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The Meaning of Civilisation

By Naguib Mahfouz

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The Scarecrow

The scarecrow is a type of effigy meant to frighten, and I use this as a metaphor for the type of bureaucracy prevalent in an administration but which serves a slightly different role. A scarecrow does not, as in the origin of the word, defend crops from birds, but forms an unas¬sailable barrier for people in search of their rights, and accords them untold misery. However, I believe that it is a semi-imaginary impedi¬ment at most; its force inflated by the popular imagination and the fear of it is generated by those cunning enough to exploit its bad reputation for their own ends. In truth, bureaucracy is a collection of laws and regulations and, as such, it needs to be reviewed from time to time, developed and renewed, and empowered to confront the problems of our time, but bureaucracy is not an island unto itself, it is something implemented by civil servants, and if development and reform do not take the power and intellect of these civil servants into account, any new plan will become bogged down and every effort made to imple¬ment any desired reforms will end up as naught.

At this point I think it is worth my mentioning a rather ordinary memory I have. I had a job in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which is proverbial for its complicated bureaucracy. Then the late Abdel Salam al-Shadhli was appointed minister. He was a man known for his decisiveness and force of personality, may he rest in peace. From his very first day in the ministry he ordered the doors of the ministry to be locked at exactly eight o’clock in the morning and that any employees who turned up later would have a day deducted from their holiday allowance in the first instance, and thereafter a day’s pay would be deducted from their salary. Very soon the working day started to run like clockwork, with no distinction made between the most senior manager and the lowliest office boy. Then, the minister allowed one door to be opened from nine o’clock, with two clerks posted behind it, one of whom manned an information desk and the other one was from the investigations administration. When someone approached the ministry, he would be asked his purpose. If he was someone coming for a social call he was turned away,1 and if he was there for official business, the information clerk would contact the spe¬cific department and either he would receive the appropriate answer or would be given an appointment. At the appointed time the informa¬tion clerk would go to the department to be informed about what had transpired. If there were delays, an investigating clerk would follow up and send a memo to the minister, and the smallest sanction for this was that the relevant official would lose two weeks’ salary. There was one occasion when a clerk was negligent in sending out rent demands which led to the Ministry losing two hundred pounds in revenues and the minister immediately ordered that the sum should be recouped from the clerk’s salary over a period of four years. In those days I used to see high-ranking employees of the Ministry, when they were called in for a meeting with the minister, waiting in front of his door, but¬toning up their jackets, muttering invocations to God and whispering Qur’anic verses before being asked to enter. How happy was the man who exited, his face beaming, not having been rebuked or punished, for His Excellency was in the habit of disciplining the high and mighty and not just the lowly.

What happened to the bureaucratic regime in the Ministry during those heady days?

It became a byword for discipline, results, transparency, income generation and productivity. The spectre of bureaucracy disappeared. No one heard about it anymore, it was no longer used as an excuse for inaction, and I realised in those days that the essential problem was now only the minister himself or, at the most, the minister and the clerk.

I should like to reiterate: I do not mean by what I have said that bureaucracy is some sort of fairy tale. It is an old established system which is in need of renewal, but I also believe that it wrongs innocent people, it allows cunning people to operate, and that the core of a good solution can be summed up in two words: minister and clerk.
9 February 1976

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