Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A Dictator Is Gone, but Egypt’s Traffic and Congestion Seem Immovable
CAIRO — It seems a measure of how little has changed since Egypt’s revolution that Nasr Mohammed Ghaleb still peddles tamarind juice here beneath an overpass, 15 cents a glass, amid the smog and piercing horns of the line of traffic he is blocking.
“The people in the cars coming this way are all hot, and so they want something to drink,” Mr. Ghaleb, 43, said the other day from behind his stand in Ramses Square. The people are hot, in part, because of the traffic, and the traffic is bad, in part, because of Mr. Ghaleb.
“I’m off to the side,” he insisted, smiling and looking a bit embarrassed.
So it was before the revolution, so it is now. Police officers come, sometimes, to clear out the street vendors — there are thought to be thousands, if not tens of thousands, in this massive city’s vast informal economy — and to ease the flow of traffic. The street vendors return, with nowhere else to go, and so does the congestion.
Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist leader who is Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has inherited far larger problems: an economy devastated by unrest, a broken system of food and fuel subsidies and plunging foreign currency reserves. He has turned to the International Monetary Fund for assistance in the form of a $4.8 billion loan, to Saudi Arabia and Qatar for aid and investment, to the United States for debt relief. His country is desperate to attract tourists and investors.
Mr. Morsi has also pledged to remove the street vendors and improve traffic, though, echoing the promises of decades of other officials who have sought to tame Cairo’s infamous crush of jalopies and buses and taxis and motorbikes. Mr. Morsi has called traffic a high priority for his first 100 days in office, not least because of its tremendous cost to the economy: as much as $8 billion in lost productivity, delays and excess fuel consumption, according to the World Bank. That amounts to about 3 percent of gross domestic product, putting Cairo’s rate several times higher than that of comparable cities. It is one of several basic but intractable problems still troubling Egypt, one that belies the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 and speaks to the longstanding challenges this country still faces.
Everything has changed, many Egyptians say, and nothing has changed.
“Chaos is the master of the situation,” said Saad Hagras, a columnist and the managing editor at a business newspaper, Al Alam Al Youm, describing traffic in Cairo but also life in Egypt, more generally. “Politics has been brought back to life,” to be sure, Mr. Hagras said, but the revolution has solved little else. Crime and violence are up, he noted, with fewer police officers on the streets since the uprising that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Poverty remains extensive — more than 40 percent of the population is thought to live on less than $2 per day — and unemployment is high and rising.
“The citizen’s life is worse now than it was before the Jan. 25 revolution,” Mr. Hagras said.
Mohammed Ahmed, 31, who sells pirated software and videos in the street in Ramses Square, echoed that sentiment. “It’s no different now than under Mubarak,” Mr. Ahmed said at his stand in central Cairo, outside the city’s principal railway station. Commuters flow out into the shaded road here, between the cars and battered microbuses that crawl around the pilings of the bridge overhead. The police come most weeks to chase him off the street, Mr. Ahmed said. “We’re causing a problem, yes,” he said, referring to the traffic, “but we’re not the main reason for it.”
Designated parking spaces are difficult to come by in Cairo, so drivers park in the street. The traffic police often appear wildly unpreoccupied by traffic. Gas is subsidized and inexpensive, and stoplights are rare, the World Bank notes in a report, and the city’s transportation infrastructure was simply never meant to handle so many vehicles or human beings. While accommodations have been made — bridges, a ring road, a subway system, a bus network — they have not kept pace with the city’s growth.
About 2.2 million vehicles now ply Cairo’s streets, a number that has risen an average of 4 percent each year since the 1970s, said Safwan Khedr, an engineering professor and transportation expert at the American University in Cairo. Egypt’s population has grown by about 13 million in the past decade, a rise of nearly 20 percent; greater Cairo has absorbed much of that growth, to reach 18 million residents.
Road accidents kill about 1,000 people — half are pedestrians — in greater Cairo each year, and injure 4,000 more, according to the World Bank. Ambulances here are equipped with loudspeakers; emergency workers plead with drivers to find room for them to pass.
Local driving habits are famously problematic, too. Cairenes often shrug off stoplights and traffic rules and what more timid souls might call prudence, Dr. Khedr noted, and the revolution has done nothing to change this. Many Egyptians learn to drive from friends or family, he said, not in classes, and licenses are generally awarded without a road test.
“If a person is doing something wrong, he should know he is doing something wrong,” said Dr. Khedr, a bit exasperated.
Police checkpoints, to check drivers’ licenses, often cause traffic problems as well.
“To check drivers’ licenses, would you make the whole country stop moving?” asked Mohammed Hedi, 49. He stopped his white taxicab in the middle of the road along the Sixth of October bridge to point to several rows of halted midday traffic below.
There are the street vendors, too. Mr. Morsi’s government has suggested placing the vendors at designated markets once a week; the vendors complain that they would never be able to feed their families with just one day’s work. There are vague plans to build new market areas, off the pavement, but the appropriate land has yet to be identified or prepared. Nor is it altogether clear where, in central Cairo, such land might be found.
“Where do they want us to go?” asked Mr. Ahmed, the salesman of pirated software. “Do they want us to stay home?”
Business has fallen sharply since last year, he said, with customers concerned about the country’s stability. He now sells no more than about $50 of goods a day, he said, and takes home just a fraction of that to support his wife and twin boys.
But he has yet to pass judgment on Mr. Morsi, who took office in late June, despite his pledge to clear out the street vendors; two months is too little time, Mr. Ahmed said. “We’ll give him a chance,” he said. “We hope God is on his side.”
Still, Mr. Ahmed has every intention of keeping his stand here amid the traffic, where it has been for nearly eight years, though he does not much like the work or the noise.
“Every day, I wake up and say, ‘I hope God will let me stop coming here,’ ” he said, laughing. “But I keep coming.”