thought that about seven million people work in the Egyptian bureaucracy. It's also thought that if you want to shut down the bureaucracy, as was done during some of the protests in 2011 and 2012, you shut down business here at the Mogamma.

This is the thing about Egypt's bureaucracy, though: You might shut it down one day, but the next day, it's open. In some ways, it's bigger and more powerful than any single leader could be. That's the problem Mohammed Morsi faced when he became president last year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Bassem al Ouda was the minister of supply under Morsi. Now he's leading sit-ins and marches in the streets of Cairo, calling for Morsi to be reinstated. Ouda says Morsi faced not only an entrenched, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy in the year that he ruled, but one that was actively working against him.

BASSEM OUDA: Police are working against the elected president. Media are working against the elected president, although that - he didn't shut any TV channel. He didn't arrest any political figure. He didn't kill any citizen.

MCEVERS: But still the deep state, Ouda says, thwarted Morsi at every chance.

OUDA: One of the examples for the deep state is the crisis of diesel and the gasoline, especially two or three weeks before the military coup.

MCEVERS: Ouda says during those two to three weeks, elements of the deep state ordered gas stations to raise their prices, caused panic buying across the country and refused to implement Morsi's new smart card system to track fuel shipments. In other words, he says, it was a clear conspiracy to discredit Morsi among the middle class and pave the way for his overthrow.

Abdullah Kamal(ph) begs to differ. He is a former member of Hosni Mubarak's party who served in the upper house of parliament. We met him in a quiet office away from Cairo's noisy streets.

ABDULLAH KAMAL: Yes, yes, yes.

MCEVERS: You were part of the deep state. You were part of it.

KAMAL: It's my owner.


KAMAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Kamal says Morsi's problem was that, from the beginning, he ruled as the leader of the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, not as the leader of the state. He says he too quickly went against the state by giving ministers and governors the power to sack any bureaucrat and by authorizing the hiring of young, inexperienced Muslim Brotherhood loyalists as government aides.

The result, Kamal says, was not some secret overnight memo ordering the bureaucracy to thwart Morsi's every move, but rather a bureaucracy that wasn't sure what was in it for them.

KAMAL: (Through translator) People were not doing their jobs. They were just sitting in the office.

What do you want? Waiting. What is the message? What do you want? What is the future? So what is our salary? We need more.


KAMAL: Yeah, waiting, just waiting.

MCEVERS: Waiting for a vision, Kamal says, for a plan that never came. Kamal says the gas lines ended after Morsi's overthrow not because of a conspiracy against Morsi, but because once he was deposed, Gulf countries promised $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

Whichever version you believe - conspiracy or neglect - the question now facing Egypt is clear: What kind of person will it take to govern the deep state? Mona El Ghobashy teaches political science at Barnard College. She says, first of all, let's not call it the deep state.

MONA EL GHOBASHY: When we talk about the deep state, there's a tendency to mystify this term, and it sounds really shadowy as if there are these men behind closed doors plotting. But actually, in Egypt, one of the fascinating things is that Egypt's deep state works very much in the open and it includes people who are, you know, self-avowed members of the status quo.

MCEVERS: Security services, police, military, the bureaucracy, but also businessmen and media elites, she says. The 2011 revolution was a revolution against these interests, but they never went away. Ghobashy says good luck to the next leader who tries to confront these interests now.

GHOBASHY: No matter who you put at the top, even if he has the best intentions, he's going to have to deal with layers upon layers upon layers of entrenched interests who don't want change and who are able - not just don't want change, but who are able to thwart it at every turn.

MCEVERS: Ghobashy says what happens in Egypt has regional implications too. As countries around the Middle East overthrow or seek to overthrow their leaders, they have to learn how to deal with the state that's left behind. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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