Egyptian Reflections: Democracy in Traffic

Democracy in Traffic*

Rebecca J. Romsdahl

This is the first of four essays reflecting on Egypt. Please also read the introduction to see how they are all linked. Enjoy!

After two hours sitting on the runway and ten and a half hours of flight time, our fellow passengers seemed very happy to be home, clapping and cheering as the pilot welcomed us to Cairo. He announced that those of us seated on the left-side of the plane should look out the windows for a magnificent view. I was thrilled at the sights of ancient and modern Egypt below us- the Great Giza pyramids, the Sphinx, the Cairo tower, the Citadel, the Mena House hotel where the WWII peace accord was signed; seeing such grand monuments from the air is magical.

We had a mix-up in communications. Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up at the airport, but we did not realize that, so we had asked our tour guide company to send a car. We realized our mistake when we found two people holding signs with our names, waiting outside the arrival gate. The hotel’s driver was kind enough to only mildly chastise us and let the tour company’s two guys give us a ride (they were younger than him and likely not making as much income). In our jet-lagged condition, the ride from the airport to hotel seemed to last forever; it was a little more than 90 minutes to go 30 miles and most of that time we spent sitting in bumper-bumper traffic on Cairo’s ring-road highway that takes you around the center of the city.

Nobody loves the Cairo ring road; they only endure it. They sit behind the wheels of private cars and fiddle impatiently with the radio dial, or they perch up in the cabins of lumbering, overweight trucks and bellow their horns, or they slump into passenger seats of half-broken taxis and feel great lakes of sweat expanding slowly, and unstoppably across their backs. … Everyone moves at breakneck speed, or they don’t move at all. It takes only a few moments for the entire highway to congeal and switch from race-track to traffic clot. This happens every morning and every afternoon, and when it does there is nothing to do but wait. (Shenker p. 241)

At one point on our ride to the hotel, traffic was stopped for some reason, but once it was moving again I was impressed (and probably too jet-lagged to be afraid for our safety). The drivers organized themselves into 4-5 lines of cars on a 3-lane road and deftly weaved in and around each other’s vehicles with only inches of space; it would make most American drivers sweat bullets and I instantly recognized I could never imagine driving there. In this city of some 18 million people, it was common to see all types of transportation mixing together- flashy new SUVs, junky 30-year old cars, small motor-bikes with 5-6 people piled on each one (often whole families, including infants in mothers’ arms), tuk-tuks (which are like three-wheeled motor-bikes connected to a covered cart for transporting goods or passengers), and men leading or riding donkey’s pulling carts. At one intersection, with no traffic signal and nobody directing traffic, we watched a serious game of chicken. The front car in the far right lane inched its way into the stream of cross-traffic until it broke the flow with its bumper preventing the next car from entering the intersection. Once this first lane was breached, the cars on our street quickly filled in and that first car on the right slowly inched its way into the next lane and the next until our street filled the intersection with flowing traffic. Then the game of chicken swapped to the cars lining the cross-street. This appeared to be an insane normal mode of operation for several intersections.

“[T]here are two things these days which are notable about the ring road. One is the prevalence of checkpoints along it. Some are permanent and others are makeshift; you turn a corner and suddenly there they are, a line of metal barriers jutting across the highway, patrolled by overheated men clutching weapons and clad in tan or black. … [They] force all vehicles to slow down and crawl through a small gap. Faces are scanned; some are beckoned over to the side of the road, where ID cards are demanded and questions are asked. The air around these checkpoints is stale; it smells of state control, of authority and obedience. If you look the wrong way, or say the wrong thing, or wear the wrong clothes … your journey on the ring road will come to an end.” … In 2014, an eighteen-year old student was stopped by officers … because he was wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Nation Without Torture’. He was taken to a police station, beaten and electrocuted, and thrown in jail; at the time of Shenker’s writing, he had been held for over 500 days without any charges filed. (Shenker, p. 241)=

We encountered these checkpoints in many places we traveled around Egypt, even at one of our hotels. On our first day in Cairo, we climbed in the car with our driver and guide, Mamdouh, but the tourism police (as we took to calling them), would not let us leave after initially checking our documents. We sat in the car for at least 30 minutes while Mamdouh and the officers talked and made phone calls. Our driver grumbled about “too much security, especially for Americans.” At lunch, Mamdouh apologized for the delay in our start and explained that the tourism police keep very close tabs on American tourists, “for safety”; our every stop must be documented and reported when we arrive and when we leave tourist sites. There was a discrepancy in our paperwork that morning between what the officers had on file and what our guide’s itinerary outlined, so it took some time to straighten out the detail. We nervously chuckled about this later as we made it an inside joke, they must be either overly-worried that Americans will get kidnapped or that we are all spies.

The other notable feature of the ring road … is the gaps that have appeared in the low walls which line the overpass. They are rough and jagged, peering out over huge mounds of sand and dirt that have been banked up underneath the highway to form illicit ramps between the ring road and the communities living in the shadows below. For many decades, the inhabitants of these [informal, unrecognized] communities had been forced to share their environment with the underbelly of the highway, without ever having access to its tarmac. Their homes, cars and shops commingled with giant concrete pillars holding up the road, stanchions of separation that threw daily life into darkness and lent each neighborhood a ceaseless backdrop of rumbles and roars. Now without asking permission, residents have decided to end this isolation and build their own unofficial access points to the ring road; today their tuk-tuks and pick-ups and family wagons are wobbling their way up on to the fast lane at pace, with a cheerful indifference to formal rules.

The security checkpoints and the informal access ramps represent two very different understandings of power and space in revolutionary [and counter-revolutionary] Egypt … home to both a whirlwind of change and its symbiotic opposite, the struggle to prevent change from materializing at all. One vision is of public space being back in the hands of its self-appointed custodians, those who know best how to rule it. The other [vision] is of people physically remaking their city, and their country, for themselves. (Shenker p. 242-243)

Only years later, after reading these insights from Shenker’s book, did I realize that it was through traffic and police checkpoints that we first encountered the political and economic gaps between Egypt’s rich and powerful people and its everyday poor people.

Reference:  Shenker, J. (2016) The Egyptians: A radical story. Allen Lane of Penguin Books. United Kingdom.


* This series is being reposted here from Rebecca Romsdahl’s blog, Blue Marble Notes, with her generous permission.

Rebecca J. Romsdahl is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota where she teaches courses on environmental science in policy and communication. Her research examines the human dimensions of global environmental change. Romsdahl earned her PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University, her MS from Michigan State University, and BA from Gustavus Adolphus College. She enjoys global travel adventures, hiking and camping, gardening, and visiting her family farm in Minnesota.

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