How Egypt Fell In And Out Of Love With Uber

Uber launched with an excited bang in Egypt in 2014, promising work and new income for a country struggling with unemployment. But the castle of sand has disintegrated, leaving a trail of debt and frustration.

A taxi driver at Cairo
A taxi driver at Cairo
Omaima Ismail

CAIRO — One of Uber's earlier television ads in Egypt starts with a young woman getting into a car. Looking at the man in the driver's seat, she recognizes him — he is the famous footballer Hazem Emam. She is thrilled to see her favorite player. They strike up a conversation and talk for the whole ride, which they both seem to enjoy. The ad encouraged young men to join Uber as "partners."

Uber launched its operations in Egypt in 2014, with only 12 drivers. By 2020, approximately 200,000 people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education, attracted by the flexible hours and the apparent autonomy, were driving for Uber. But, in the past two years, workers say they've seen their income slashed through company policies and an increased number of arbitrary terminations.

Ahmed Ali, who is now 34, saw the ad featuring Hazem Emam and decided to move from Sharqiya to Cairo to give working with Uber a try.

"I graduated with a diploma in commerce when I was 19 years old," Ali says. "I took up several jobs: at a mobile shop, for a contractor, I did all sorts of things as a day laborer. When I turned 22, my family thought it was time to marry me off. To get married, I had to find a stable job and earn a steady salary. After a long search, and through some connections, I landed a temporary contract job at the local council for LE950 (50 euros) per month. My role was to log incoming and outgoing documents: a tedious job with no prospect of promotion. My mental health suffered because of it, but I stuck with it for years."

Then, in 2016, he joined Uber through an agency. "Uber had a good reputation, which I thought would help me earn money," he says.

Ali didn't have a car so he rented one for LE150 (7.85 euros) per eight-hour shift. On top of that, he paid another LE50 (2.60 euros) per week to the agency, and 20% of all fares to Uber itself. But, he says, "I still made good money. So I moved my family to Cairo and started saving to buy my own car, which I eventually did, paying for it in installments."

Ali's income from Uber largely consisted of incentive payments. According to Belal Ezzat, a former Uber driver, incentive programs were a primary attraction for potential contractors. Drivers who made more than 20 trips per week would get an extra LE400 (21 euros). Those who worked during peak traffic hours could charge higher fares. They were also provided health insurance and accident insurance programs (applicable during rides only).

Three years into driving for Uber, things started to change for Ali.

Uber has slashed and canceled incentive programs for drivers as well as offers to customers.

"In mid-2019, the company raised its share of fares from 20 to 26%," he says. "It gradually slashed incentives until they were taken away altogether eight months ago. Partial health insurance was restricted to "top drivers' who make more trips than most of their peers." Coverage for accidents during trips became less comprehensive and less dependable as well, according to Uber driver Islam Ibrahim not his real name.

"We have temporarily suspended bonus rewards," Ahmed Khalil, Uber's general manager in Egypt, told Mada Masr via email. "But we will continue to work on innovating new solutions to support drivers, including our efforts to boost demand for the service in order to help maintain their income, especially during these tough times. We also have Uber Pro, which is a reward program that offers drivers various perks and discounts."

When Uber first launched, drivers and customers were both scarce, and the company needed to increase its appeal to both, a source who formerly worked at the UAE-based car hire company Careem — which was acquired by Uber in March 2019 — told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. The company ran promotional campaigns offering lucrative incentives to drivers and giving customers discounted and free trips, without concern for profit margins mind.

The approach did succeed in expanding the company's base of drivers and customers, according to the source, but it caused it to post losses in Egypt and abroad. Now seeking to minimize those losses, Uber has slashed and canceled incentive programs for drivers as well as offers to customers.

In addition to the stripping of income and benefits, arbitrary suspensions are another factor contributing to worker dissatisfaction.

Uber drivers sit in an Uber's service and training center in Cairo — Photo: Gehad Hamdy/DPA via ZUMA Press

"Uber gave us a dream that turned into a nightmare," Ali says. "As the company canceled incentives, my income dropped substantially. I stuck with it for a while, hoping for things to start looking up soon. But one morning, I woke up to a message from the company saying, "Your account has been suspended." It was a shock."

Ali reached out to the company to find out what was behind the suspension. A week later, he received a dryly worded message: "Customers have complained that the position of the driver's seat made their legs uncomfortable." Despite persistent attempts, Ali was never able to reinstate his account. He found himself unemployed, in debt because of the car he bought, and overwhelmed with his family's expenses. He soon learned he was not the only one.

The arbitrary suspensions, Uber's Egypt GM Khalil claims, "happened due to a minor technical issue that affected some drivers. The company is working to resolve it. We appreciate all drivers and work to support all users for a smooth, convenient experience with Uber."

But the former Careem executive believes that the real reason for the sudden terminations of so many drivers is the lack of competition. Since Uber acquired Careem, it no longer has a motive to overlook some of the violations drivers used to get away with.

"I just don't understand why this is happening," Ali says. "Why did Uber flip on us like this? They used to call us "partners.""

For Amr Adly, a political economy professor at the American University in Cairo, the Uber model was met with such optimism because, with limited capital, it carved out a market that had not existed before, and one that engaged a large number of previously unemployed individuals by bringing advanced technology to unskilled labor. But "that optimism was premature," he says.

"Uber gave us a dream that turned into a nightmare."

Uber's financial framework, Adly explains, shows that the model cannot handle competition. It allows for only a very thin profit margin, and so the existence of multiple competitors leads to financial crises. This is what happened with Uber in China, where the company was driven out of the market by competitors. Uber compensates for this by monopolizing entire markets where it can, which is what happened in Egypt. With less competition, the company is able to pressure drivers to accept less favorable terms.

Ezzat hints at an ongoing effort by a number of former Uber drivers who were arbitrarily terminated to organize and bring a lawsuit against the company.

Can drivers sue the company if they never had a contract? Yasser Saad, a lawyer at the Legal Collective to Promote Labor Awareness, says the Labor Law deems any task performed by a worker for an institution or company as a work relationship, even without a written contract. If the relationship is terminated before the task is complete, compensation is due. This means that Uber is in a professional relationship with drivers, which cannot be legally terminated without the involvement of the Labor Bureau and the Labor Court. Since neither was consulted, the dismissal would be considered arbitrary and the worker should be entitled to compensation.

The random and sudden account suspensions by Uber were condemned in a statement by the Land Center for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization focusing on the rights of small-scale farmers and other labor issues. Its director, Karam Saber, says the relationship between Uber and similar ridesharing companies and their drivers is defined by forced acquiescence. The company states its conditions and the driver's only option is to tap accept on the app, Saber explains.

The attorney Saad points out that in California, a lawsuit against Uber led to a Superior Court ordering the company to consider its drivers employees rather than independent contractors, and therefore as people entitled to the same benefits as the company's other employees, such as compensation for dismissal. This ruling has been overridden in California by Proposition 22, a law passed by ballot in November which exempts ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft from classifying their drivers as employees. Uber and other ride-sharing and delivery apps spent around $200 million dollars backing Proposition 22.

A characteristic feature of the gig economy, Adly says, is that value can be created from nothing in no time, and also vanish in no time. "This makes for largely volatile work relationships. It does not allow for stable relationships like those which are established in industrial economies, for example."

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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