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.
An emphasis on building wide roads and highways bring the government a façade of prestige without benefiting average people.
“Maybe there’s a protest,” said the taxi driver. I laughed at what today in Egypt had to be a joke. We were stuck in Cairo’s notorious traffic this January, bumper to bumper with no way out and seemingly no rhyme or reason to the delay. There was a time when near-daily demonstrations clogged these roads during the revolutionary heyday of 2011 to 2013. But then came the counter-revolutionary repression and the sidelining and stalling of many movements for change, including transit reform.
Today, Egypt has a heavy list of problems: Under General-turned-President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi the country is facing one of the worst political crackdowns and economic crises in its modern history. My lengthy taxi ride that day cost half of what it did three months earlier, when the government floated the Egyptian pound in November as part of negotiations for an International Monetary Fund loan, and local prices starting rising with little oversight. Much of the country’s 90 million people, one-fourth of whom live below the poverty line, depend on government subsidies for bread, fuel, and electricity—and they’re being hit hard.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is Cairo’s traffic. The chaotic city of 20 million and growing is beset by a dysfunctional and fragmented public transportation system run with little coordination by more than a dozen governmental bodies bloated by bureaucracy and lack of transparency. All this despite that fixing Cairo’s traffic—which the World Bank estimated eats up four percent of yearly GDP—has been a popular, “apolitical” avenue for international development. All the big transit players from the French and Japanese to the World Bank and European Union have invested millions of dollars in studies and projects for upgrades and reform.
“It’s a hot topic for international agencies to pour money into,” Mohamed Elshahed, a Cairo based architect and independent researcher who runs Cairobserver, told CityLab in January. “But the problem is I feel like the impact is negligible in the end,” adding, “development is done in a piecemeal and fractured way. Each person always gives you a different vision of what’s happening.”
Part of the problem is that transportation reform has never been actually devoid of politics. Today the emphasis is on building big, extravagant new cities in the desert and wide roads and highways—all of which bring the government a façade of prestige without actually benefiting average people. At the same time, big investors from Western and Arab countries and businesses back these projects with loans and speculations that keep Egypt enmeshed in neoliberal networks prioritizing profits over real reforms. Despite the rhetoric, moreover, these kinds of policies in practice often reinforce socioeconomic inequalities, as even their chief proponent, the IMF, has warned.
“Places like Egypt are markets to sell things, whether they be transportation model or security apparatuses,” Elshahed notes. “Instead of constantly chasing after international loans to do these massive projects there are so many local easy and cheap projects to do.”
He adds, “If the international community that’s funding development projects are genuine about fixing these problems, more of these research projects and proposals need to be linked to the funding, so that the funding doesn’t just go to people in government offices that produce papers that say we’ve done something and then they go home and nothing happens.”
Take, for example, the Cairo metro—the best public transit Egypt offers and a real lifeline for millions daily. Plans for the metro started in 1970s with assistance from France on planning and financing; Egyptian authorities at the time boosted it could be done in a decade. Over four decades later, only 2.5 of the now six planned lines are open. In the meantime, maintenance has been largely neglected while the city’s population and transit needs have continued to grow. In addition to the extensive funds and loans needed to build the underground line, Cairo’s metro under Sisi has also become a highly secure space, with police and metal detectors stationed to prevent protests and unrest. While authorities are quick to detain people, the actual metal detectors constantly beep without drawing any response from officials, appearing more as a show of power than safety.
In contrast, one of the easiest and cheapest fixes to Cairo’s traffic problems is reforming the city’s informal microbus network, argues David Sims, an urban planner with decades of experience in Egypt and the Middle East. Currently, the Cairo Transit Authority (CTA) runs several large public lines, some of which are contracted out to a private company. Access, however, is limited, as the routes are not widely available and, particularly for women, sexual harassment on them has been widespread. As Sims has argued, Cairo is a city structurally geared towards the private car: they cause 75 percent of traffic, despite only 15 percent of households in Cairo (and far fewer outside the capital) being able to afford one.
“The private car, a solution of a small minority of Egyptians, dominates culture, economics, and policy,” says Sims. “The metro is the only counterweight seriously supported by the government, but its program is way behind schedule.”
The aging and semi-regulated microbuses that stop and go as they please have sprung across the city to meet the population’s changing needs—and reform here, Sim’s argued, can be most immediately effective. Cairo’s microbuses are often extremely old and make for an undignified ride. Driver’s are stereotyped to be high on hashish or tramadol, while some police rent out the buses to drivers to profit off the void. Still, as has been done in places like Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a more uniformed and organized microbus route can help reduce traffic, increase access, and maintain these jobs, all while on a budget.
There are, of course, major downsides for the government and its backers: microbuses don’t produce the same profitable rents as other transportation modes and are harder for patrols and surveillance than a metro or Bus Rapid Transit System. Better public transit would also mean empowering the masses to actually have greater access and mobility—which can have big political implications.
In the meantime, Elshahed is pushing for simple, hyperlocal solutions, like creating more pedestrian-friendly roads and passageways. He emphasizes that Egypt should look towards models being developed in African and South American countries, rather than always instinctively turning towards Europe.
Elshahed’s Cairobserver is one of several urban-focused Egyptian initiatives, like CLUSTER, the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, still pushing for innovative on-the-ground change despite the public’s deep malaise and restraints. In a paradoxical way, one benefit of the depoliticization of transportation over time has been that, for now, these issues have remained ‘apolitical’ enough to avoid significant government ire.
“Talking about urban issues has always been political,” Elshahed says. “But I think there’s still a little bit of a leeway to talk about these issues and get away with it.”