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A day in Giza bus station: Taking the pulse of Egypt's streets

Talking to passengers, drivers and street vendors in Giza bus station reveals an Egypt torn between hope and despair, amid consensus that endemic problems of everyday life persist

Ayat Al Tawy , Tuesday 29 Jul 2014
Giza bus station
A view of Giza bus station, Egypt, July 31, 2014 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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Peddlers setting up on sidewalks line the squeezed entrance to the central bus stand, manning merchandise under decrepit umbrellas or sunshade-like structures to give the scorching noonday sun a wide berth.

In this bustling part of Cairo's twin city of Giza where hundreds take their daily commute and dozens of vendors give their all to eke out a living, many average Egyptians no longer bother about who rules the country as they see only an economy in shambles for years, hoping it picks up and day-to-day life improves.

In a shaded corner in the Giza bus station a middle-aged seller perches, hunched on a stool-like cinder block watching the world go by as women passengers stepping in and out of the hall stop to scope out the abbayas or traditional robes he sells.

Mostafa Rady has spent most of his life street vending, 18 years of which in this very same spot.

In a moment tinged with poignancy, he says throughout his 47 years of age he has been given nothing by those in power.

A father of five whose countless endeavours to own a shop or lay his hands on a flat in any of the state-financed housing projects have come to naught nevertheless finds excuses for the government that he says is "overburdened by hiccups of thugs, security and a lack of liquidity."

"We better work and fix ourselves, rather than demand," Rady says with a resigned sigh.

In May's presidential poll, swept by former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Rady spoiled his vote, believing elections would still do for him nothing.

In the area around the station, many seem overwhelmed by the urban jungle of the sub-city of roughly three million. Beggars sprawl out metres apart on the main road's island, street vendors forlornly sprinkled throughout, and rickety carts lumber past across the busy street, providing an eloquent reminder of the poverty almost half of Egypt's 86 million population hovers around. Bellows of motorists above the hubbub of horn-blowing traffic and vehicles manoeuvring through beatle-shaped microbuses pulling up abruptly on one side tells of an insurmountable traffic problem that just adds to the manifold reasons for despair. 

At first the man who employs five men in his three-metre squared semi-fixed stall says police and the provincial governor are good to him and his colleagues as long as they don’t set up on the pavement.

As he retells how injustice had been staring him in the face under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his security apparatus, one of Rady's boys turns around and chimes in: "And now? If you talk, you will be skinned alive," 24-year-old Ali remarks.

As Rady later opens up, he bitterly admits he would rather keep silent. Otherwise he could lose his livelihood and even be thrown in jail ostensibly for being a Muslim Brotherhood member — alluding to a sweeping state crackdown that killed hundreds of Islamist supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi in street showdowns and has thrown thousands of others behind bars.

Across from the left-hand sidewalk is a pedestrian tunnel that runs under the station grounds. Rady points to a ragged cloth dangling down an across-the-street multi-story building. He says what turned out to be a large tattered national flag was hung out when officials were expected to inaugurate the multi-million pound tunnel in the heady days of the 2011 uprising.

"We used to know Ibrahim Mahlab before he was brought to the ministry," Rady says, about the prime minister who formerly headed one of Egypt's largest construction firms that carried out the tunnel work."

He is an active man, but snakes are playing behind his back," he added without elaborating.

Such projects seem to be spurned by the poor wretches who believe their needs should take precedence. "If they had given those millions to all the Giza's vendors, they would have certainly passed poverty," Rady says as he mounts on his motorcycle and speeds off.

Giza bus station
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Worn out

It's almost the midday rush-hour but the bus station, a major service heartland for thousands of city residents, looks atypically unbusy.

Aboard one of the minibuses, Gamal — gazing unblinkingly through a window, hand on cheek — waits for commuters to fill his bus.

Wearing a wry smile, the 35-year-old man, an illiterate, says he is "tired" of the country's stagnant economy.  

"We were born to find the country like this. We don't know if the country has gone backwards, but we know that [at least] there was work for the people," the mustached driver says when another colleague cursed Mubarak for "sliding the country back."

Driven by distrust and disillusionment, Gamal, who only gave his first name, too, seems to have given up on politics.

"We are worn out. One can no longer work out who is right and who is wrong," he says about the country's political malaise, with two presidents overthrown in three years.

Gamal lights a cigarette and shrugs. "I've decided to shift sights only onto my livelihood and my kids." he remarks.

The Giza bus station has once been a flashpoint. The hall is walled in on one side by Al-Estikama Mosque, Giza's one time focal point of pro-Brotherhood protests following Morsi's removal last summer and hitherto on the frontline of deadly clashes between people for and against the deposed Islamist.

People start to slowly trickle onto Gamal's bus before some thereafter get off to seek another ride, apparently having no time to spare until Gamal is done with the chat.

It now costs Gamal an extra LE50 (approximately $7) to run his 27-seater bus, operated by a privately-owned firm, after the government hiked the price of state subsidised fuel in July by up to 78 percent amid a phased plan to rein in state spending.

Unlike those who doubled their fares, Gamal says it is to his benefit not to charge higher, so as to lure in passengers amid competitiveness that runs the gamut of microbuses, state-run coaches and more recently large buses the army deployed for use by the public to cushion the inflationary effect of rising fares.

Minutes later, two of the backup military service vehicles can be seen through Gaber's window pulling to a stop alongside. Lanes away, two army land cruisers stand guard with a dozen conscripts aboard.

One of the quality buses has just departed. On board, a conductor — clad in camouflage uniform, exactly like the driver and two guards seated in the rear — passes through to collect the fare, relatively lower than others across the station.

A rider nods in admiration as he pays. "Bless you, sons," the 40-something tells the solider as he fixes the collar of the latter's jacket in place, patting him on the shoulder. These are shades of the hero-worship the Egyptian armed forces have enjoyed, particularly since the ouster of Morsi last year, in being seen by many as salvaging the country from the much despised Islamist grip.

Gamal says the military buses cause losses to him with their cheap fares. But still, he resigns himself to accepting "what is better for the country."

Giza bus station
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Thorn in the flesh

Talking of how things have recently played out in the country, Gamal argues that security, which El-Sisi repeatedly says takes precedence over democratic reforms, is now far better than during Morsi's days.

Sitting seats away, his younger colleague appears to have an ambivalent attitude.

Drawing deep on a cigarette, Mahmoud, 20, who didn't want to give his full name, shakes his head in disapproval. He says police are now increasingly antagonistic towards him, while acknowledging they are discernibly more active.

In a country where traffic chaos reigns and traffic regulations are laxly enforced, tight restrictions will unsurprisingly be unwelcome.

The young man who has yet to resolve out his conscription service, and thus can't obtain a professional driver license, has already been behind the wheel, driving his 22-foot coach, since he was 15.

Traffic wardens intercepting him, obliging him to pay up to LE40 in fines everyday for a month — something another comrade views as a "chic bribe" — are a thorn in the flesh.

"Why don’t they just leave me to earn my living?" Mahmoud, who provides for his mother and sister, asks around. "Have they [the government] provided me an alternative job?" he laments.

The pall of disgruntlement points to the challenge El-Sisi is destined to confront, despite being the object of cult-like idolisation by many Egyptians since he led Morsi's overthrow.

Repeatedly urging hard work and austerity, the retired field marshal often steers clear of wooing Egyptians with rosy promises. He said the country's situation required at least two years to improve.

Presumed police uncooperativeness under Morsi, after his removal, and up until El-Sisi was elected president is an issue Mahmoud and many others repeatedly return to.

He says the police was evidently disobliging under Mosi, a mystery he has yet to unravel.

"People were mugged in front of police officers and others used to drive the wrong way in full view of the police, who used to do absolutely nothing."

"If those working with El-Sisi had worked with Morsi, the country could have improved."

Giza bus station
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Bigger fish to fry

But to some, politics should take a backseat for different reasons.

Layla strides over to sit on a bench with what turns out to be her school-age daughter in tow. She is waiting for her bus to pull in. She says it's not about politics. People have a bigger fish to fry.

The unrest has sidetracked Egyptians from decency, and freedom led to a dearth of morality, the bespectacled, head-covered mother claims.

"My son says [I feel] this is because I'm old-fashioned," she reasons with an unperturbed smile. People had already been going down this route before the revolution, Layla claims, but now standards are increasingly let loose.

She indignantly recounts voting for Morsi in 2012. In this year's election she gave her backing to El-Sisi, whom she says deserves the patience she lent to the Islamist.

But there is still much to indicate the state-employed woman is cynical. For her, the government's social insurance agency she works for is a "miniature Egypt" where the upper echelons are "stupid, corrupt and often misplaced."

As a bus draws up, Mona stands up preparing to get on.

Giza bus station
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Light at end of tunnel

In the midst of the varying grievances many harbour, some are disposed to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Armiya Magdy, a Germany/France-trained mechanical engineer, is one of those.

Donning a crisp cornflower shirt tucked into a pair of jeans, Magdy says he still clings to hope for the country that he refused to leave despite numerous job offers in Europe.

He is nevertheless a vigorous critic and a shrewd observer.

Looking sideways as he slouches against a wall in the shadows, also waiting for his bus, the eloquent Magdy is keen to enumerate the country's major hiccups: the chaotic traffic, the work-shy youth, decades of free tertiary education that has come at the expense of quality offered, a rising rate of sexual harassment and "begging" from Gulf States that won't keep the country on its feet for good — the last an allusion to aid packages poured into Egypt following Morsi's ouster to prop up its battered economy.

"I travel a lot. Our traffic and roads are a downright disaster," Magdy laments. "When my foreign friends come over they say we drive as though in a playstation game."

On education, his logic appears divergent. "I used to love Nasser for free education," Magdy says about one of the major social achievements of popular late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. "But I'm against providing university education for free. It needs more spending to improve the quality, the research facilities, the labs, etc."

Magdy says transportation helps him keep his finger on the pulse of the streets. "I have a car, but from time to time I leave it and take public transportation to see how far people — and stupidity — have gone." he remarks. "Mostly all is the same."

Spurred by frequent blackouts plaguing the county amid a worsening energy crunch, he is now doing a Master's degree on solar energy that he says will be more cost effective than using coal in power generation — a reference to a recent government decision permitting the use of the highly polluting fuel.

Even a perceived threat of soaring joblessness, of over 13 percent of the country's workforce, provides little unease to the 28-year-old.

"There is no such thing as a lack of jobs. Young people should try hard and they will eventually land on something, or else at least they should go and pursue studies instead of idling in cafes."

Armiya believes energy subsidy cuts were a must, given that Egypt's fuel is amongst the cheapest in the world. For him, the money should instead be pumped into the country's poor education system, healthcare and other public services that he has long wished to see improve.

"I'm very optimistic … There must be disasters so nations can rise," he says. "We just keep our fingers crossed that our share of disasters stops this far."

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