CAIRO (Reuters) - At a Cairo vehicle licence bureau, despondency finally gave way to despair. In the heaving crowd, which had been waiting with little to do but watch the insects creep across the walls, scuffles broke out.
The clerk behind the glass sat sipping tea, apparently unperturbed by the tumult. With no waiting list, he smiled across the crowd at the best-dressed man in the room and a woman wearing pricey sunglasses, who acknowledged his glance and pressed forward to be served first.
It is a scene that is sadly familiar to many Egyptians, who dread applying for official documents knowing they may have to spend hours, days or even weeks waiting in grubby offices to complete the paperwork that consumes their lives.
In spite of the seeming chaos, a finely-tuned system is at work, one that lines the pockets of state employees, deprives poorer citizens of the right to basic services and stifles the economy.
Pervasive corruption - petty and on a grand scale - was one of the main grievances that brought Egyptians onto the streets to topple President Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Mubarak, his sons and several members of the political-business elite they nurtured are now on trial, charged with creaming off national wealth while millions suffered in poverty.
Some Mubarak associates have already been jailed, stirring hopes for a new era of accountability, especially once an elected government is in place following the country’s first free presidential election in May and June.
But that spirit is still in short supply at state offices across the capital. Some people waiting for paperwork complain that low-level graft has become even worse since the uprising because of lax law enforcement.
Weary citizens list an entire vocabulary of gestures, glances and phrases to show a palm must be greased.
“I wish you a trouble-free day,” “Offer me a cup of tea,” and “Help me buy something nice for the kids,” are often accompanied by a knowing smile. Many Egyptians refer to bribes with the euphemism “al-halawah” - “the reward”.
“It turned out that ousting Mubarak was easy but removing his corruption is mission impossible,” said Tarek Mahmoud, a tall, thin 35-year-old with a slim black beard and dark eyes.
Mahmoud said he had been waiting months for a licence to set up a snack stall after an accident ended his work as a taxi driver and left him unable to walk without sticks.
“I have no connections and no money to pay bribes, so not a single official will even listen to me,” he said. “I don’t want to go home. I would rather stay on the streets than face my wife and six children who are waiting for me to bring them food.”
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index put Egypt at 112th out of a total of 182 countries in 2011, with 1 representing the country with the least corrupt public sector.
A policeman in his thirties, one of three state employees who told Reuters they take bribes, boasted of his technique.
He waits outside state buildings where car licences and other documents are disbursed and offers to speed up routine paperwork in exchange for 50 Egyptian pounds per client.
“I find someone who looks like they’re in a hurry to get the job done and are willing to pay for it. I have a talent for spotting such people,” he said with obvious pride.
Government officers go along with his scam and in return he gives them easy access to police services, or just a cup of tea. The kickbacks, he said, often total more than his entire salary of 650 Egyptian pounds per month.
“That is why jobs like mine are in demand,” said the policeman. “I would not call what I get from people for doing them services bribes. I would rather call it financial support.”
A 50-year-old court secretary said he can make up to 1,000 pounds in a day from bribes he takes in exchange for providing access to court documents. His monthly salary is 800 pounds.
“All lawyers need court documents for their cases and if the lawyer is famous or is handling a big case I ask for 100, 200 pounds or sometimes more,” he said. “But if the lawyer is not a top one, I only ask for 10 pounds.”
A civil servant in his mid-forties who works in a state office where citizens go to register official documents said he made around 700 pounds a month from “informal” payments.
“I don’t ask for anything, but when I see a citizen standing at the end of a long line I offer to finish what is needed quickly and get paid in return,” he said.
All three state employees said most of their colleagues also take kick-backs.
Many work in dirty, decrepit buildings with nowhere for clients to sit and no toilets.
“The offices are designed to make people hate to stay there and feel obliged to pay bribes,” said Amr Adly, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a citizen advocacy group which filed many corruption lawsuits against the state during Mubarak’s tenure and since.
Successive ministers during Mubarak’s three decades in power pledged to tackle graft but the problem has persisted, hardened by poverty, the weak rule of law and a bloated civil service with ill-defined job roles.
Civil society groups’ efforts were held back by a state of emergency lasting decades and still partially in force, as well as a 2002 law restricting the activity of non-government organisations.
The current army-backed interim government, which is due to leave office in June, has avoided making sweeping commitments on the problem. Activists say the more accountable administration due to take power in July will be under heavy pressure to improve the lives of those who elected them, and petty corruption will be high on the agenda.
Adly predicted it would take more than a decade to uproot graft, however, because new legislation must be passed to give power to anti-corruption agencies and make it easier to fire employees for misconduct.
“How long it takes will depend on the answer to one question: will our new rulers be willing to expose corruption and face losing the state’s administrative bodies? Or will they follow the army’s footsteps and do nothing?”
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Sonya Hepinstall