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updated: 8/12/2012 6:54 AM

Egyptian president turns palace into complaint center

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Washington Post

CAIRO -- Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's presidential palace inspired awe and fear, much like the autocratic leader who lived large inside.

But under President Mohamed Morsi, the old barricades have fallen. Nearly every day, Egyptians from all walks of life throng the main entrance of the imperial white building to make their feelings known.

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Instead of pushing people away, Morsi has established a mechanism for his staff to receive and review complaints. The gesture is the latest way in which Morsi, the country's first Islamist president, is seeking to burnish his image as a man of the people and a public servant who represents the dawn of democratic rule in Egypt.

Palace protesters have included picketing workers, angry farmers and tenants dissatisfied with rent laws. Until several months ago, staging an angry demonstration in the heavily secured Ittihadiya Palace compound district in the Heliopolis neighborhood would have been supremely dangerous.

"Could we stand here like this during Mubarak's days? Could we even speak?" said Hafez Abdel Mawla, the head of a group of farmers from Fayoum, an agricultural province 60 miles outside Cairo.

During the final days of the winter 2011 uprising, angry protesters threatening to break into the palace forced Mubarak to flee to his Sharm el-Sheikh residence in South Sinai, nearly 400 miles from the capital. Their success broke the barrier of fear that had once made the palace seem sacrosanct, said Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies.

Many of the grievances now being voiced stem from actions by the previous government.

The farmers from Fayoum have staged a sit-in across the street from the palace to demand a law that would restore their right to properties they contend were illegally taken from them in 1997 by the Agriculture Ministry.

Nagwan Amin, a 30-year-old former schoolteacher, had arrived on a recent day to complain that she had been fired without justification in 2007 from her job at a government school. She has not worked since then, she said, and efforts to get help from other government institutions have been in vain.

"My brother came here and they received him well and called him back to follow up," Amin said, leaning against the palace's walls, shielding herself from the scorching sun. "I'm waiting to follow the procedures, file my complaint and receive my reference number."

Some see the grievance process as little more than lip service to voters. As Morsi struggles to restore security, shore up the country's ailing economy and attend to thorny foreign policy issues, his ability to deliver on thousands of individual complaints might be limited.

Indeed, Mubarak's immediate predecessors as president, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, adopted similar tactics to appease people during their early days in office, and Mubarak made a similar effort. None of their administrations was perceived as being responsive to public opinion.

"This positive spirit always surfaces in the beginning," said Hassan, director of the human rights center.

Along with soliciting in-person grievances, Morsi himself has begun to take part in a daily radio broadcast, "The People Ask and the President Responds." He said recently that 40,000 citizen complaints had already been filed. In addition to Ittihadiya Palace, also known as Oruba Palace, two other palaces in Cairo, El Qobba and Abdeen, have been opened to citizen complaints.

While many visitors have expressed faith that someone will attend to their plight, others expressed less optimism.

Omar Fawzi, 27, said he had been camped outside Ittihadiya Palace for a month, cleaning cars and begging for change. He lost his business, a small kiosk, during last year's protests. Now, on a good day, he makes the equivalent of $1.

Still, Fawzi said of the new president: "At least he gives us freedom to sleep and eat and do whatever we want here. We can see the palace now, and we could not see it at all before."

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