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Riding Public Transit in Cairo After the Revolution

Truly addressing the Egyptian capital’s transportation issues means empowering the masses to move around more easily. That's not something President Abdel Fattah El Sisi (nor those invested in him) can afford.

Sadat station, one of Cairo's largest, reopened after nearly two years of closure for security reasons. Beneath Tahir Square, the station is one of only two where passengers can switch subway lines and its long-term closure added significant time to many riders' daily journeys. (Thomas Hartwell/AP)

Walk down into any metro station in Cairo these days and you may be surprised by how much it increasingly resembles a security zone.

Metal detectors line entrances while police patrols and video surveillance cameras watch every move inside the lifeline for ordinary Egyptians in its sprawling capital. The scene reflects the harsh reality unfolding above ground: Egypt’s notorious security state has made its comeback in full force, riding high on the military’s return to power in 2013 and defeat (at least so far) of the 2011 revolution.

It also reflects a deeper significance of Cairo’s internationally financed and locally mismanaged Metro: the political expediency of transportation reform under General-turned-President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, under whose watch Egypt’s human rights abuses and economic failures are intensifying while international aid continues to flow in.

Cairo’s chaotic metro system is the cheapest and most reliable of the city’s public transit services, transporting around 4 million poor and working class Cairenes each day. It’s also geographically limited in this sprawling city of an estimated 20 million, with only two and a half of the six proposed lines actually finished since the system debuted in 1987.

Policemen stand guard at the Sadat metro station located beneath Tahrir Square. (Thomas Hartwell/AP)

For political activist Abdel Fattah El Sharkawy, 26, Cairo Metro was once “the official transportation of the revolution,” ferrying people through a time where political change actually seemed possible. For two tumultuous years after the January 25th uprising, people talked politics and protested on the metro, an act banned under ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. But the wheels of change, as Egyptians of all stripes now know all too well, were no match for those invested in the status quo.

Regimes like ours are very well invested, and well-educated, and well-trained in controlling,” says El Sharkaway. “So I’m not surprised [no one talks politics on the metro]. I’m not really surprised because this is happening on every level.”

Now, with Egypt’s intensifying climate of government control and divides between rich and poor, Cairo Metro is a test case of sorts in regards to who benefits from certain transportation “solutions” and how far reforms of this kind can actually go towards developing a more politically free Egypt with less traffic.

The costs of Cairo’s zahma (colloquial Arabic for traffic and crowdedness) by all accounts are staggering. The World Bank estimates that congestion in Cairo ate up nearly 4 percent of Egypt’s total GDP (or $229.5 billion USD) in 2011. With the economic costs distributed across the city’s estimated 19.6 million people, that means per capita costs of about 2,400 Egyptian pounds (EGP) ($400 USD), more than locals many make in a year.

European Union, Japanese, and French aid and investment firms (together with the Egyptian government and World Bank) have developed many models and plans while investing billions of dollars to curb Cairo’s congestion and transform the city into a cutting-edge transportation hub befitting a modern and business-friendly Egypt.

But Cairo Metro also happened because it fit the criteria for the international community involved with transport development and privatization. French, Japanese, and European banks have provided the financing to help develop Metro. In turn, they have profited from it by supplying parts of the credit, equipment, and expertise, and from the resulting requirements for maintenance and expansion. 

Commuters enter a train from a dark platform after electricity went out in the Cairo Metro for more than four hours on August 11, 2015. (Ahmed Gamil/AP)

These kinds of loans and financial interventions keep Egypt and its creditors enmeshed in networks of debt that, in a political sense, become too big to fail. The Egyptian government, propped up by the legitimacy of these investments, can continue to divert spending away from much-needed upgrades in public transportation and exploit related ministries for personal gain relatively free of consequence.

The result has been Metro’s haphazard growth alongside the privatization of Egypt’s indebted mishmash of a public transportation system and the state’s increasingly entrenched exclusionary approach to mass transit, not to mention politics. It was with dark irony that Sisi in 2014 named the new third line, funded by the French, the “Revolution line.”

Ask anyone involved in Metro’s development and they’ll explain it as a traffic reduction project. Ashraf Mabrouk of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Cairo describes Metro as “a solution to the traffic and transportation issues,” as well as a way to “open the market for Japanese production” and share their expertise with Egypt.

By all accounts, the Cairo Metro remains the most reliably functioning part of Egypt’s chaotic transportation sector and a real lifeline for the majority of car-less, working class Cairenes.

Most of greater Cairo's growing populace can't afford to drive, with only an estimated 11 percent of households owning a car, according to economist and urban planner David Sims. Instead, the average rider is dependent on either Metro or public buses (where sexual harassment is especially bad), or the unruly but cheap and convenient, semi-regulated microbuses that stop and go as they please. According to Sims, police even own many microbuses as a second source of income and rent them out as a way to profit from the transport chaos their shoddy policing perpetuates.

Egyptian engineer and social activist Ahmed El-Dorghamy, who worked on one impact assessment for the metro system, explained that while it’s “good marketing” to promote Metro as a solution to congestion, in reality it’s not quite the case. He described Metro as “mostly a social project for accessibility.”

Metro is just one of many financial projects in line with economic policies championed by groups like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But critics—including, most recently, the IMF itself—have argued that some of these theories have in practice increased economic equalities.

Mubarak and now Sisi, backed by foreign investors, have spent billions in upscale projects in the desert around Cairo, including fantastical plans for a new capital. All the while, essential investments in infrastructure, including those that would reduce the capital’s traffic and increase public access, remain practically off the map. 

In El Dorghamy’s ideal world, Cairo Metro would be a part of an integrated system with buses, trams, light rail, and pedestrian zones under a unified payment system. It’s the same world that international investors say they imagine and that Egyptian officials repeat in PowerPoint presentations. Yet, in Egypt’s real-time transportation politics, it’s remains largely a mirage.

Urban planners like Sims and Egyptian Yahia Shawkat have argued that efforts should firstly be focused on upgrading and formalizing Cairo’s already ubiquitous microbus networks—the cheapest and most flexible way to increase access to a constantly expanding metropolis like Cairo. But this is also politically unpalatable route. Unlike massive real estate projects, microbuses don’t generate rents. They’re also are harder to monitor and they help improve the mobility of less well-off populations which would then help facilitate political organization.

Truly addressing Cairo's transport politics means empowering the masses to move around more easily. That's not something Sisi, nor those invested in him, can afford.

About the Author

  • Miriam Berger
    Miriam Berger is a Middle East based journalist with a focus on international news. She conducted research on the Cairo metro for a master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.