Visit to bus stop becomes political debate as Egyptian drivers' strike continues

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Thursday 22 Sep 2011

Ahram Online hears frustration, resignation and confusion at a Downtown Cairo bus station as strike begins to bite

cairo bus Strike
cairo bus Strike (Photo: Mai Shaheen))

Abdel-Moneim Riyad is Downtown Cairo’s main bus station. The scene was calm even though the bus depot manager confirmed that no buses had arrived at the station since the morning. There was no chaos as one would expect, only a small group of people seated at the waiting benches. “They’re hoping that the buses will eventually arrive,” the station conductor told Ahram Online.

Only one bus arrived at the station during the morning shift. There were only three bus garages in Cairo that had not joined the strike on its first day.

The bus station has an area for microbuses, the more expensive alternative to public sector buses. The microbus area was loud and crowded, but the supervisor of the microbus area told Ahram Online that this was the normal level of traffic and it was not due to the absence of buses. On a general note, many Egyptians avoid public sector buses due to their poor conditions, and resort to using microbuses and private sector mini-buses.

By the start of the afternoon shift, buses started arriving at the station. The afternoon shift drivers had not yet joined the strike. “They [the Public Transport Authority] distributed a signed promise that we would receive our raises, although they did not specify the 200 per cent increase earlier agreed upon, so we cannot consider it an achievement of our demands,” said Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, one of the drivers at the station. “We are giving the authority a chance to release another statement with the specified raise they promised us, if that statement is not issued within a couple of days, the afternoon shift drivers will join the strike as well” continued Abdel-Hamid.

How people in the station perceived the strike revealed a deep paradox in how local people perceive how the country is doing.

Many people at the station did not know there was a strike in the first place.

They know buses often take a very long time to arrive at the station. An old man said that he had been waiting four hours, showing a minimal level of discomfort as he spoke.

When people learned there was a strike, the reactions were very strongly against it, even though some of them actually agreed that public sector workers are still being marginalised in Egypt in favour of the private sector investors after the revolution.

"The new government, useless as it is, made sure to protect the interests of investors and businessmen, with no attention to improving workers conditions,” said a man at the station. Ironically, the same man strongly condemned the bus drivers strike, claiming that “strikers these days are only going after personal demands.”

It is well known that public sector bus stations serve the lesser privileged social classes in Egypt; many of the people at the station were public sector workers themselves.

The man, who is a worker at a public institution, said that strikes should never be used to achieve demands. “If we have a problem, we submit a complaint to our superiors, if they do not respond, then what’s done is done, we just keep on working as if it never happened, strikes are only bringing down the economy,” continued the same man who had just been blaming the economic injustice on private monopolies.

“There is no money in the country to satisfy the demands of all these strikers. They [the government] should call on Mubarak to bring our money back first,” said a woman with a villager’s accent who had joined the conversation.

“I’ll tell you what the bus driver strikes are good for. They are good for letting the microbus drivers find no shame in raising the fares. The afflicted are those you see waiting here, unable to go home. Public service workers should never strike,” commented an older man at the station.

Another old man in the small crowd suggested the defence minister - who happens to be the current military ruler - send orders to those who are currently doing military service to “go to the garages, take over the buses and drive people home, never mind those drivers.”

To a well-informed Egyptian, this comment could be considered a black joke about the revolution, but in another kind of irony, it is also the well-informed ones who really know how much the joke, in reality, could not be less funny.

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