Cairo’s Ultimate Smart Vehicle: The Donkey Cart

A donkey cart in Cairo
A donkey cart in Cairo
Yahia Shawkat

CAIRO â€" A third of Cairo's residents walk, cycle or use carts as their primary means of transportation, while in Egypt's provincial cities, such as Shibin al-Kom in Monufiya, more than half the population is motor-free.

The state, however, insists on fighting users of non-mechanized vehicles, especially donkey carts. Most governors have tried to ban them by imposing harsh penalty fees, far harsher than those imposed on other modes of transportation. The penalty is almost equal to the price of the cart itself, and sometimes the cart is destroyed and the donkeys or horses killed and fed to zoo animals.

There have been recent moves by the governors of Cairo, Giza Qena and Assiut to ban carts which, as officials argue, disrupt the flow of traffic and do not project a civilized image of the city.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is known for cycling. Along with other state officials, he has advocated for the increased use of bikes, which surely also disrupt the flow of traffic, although they may look more civilized.

We should not forget that traffic laws in countries we consider civilized, such as Britain and the United States, allow carts on their roads. And in comparison to other vehicles, carts pose much less of a threat to passengers and pedestrians. We have yet to hear, for example, about a cart running over a pedestrian.

The ban on carts in Egypt cannot be dissociated from their status as a poor person’s vehicle. Carts sustain thousands of households, supporting low-income families in their work and mobility. They are a significant economic pillar for their owners, makers and users, as exemplified by recent protests in Assiut.

They also directly bolster the Egyptian economy, saving billions of pounds in fuel annually, at a time when energy subsidies have reached a quarter of the state’s expenditure. This all happens without any governmental interference, initiatives or awareness campaigns.

Carts could be re-incorporated onto the city’s streets through dedicated lanes in the areas in which they operate. The use of carts could also be expanded to natural reserves, tourist resorts and areas that are particularly sensitive to pollution.

Fueling up â€" Photo: David Dennis

Am Salah, a former donkey cart driver, insists that carts are actually the smart vehicle of the city. He says he can transport virtually anything in exchange for a fare â€" gas cylinders, refuse or construction waste â€" because donkey carts are especially adept at maneuvering their way through landfill sites. They also happen to be less costly for customers than cars.

The carts come in all shapes and colors. There are regular carts; Sawahli carts, long ones used to transport steel rods for construction; carettas, with two wheels; and carriages, which have four wheels are are used to transport people. Some owners decorate their carts, though not the ones they use for work â€" "except in Alexandria where everyone decorates their carts whether for work or not," says Salah.

Many households in Old Cairo and in the cemetery area have carts, although they’re much more common in Giza. The reason for this is that the former governor of the Egyptian capital tried to ban carts several times. "Before the revolution, we were forbidden from passing in front of churches and near Amro Ibn al-As mosque before 2 p.m. because of the tourists. And of course, we were not allowed along the Nile Corniche."

A Cairo governor also tried to ban carts in Giza, because many of them start their journeys there. But the local governor told him that he wouldn’t ban carts as long as they adorned Egypt's 20 pound note.

Despite his fondness for donkey carts, Salah no longer has one. He bought a used pickup truck instead, so as to avoid the kind of problems he had once when driving on the Ramadan 10 Bridge.

"A car behind me was honking, so I gestured with my hands to tell the driver to pass alongside me," he recalls. "It turned out he was a police officer and he pulled me over, got me off my cart and beat me up until I lost hearing in my left ear."

The pickup set Salah back about 40,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly $5,000), far more than the price of a cart and horse, which together can be had for approximately 5,500 Egyptian pounds ($685). The expense was a tough pill to swallow. But it's not the only thing that made giving up his cart such a difficult choice.

"Some people just believe that the horse brings good fortune," he says. "They like to have a cart, even if they can afford a pickup."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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