Cairo's tuk-tuk drivers defiant despite ban

Menna Alaa El-Din, Saturday 12 Sep 2015

Popular with some residents, viewed with suspicion by others, and a long-time bugbear for authorities, tuk-tuk drivers defend their livelihood

File Photo: Archive photo of Tuk-tuk in Egypt (Photo: Al-Ahram)

On a blazing hot midweek day, the streets of Cairo are rapidly congested by traffic including cars, microbuses and motorbikes. Suddenly a tuk-tuk blasting shaabi (a genre of street music) makes its debut, breaking street norms.

“If you go into that street you'll be shot,” a security guard manning a building in the Boulaq Abu El Ela area warns Emad Ramadan, the 45-year-old driver of the tuk-tuk.

Ramadan stops and argues with the security guard for a while, but decides he is fighting a losing battle and takes a different route.

“So it’s now you [the security guard] and the government against us,” Ramadan mutters in a low voice.

In July, Cairo governorate officials moved to ban auto-rickshaws such as tuk-tuks in eight Cairo districts, including Cairo's downtown area, promising to impose a LE1,500 ($192) fine on violators and confiscate tuk-tuks until drivers provide ownership documents.

Cairo governorate implemented the ban in seven more districts in August, including the up-market Heliopolis and Al-Nozha districts.

Ramadan says the government fine is a “burden”.

“I have to borrow money from my friends so I can pay the fine. I have children to feed and basically the tuk-tuk sustains my living,” Ramadan told Ahram Online.

Ramadan risks his livelihood being confiscated on a daily basis, but continues to operate in Boulaq in his unlicensed vehicle. He knows the to-and-fro between tuk-tuk drivers and the authorities can go on forever.

"After all, it's been like this for years and will be for years to come," he says.

A love-hate relationship

While the government may have declared all-out war on the three-wheeled vehicles this summer, it has exploited the issue many times since 2010 for political leverage.

Tuk-tuks were first imported in the early 2000s, then manufactured locally without traffic authority permission.

In 2007, Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) announced that 63,700 rickshaws were operating across 13 governorates.

When they reached the capital the government tried to combat the phenomenon.

But in 2010 Ahmed Ezz, steel tycoon and then secretary-general of the ruling NDP, said the spread of the three-wheelers actually contributed to the rise in national income, calling it an NDP accomplishment.

Ousted president Mohamed Morsi saluted tuk-tuk drivers in his first speech as president in June 2012 in the iconic Tahrir Square, acknowledging them and other professionals as “my people”.

Throughout the years tuk-tuk drivers have been relentlessly pushing for official recognition.

One of the 15 areas where the government imposed the ban is Boulaq Abu El-Ela, a poor Cairo district.

Loud shaabi music, its lyrics detailing harsh living conditions and worn-out friendships, is blasting from Karim Sayed's tuk-tuk.

The unemployed 19-year-old resolved to make a living for his family by becoming a tuk-tuk driver.

Most drivers are like him - youths who had no jobs. They use the part-car, part-motorcycle vehicle as an informal means of work.

Unemployment in Egypt reached 12.7% in 2015.

Karim’s uncle bought him his tuk-tuk in 2013 for LE22,000 ($2,800).

In 2015, tuk-tuks sell for between LE21,000 and LE35,000 (about $4,470), a jump from LE8,000 ($1,022) in 2009.

The prices of tuk-tuks have spiked after the government imposed a one-year import ban in 2014 on motorcycles and tuk-tuks, as well as their manufacturing components.

According to the Cairo governorate spokesperson, the city never licensed tuk-tuks in the first place. Drivers like Karim have their tuk-tuks licensed in the neighbouring governorate of Giza instead.

Nevertheless, he had his tuk-tuk confiscated in Cairo last week and had to pay a fine to get it back.

Next to Karim in the front seat is his brother Mahrous, 11.

Together they earn LE50 to 70 EGP ($7-$9) daily from rides. Tuk-tuk fares are very cheap compared to regular white taxi fares.

Mahrous scrutinises his brother’s every move - how he changes gear, how he inspects the streets and how he argues with passers-by and taxi drivers.

“I want to be like my brother. I want to drive the tuk-tuk so I don’t become a troublemaker for my family,” Mahrous says, his eyes concentrated on the road.

Tuk-tuk estimations

While there are no official numbers on tuk-tuks in Egypt, a 2015 report by Egyptian consultancy N GAGE estimates there are between four and seven million tuk-tuks in Egypt, creating some 200,000 jobs each year.

The report claims roughly 30 million Egyptians use tuk-tuks daily.

But despite being unlicensed, an interim government in 2012 decided to tax tuk-tuks as if they were taxis, requiring Ghabbour Auto to pay a 15 percent sales tax each time it built one of the mini vehicles.

“We import the units from Indian Bajaj and assemble them locally,” the head of public relations at Ghabbour Auto, Sally Abdel-Azim, told Ahram Online.

Abdel-Azim asserts that Ghabbour Auto is not opposed to the governmental ban, agreeing that tuk-tuks should not operate on main roads, but saying they should be allowed in ‘places like narrow alleys, where only tuk-tuks can move around due to space restrictions”.

Dangerous or helpful?

The reasons given for the ban were that tuk-tuks create chaos in traffic, and also that police believe some unsolved crimes are attributable to tuk-tuk drivers.

Generally tuk-tuks bear no plates, making it difficult to identify owners and drivers in case of accidents and crimes.

In a TV interview with the privately owned CBC channel, security expert and brigadier general Khaled Okasha claimed 20 percent of crime in Egypt is committed through tuk-tuks.

“The chaotic nature of tuk-tuks hinders police and complicates their duties,” Okasha added.

Some experts believe that the ban is an attempt to curb street unruliness.

“The ban is just a part of a bigger campaign. The state wants to fully control the streets,” Sherif Mohy El-Din, a counter-terrorism and human rights researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Ahram Online.

But for passengers in Egypt's poorer neighbourhoods, tuk-tuks are mandatory for transport.

“Tuk-tuks are very important to us. It has made it easy for us [elderly women] who can’t walk to move around. It’s also a very cheap and mobile service,” 65-year-old Sayeda Farghaly of Boulaq told Ahram Online.

According to Farghaly, she and other residents are not upset by the presence of tuk-tuks in their neighbourhood, saying residents are “used to them”.

Others believe "nothing good” comes out of tuk-tuk drivers.

“They [tuk-tuk drivers] are drug addicts. They’re always driving under the influence, and the fact that 11-year-olds are driving them is horrific,” 40-year-old Hag Arafa told Ahram Online.

On Friday, female residents of Giza’s Hadayek Al-Ahram district protested against the “spread of tuk-tuks” in the area.

According to the protesters, tuk-tuk drivers are responsible for robbery and the sexual harassment of women locally.

No clear indications have been offered about how drivers are to make a living if the ban continues.

“If the government wants to ban tuk-tuks, they should find an alternative for us - any well-paid job. That's all we ask for,” 25-year-old Karim Ahmed, who had his vehicle confiscated and now works in a cafe, told Ahram Online.  

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