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Egypt Moves to Replace Popular Tuk-Tuks, But Risks Devastating Informal Economy

A tuk tuk rider through old town of Cairo. Date: October, 2018. (Photo: Mondo79)
A tuk-tuk ride through old town of Cairo. Date: October, 2018. (Photo: Mondo79)

In an attempt to modernize and improve the appearance of Egypt, the government is moving to replace tuk-tuks with minivans but could devastate an off-the-grid economy while doing so.

Egyptian transportation authorities are considering a new plan for replacing small taxi vans, the tuk-tuks, with seven-seat minivans. Tuk-tuks, three-wheeled vehicles that run on gasoline, have been running in the densely populated small alleys and neighborhoods of Egypt for the past two decades, hauling people to various destinations. Tuk-tuks have so far served as an easy, low-fare means of transportation that many low-income Egyptians ride in various parts of the country.

According to a report, published this week by the Associated Press (AP), the ministry of transportation and a few other Egyptian institutions, including the finance ministry, the military production utility, along with three major auto manufacturers, is now studying a new plan. Authorities expect the new minibuses to run on Egyptian streets a year from now.

The spokesman of Egypt’s Ministry of Local Development Khaled el-Qassim told the AP that the project would be for the best of Egyptians’ health and safety. He added,  “We are creating a more beautiful image of our country.” The minivan replacements would use cleaner fuel and are a step toward modernizing Egypt’s transportation system.

The plan would require tuk-tuk drivers to sell their vehicles for scrap and take loans to purchase the minivans. There’s a possibility of fines and other punishments if the drivers don’t comply with the new program.

Local Opposition

However, the move could breed widespread resentment among owners of tuk-tuks like Ehab Sobhy, a 47-year-old driver of a tuk-tuk in the crowded Cairo suburb of Shobra. Sobhy told the AP that he earns only an average of 130 Egyptian pounds a day ($8 U.S.), not enough even with a loan for him to afford it. The new minivan could cost 90,000 pounds. “If they take this away … how is my family going to eat,” asked Sobhy.

The requirement is up against the backdrop of harsh economic conditions, across the country, amid austerity measures imposed by Egyptian authorities for the past few years.

Mahmoud Zaydan, a 52-year-old father of five, who started driving a tuk-tuk when he couldn’t find work as a painter told the AP the program would hurt the poor. Zaydan said he cannot afford the new vehicle, at all.

Commenting on the plan, Rabab Mahdi, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo said the new plan reflects how the state is more obsessed with appearances than investing in the infrastructure of where people actually live.

Meanwhile, the Cairo-based political economy expert, Amr Adly, echoed same sentiment, saying, “Because of limited capacities, the state lives deeply with embedded informality, or do-it-yourself infrastructure, like unauthorized housing, which saves the government from providing public services to the poor.”

According to statistics, collected by the transportation ministry of Egypt, thousands of those tuk-tuks are not licensed and are driven by young people.

Previous Attempts 

During the era of former deposed Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, the government had imposed bans on driving tuk-tuks in affluent Cairo-based neighborhoods and collected unlicensed tuk-tuks from streets, then sold them.

The International Labor Organization suggests that the informal economy across Egypt accounts for as much as 50% to 60% of Egypt’s GDP.

The current government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken a number of measures against unregulated vehicles. Last year, the government passed a traffic law that requires all new buyers of tuk-tuks to license their vehicles. This caused the Ghabbour Group, Egypt’s largest auto producer, to lose 60% of its sales of tuk-tuk vehicles.

The Egyptian Development Ministry notes that the tuk-tuks contribute to air pollution and fatal car crashes and even some terrorism-linked incidents across the country. The ministry described tuk-tuks as a drag on Egypt’s economic productivity that has kept teenagers out of school and deprived the country of revenues from registration fees and taxes.

Since 2014 Egypt under President al-Sisi has embarked on multiple large projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the country’s image, such as a new administrative capital outside of Cairo, new bridges in Cairo itself and a handful of other infrastructure projects.

All such projects are said to boost an untenable economy and enhance the tourism sector, one of the main sources of income for Egypt. However, in September tens of thousands of Egyptians across Egypt, including Cairo, took to the streets in protest of harsh economic conditions. The protests were sparked by a former Egyptian building contractor and actor, Mohammad Ali, who appeared in a video from self-imposed exile, exposing what he said was corruption within Egypt’s military and calling out Sisi’s lavish expenditures on unnecessary projects while ordinary Egyptians struggled to make a living.

Ali accused President al-Sisi of building presidential palaces, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, solely to be used by Sisi and his family.

Egyptian security apparatuses dispersed the crowds by force and arrested thousands of protesters, putting an end to the protests. The uncertainly of the tuk-tuk drivers lingers on, however.

Rami Almeghari

Rami Almeghari is a freelance independent writer, journalist and lecturer, based in the Gaza Strip. Rami has contributed in English to several media outlets worldwide, including print, radio and TV. He can be reached on facebook as Rami Munir Almeghari and on email as [email protected]

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