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Story Publication logo August 12, 2013

Egypt's Roads: A Crisis Behind the Crisis


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After decades of trampled hopes under President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are now working to figure...

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In Egypt's congested villages, people—even children—get around via makeshift donkey carts. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Somewhere between the hot governorate of Minya and the even hotter Assiut, a three-car accident held the Agricultural Road up for hours. The less than scenic path is one of Egypt's only arteries connecting Cairo to the ignored hinterlands along the Nile River. A cacophony of honks and shouting matches hung over the thin stretch of the Nile, its waters just a shade lighter than an onyx steel log resting on its bank. Gas queues crawled along the unpaved road, amounting to another 50-car pile-up near a small gas station, the only one for miles.

The car accident, though a run-of-the-mill fender bender, meant Abu Kareem, a 30-something cab driver who packed his three children and pregnant wife into his tiny black car, would be late for his son's doctor appointment in the nearby city of Mallawi. Story of their lives, moaned Kareem, as he slammed his head against the steering wheel, letting out a futile curse.

A 20-minute trip would now take him two hours, if he was lucky; probably three. His face, rinsed in exhaustion, soon gave way to laughter as he exchanged glances with another cab driver across the small gridlocked road. "You have to laugh," he told my translator and me in the next car over, "What else can you do, cry?" (The rhetorical question has been posed to me several times since the euphoric days of Mubarak's ouster.) We crept along the road together for a good hour or so, our doors practically touching before a man on a motorcycle was nearly run off the road by a pick-up truck. Murphy's Law always seems to be in effect in Egypt: what can go wrong often does.

Against the backdrop of an epically dysfunctional transition to democracy beset by dueling and uncompromising political forces, Egypt is choked by a more concrete reality: its roads are some of the most dangerous in the world. According to World Health Organization data for 2010, Egypt lost about 10,700 lives due to road traffic crashes—nearly equal to the toll of those who died in the 2011 uprising. The strains are also economic for a battered country that's already deep-diving into an abyss of sweeping debt and shriveling foreign currency reserves. Some estimates put the economic loss from road crashes at more than $1 billion a year.

"Unless addressed urgently, road traffic collisions will continue to increase to become one of the top leading causes of death by 2030," says Magdy Baker, a program officer at WHO-Egypt. Two years ago, the organization launched the "Road Safety in 10 Countries (RS10) Project," working with governments in low-income countries to promote road safety (Egypt is the only country in the Middle East to be included). The team notes the difficulties in working in a politically tumultuous country like Egypt, with frequent changes in leadership.

But perhaps even more disturbing is the mounting institutional failure to address the problem. Egypt is marred by poorly maintained roads, outdated infrastructure, and failed public transportation systems, not to mention a complete absence of a cohesive urban planning strategy. On the rare occasion of their presence, road signs and monitoring mechanisms are taken as mere suggestions. Most accidents go unreported. Traffic in Cairo has reached epic proportions, leaving humor and its own hash-tag on Twitter as some of the few available mechanisms to deal with the disorder. The only inventive measure taken to alleviate the mess is a smart-phone application, for the one percent who can afford it, which crowd-sources traffic patterns and suggests alternative routes.

Mubarak's legacy of neglect and corruption is visible in every hamlet, and on every inch of unkempt road that runs through it. Throughout the abandoned countryside, few roads are paved and a simple accident like the one in Minya upends the lives of thousands. Several stretches of the Desert Road (built by Egypt's seemingly omnipotent military) are unlit for miles, with dangerous unpaved stretches and potholes. In a deeply centralized country like Egypt, where the bulk of jobs and services are located in Cairo, many in the countryside rely on the country's hardly adequate train system for limited essentials. But with a recent uptick in fatal train accidents and angry workers protesting increased oil prices by blocking railroad tracks, many are often stranded.

Just as Egyptians started taking matters into their owns hands and building their own homes as an answer to the government's failure to provide affordable housing, Egyptians have subsisted off unofficial and unregulated minibuses and auto rickshaws called tok-toks, which only exacerbate Cairo's perils. What's more, some of the poor have been systematically pushed out of Cairo proper into "satellite cities" on the periphery. This urban planning "solution" has only been a cancer on the city's failed layout, as few residents own a car. Most workers spend almost their entire daily salaries on slapdash microbus transportation to and from factories in central Cairo where they work.

As Mohamed Elshahed, creator of the blog CairObserver, notes in a Cairo Review piece, "Accident, or hadtha in Arabic, connotes fate and suggests that the event was bound to happen and therefore could not be prevented. Responsibility, therefore, is evaded… With responsibility comes accountability, law, and enforcement. This has not been the case in Egypt."

Last summer I met with Tarek Wafiq, an architect who led the Muslim Brotherhood's committee on urban planning (and served as the Minister of Housing before Morsi's administration was ousted last month) for a piece on Egypt's mounting infrastructural neglect and how it especially stunts Egypt's majority—the poor. Wafiq was grim, but hopeful. He argued a much more comprehensive revolution is needed for fundamental reforms within ministries.

"We need real accountability and transparency or else urban development will continue to fail," Wafiq said. He had been pushing to update roads and expedite a planned third rail line that would better connect communities, but said he was met with the same depraved Mubarak-era "What's in it for me?" mentality among officials.

"Mubarak set us back…there's so much work, " he said. "We have to play catch up." But while Egypt's disparate and embattled camps fight over turning back the country's clocks, time is running out for people who not only want but desperately need change.

"This is a country that revolted because of the inequities, but still these people are forgotten," says Cairo urban planner David Sims, author of "Understanding Cairo: the Logic of a City Out of Control."

Outside Wafiq's office, a swarm of overcrowded microbuses lined the street, shuttling people around the haphazard congested rings of a barely functioning city of 20 million. For people like Abu Kareem in Minya, such daily aggravation amounts to a shudder of defeat and reluctant surrender. After two hours stalled on the road, having only advanced some ten miles in an hour, he ended up turning around to head back home.

It's a running theme in today's Egypt, where the best of intentions are too often thwarted, leading its people back to their original point.






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