A Guide to Egypt's Challenges: Saving Cairo!

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012

Bassem Sabry provides a multi-pronged overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians

Old Cairo
A general view of mosques is pictured before sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Old Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Cairo, the heart of Egypt and one of the world’s largest metropolitan urban areas, as well as one of the world’s most historic cities, is beginning to show severe cracks in its visage.

Egypt’s capital is one of the most population-dense cities in the world (variously ranking within the top 50 depending on methods of calculation). Unlike other populated cities, such as Tokyo, it is neither designed nor equipped to handle these sizable demographic pressures, with one estimate stating that 22 million people live in Cairo’s metropolitan area. The city was originally designed to host just five million citizens.

Begging and street children are growing phenomena, and street-based sexual harassment is an intense concern in many parts of Cairo. The city’s traffic is internationally recognised as one of the most congested and most challenging.

Drivers show little adherence for pertinent laws, while efforts at traffic law enforcement always die off after a rousing start (drivers now regularly break through many of recently installed and briefly respected automated traffic lights).

Packed roads move at bottleneck pace, and parking has become immensely difficult (over the past years, some people have begun seizing control over several meters in streets all over the city, regulating parking in exchange for a tip).

The city’s public transportation system, which carries more than 12 million passengers daily, is operating well beyond capacity and badly requires expansion and overwhelming renovation. Roads are crammed from the pressure of more than 14 million cars, according to a 2010 estimate.

Cairo’s Metro, which still has to cover the remainder of the capital and feature shorter distances between its stations, is one of the 15 busiest in the world, with reportedly 2.5 to three million people using it every day.

The bus system, in particular, which moves daily more than seven million passengers according to a government official, is under severe pressure. The outdated and badly maintained buses have almost no dependable schedule; even the previously premium air-conditioned buses are a shadow of their former selves.

Employees striking over poor working conditions and pay have led to intermittent episodes of paralysis over the past months. Officials stated early this year that the bus system is in need of around 1200 new vehicles over the next five years, whose costs range between LE800,000 to LE1 million per vehicle.

Financing such renovations remains a challenge, with a strained national budget already in deficit territory, and the head of the National Transport Authority complaining of an interest rate of 13 per cent charged for loans by the National Investment Bank.

Waste collection and (re)beautification remain serious concerns, with a 2006 estimate claiming the city produced 13,000 tons of garbage, a significant percentage of which is left without collection or proper treatment.

Air pollution at the heart of Cairo is a dramatic worry. At a reported 138 particulate matter per cubic metre of air, air pollution is way above the internationally recommended limit of 73 particulate matter per cubic metre of air (for reference, Paris is at 38, and New York is 21).

Noise pollution in the centre of the capital is said to average 90 decibels (dB) rarely falling under 70 dB compared to an acceptable EPA range of 35-55 dB. The infamous annual phenomenon of the "black cloud" over Cairo remains a challenge, said to be largely due to the burning of garbage and rice straw after harvest, though it shows signs of abating.

There are also concerns about pollution of tap water from over-Chlorination, from antiquated pipe systems and water tanks, and worries about the increased pollution of the Nile’s waters a result of sewage disposal and industrial waste.

See also:

The Economy

Subsidies & the Budget

Food Security

Fuel & Electricity Shortages


Slums & Random Housing

Religious Freedoms, Minorities

Judiciary & Education

The Interior Ministry

Freedom of Speech, Media & the Arts


Women's Rights, Street Children

The Public Sector & Privatisation



Healthcare & Hepatitis

National Reconciliation


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