Egypt is cracking down on the ubiquitous motorized rickshaws that navigate the capital's narrow streets.
CAIRO — When you stop a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the Ard al-Lewa residential area, the answer will almost always be, “I’ll drop you off outside.”
The heavily populated area just off Sudan Street in the Mohandiseen area of Cairo has become one of many across Egypt only accessible to tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled motorized vehicles that began appearing on the streets in the mid-2000s.
In informal areas and villages where the roads are narrow and unpaved, tuk-tuks venture where no cars or buses can, providing a service that is now endangered by the state’s recent crackdown on the ramshackle mode of transportation.
In February, the government put a one-year hold on the import of tuk-tuks and intensified its regulation of unlicensed motorized vehicles. Police pickup trucks have been spotted carrying confiscated tuk-tuks in recent months.
Following a report from the State Commissioners Authority recommending banning tuk-tuks, the cabinet issued a decision suspending imports of the vehicles and their spare parts for a year. The decision also gave tuk-tuk and motorcycle owners two weeks to acquire the necessary licenses before the Ministry of Interior confiscates their vehicles.
In its report, the State Commissioners Authority argued that the three-wheeled vehicles pose a danger to security and health and are in violation of traffic, customs, import and export laws that regulate their presence.
The report goes on to say that tuk-tuks have become commonly used in thefts and other crimes, and are difficult to trace, due to their ability to escape down small alleys and lack of proper licensing. It adds that they are a health and safety hazard due to their polluting engines and poor stability.
The report acknowledges that tuk-tuks offer a cheap service to people who need transport, not to mention providing work opportunities — but it says that their disadvantages outweigh any benefits. The report also blames officials for allowing so many tuk-tuks to operate without licensing.
Experts say that government attempts to eliminate tuk-tuks will affect many residents of areas that are dependent on the vehicle, as well as unemployed owners who depend on them for income, and may even have larger repercussions on the economy.
Gamal Mohamed, 52, stands in front of his tuk-tuk, which is parked in a queue at the entrance of the Ard al-Lewa residential area. He says he has been working as a tuk-tuk driver for five years to supplement his income as an employee in a private company, and to support his family of eight. But since the company went bankrupt last September, his tuk-tuk has been his only source of income.
“I am only doing this because I have to,” Mohamed says. “What company is going to employ me at this age? What should I do, steal or work on the tuk-tuk to make ends meet for me and my children? And what would make them leave their schools and work?” he asks, pointing at the younger drivers around him, asserting that all those who drive tuk-tuks do it because they lack alternatives.
Another driver, Ibrahim, says that the licensing process is not as simple as it sounds. In 2009, Ibrahim says he paid 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($213) for a license and an equal amount in bribes. But he was still stopped by traffic officers who told him that his Traffic Authority license wasn’t enough, that he needed another license from local authorities too.
“I will not follow through with this process,” says Ibrahim, who also work as a physician’s secretary. “I paid a lot of money before, and it was all in vain.”
Most drivers are either not familiar with the licensing process or cannot afford it, so they continue to operate without a license, limiting the area in which they drive to avoid security checkpoints.
Following the state’s February decision to give owners of motorcycles and tuk-tuks two weeks to operate legally, there were long lines outside of traffic departments, with owners complaining that they were made to return every day for weeks and that the employees wouldn’t finish their paperwork unless they paid bribes.
Yehia Shawkat, a housing and land rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that the state is responsible for allowing tuk-tuks to become widely used over the past few decade without proper licensing, even though the mechanism for obtaining this license — the same one required for motorcycles — was already there.
Shawkat says that the tuk-tuks per se are not problematic if regulated. On the contrary, he believes they are fuel-efficient and a legitimate response to a need.
In addition to putting the thousands who rely on them for income out of work and inconveniencing residents who depend on this kind of transport, Shawkat says that the decision to ban the import of tuk-tuks could also hinder growth in crucial areas of Cairo.
Sometimes the only mode of transport
In some areas of 6th of October City and other remote locations, tuk-tuks are the only means of transportation. Shawkat says that banning them could delay development of some areas that are built but have been left partially deserted because of a lack of transportation.
The state’s attitude toward tuk-tuks, he says, is the same as its attitude toward informal housing areas. Instead of supporting people who have found solutions for problems that the state failed to address, the government blames the people for its own failures, he says.
Mohamed warns of the dangers of the state continuously stripping away alternatives for the poor. “The country is turning the poor people into monsters,” he says. “They are leading them toward explosion. Why are they tying people’s hands? Do they want the poor people to steal and kill?”
When asked what he would do if tuk-tuks are banned, drivers 30-year-old Mohamed Ramadan and his 23-year-old brother Ahmed reply without hesitation. “We will sell hashish,” they each say, asserting that they will have no other solution.
“Some people misuse tuk-tuks and some people use them to make a living,” says Ramadan, who has been supporting his household by driving his tuk-tuk for the last four years. “The state shouldn’t treat everyone the same.”
The drivers in Ard al-Lewa have solutions for the concerns over their vehicles. They are asking for an easy and inexpensive licensing method and for those under the age of 18 to be banned from driving. They also say that they have approached the Traffic Authority to ask for a parking lot for tuk-tuks so they don’t block Sudan Street. They have yet to receive a response.
Tuk-tuks have acquired a notorious reputation because of the many under-age drivers. While residents of upper-class Cairo neighborhoods, such as Maadi, where tuk-tuks have recently started appearing, feel inconvenienced by their presence, residents in Ard al-Lewa rely on them heavily.
Ghada Hassan, a 25-year-old Ard al-Lewa resident, says that tuk-tuks provide an essential service for her and her 4-year old daughter, transporting them from her house to the nearest microbus station — a 15-minute walk that she would otherwise have to make three times a day.
Urban planner and author of the book Understanding Cairo: the logic of a city out of control, David Sims, says that the fact that the state ignored tuk-tuks for years before deciding to ban them is a continuation of the cycle of neglect that festers in the city.
Pointing out that they offer an indispensable service and are efficient, he calls the decision to ban them shortsighted.
“As often happens, it’s a question of class perception,” he says. “Those who want to ban tuk-tuks never used them and have rarely been to informal areas, so they don’t know their advantages."
Sims says that, as suggested by the drivers, having a proper licensing process is all the regulation that is needed to keep this vital service and eliminate its downsides.