It takes a citizen an average of 3.5 visits ­ about nine hours ­ to a government office to complete any given transaction, like obtaining a driver’s license or applying for a building permit. Do the same thing via the Internet, though, and the time and money saved are enormous, according to Ahmed Darwish, program director for the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT)’s electronic government, or "E-government," initiative. For every 100,000 government transactions performed on line, explained Darwish, the country saves EP 1 million.

The key players behind Egypt’s e-government drive say the benefits of digitizing state activities are obvious. "You can’t advance today without reliable information systems," observed Medhat Khalil, chairman and CEO of Raya Holding, a local pioneer in developing e-government "solutions." "E-government is important for the advancement of any country. It facilitates life and industry."

But offering simple services and information on line hardly qualifies as full-on e-government, which should allow the average citizen to perform virtually all of his or her government-related responsibilities through the Internet.

Take, for example, the European Union’s checklist of 20 basic public services that should be provided on line ­ including payment ­ to citizens. The list includes income tax declaration; access to social security information; application for passports and driver’s licenses; automobile registration; the filing of police reports; requests for birth and marriage certificates; and registration for university classes, to name only a few. Businesses, too, should be able to declare taxes, submit statistical data, deal with the Customs Authority and obtain environmental permits ­ all at the click of a mouse. "If you provide these 20 things, you will affect the lives of most people," said Darwish, confident that Egypt’s own e-government initiative, launched in conjunction with Microsoft in 2001, is moving towards this end. "We will be there in 2007," he predicted.

Coupled with other MCIT initiatives, such as the Free Internet and the "Computer in every home" scheme, recent progress in e-services and automation has made substantial progress.

Much, however, still remains to be done. Later this year, the MCIT will launch "Bawaba" (gateway), a one-stop shop on line catering to a variety of citizen-centered government services, according to Hany Morcos, a senior consultant at Microsoft.

Another ongoing effort is the national ID project, the compilation of a colossal database of citizen information that took eight years to complete, according to IBM country manager Amr Tawfik. With this database, citizens will be able to order copies of their birth certificates or identification cards on line from the Civil Status Organization (CSO), an arm of the interior ministry.

The need for such databases ­ by government and citizenry alike ­ is quickly being realized. Raya Holding recently established a centralized database for the Income Tax Authority to automate taxpayer profiles and historical records. The Ministry of Social Insurance, the Central Registry and the Ministry of Justice have also compiled comprehensive databases and listings. Telecom Egypt’s online payment center, meanwhile, is currently reeling in £E 1 million quarterly, Darwish said.

But e-government in Egypt still has a way to go before it can be compared to its counterparts in most western countries, which are astoundingly well-connected. The province of Ontario, Canada ­ considered a world leader in e-government ­ is so "e-ready," in fact, that police stations exchange criminal information on the spot and doctors can instantaneously exchange diagnostic information about patients.

It is, of course, impossible to compare a country where PC penetration rates are 70 percent ­ as is the case in Canada ­ to Egypt, where only about 2 percent of the population have access to personal computers. Nevertheless, a handful of ministries ­ including the MCIT and the ministries of supply, transportation and finance ­ have recently implemented "back-office" software that enables their internal departments to share information through a single computer system.

Also on the agenda are efforts to promote e-procurement through the creation of electronic marketplaces, electronic document archiving at ministries, databases for different sectors (especially tourism), and the establishment of the necessary regulatory backdrop to complement increased Internet use, particularly in the area of digital signatures.

But training government employees and reengineering hundreds of years of government bureaucracy will be difficult. "The initiative is progressing very slowly. It’s a very big and very old bureaucracy. You cannot change everything quickly," said Ahmed El Oteify, vice president for business development at the National Telecommunications Corporation (NTC). According to Tawfik, it is essential that ministries "start talking to each other" if e-government is to move forward. "Ministries are still protective of their data. They need to be convinced that sharing this information will not be a burden," he said.

Many ministries are also leery of outsourcing confidential information to private companies. The NTC, for example, invested $30 million into establishing a "Cyber Center" in Sixth of October City, mainly to host e-government projects. But according to El Oteify, further investments were frozen after the state pulled an about-face, announcing it would build its own cyber center for its projects.

The gaping digital divide must also be bridged if e-government is to "target 100 percent of the population," as Darwish contends it will. Only one out of every 12 families in Egypt can currently access services from home computers, and according to statistics from the local Visa office, credit card penetration is only at 2 percent (800,000 cards), compared to 12 percent in Saudi Arabia and 30 percent in Jordan.

For e-government to expand its reach in the short term, therefore, a little improvisation is needed. Average citizens must be able to access services through "brokers," and pay for them with something other than credit cards.

The National Post Organization (NPO), through 3,400 offices, has a well-established system of 10 million savings accounts which ­ unlike those offered by banks ­ cater to the lowest income brackets. According to Tawfik, a national network will be set up by the end of the year allowing citizens, by early 2004, to pay for different ministry services at point-of-sale machines located in post offices.

According to Morcos, a useful technology for expanding the reach of e-services is the prepaid smart card, which includes a built-in chip indicating the card’s balance. Along with prepaid scratch cards, smart cards "will definitely open up a very large number of services to the population at large," Morcos said.

While there are still plenty of bugs in the system, IT specialists insist that Egypt has no choice but to keep up with rapidly advancing e-trends. "In the future, we will use the Internet in all aspects of our lives," Khalil affirmed. "We all need to be e-ready."

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