Life on the unruly roads of Cairo

Ahmed Hussein may well have one of the scariest jobs in Egypt. Every morning, at about 7 a.m., he takes his position in the middle of some street, somewhere in this city of two million vehicles, and tries to direct traffic.Today he is staring down the barrel of Talat Harb Street in the heart of Cairo. He is facing five rows of cars squeezed into three lanes of traffic, a scene intimidating in sight and sound. His assignment is to make sure the cars actually stop at the red light before barreling into a traffic circle. In Egypt, red light, green light – it is all the same.
“The most important thing for us is if people follow the rules,” Hussein said with such understatement he might as well have noted how different life would be in the Middle East if only there were peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The traffic here, and the army of police officers who try to manage it, tells much about modern Egypt in ways big and small. The first seems to be that no matter how crowded and chaotic – and it is beyond crowded and chaotic – Egypt functions. The poor eat. Children go to school. Government offices open and close. Garbage is collected. And the traffic flows – or perhaps crawls is a better description.
In fact, it is such a miracle that someone can get from Point A to Point B at certain times of the day that some say it must be the result of divine intervention. And that may be the second point. No one is saying the traffic is responsible for the Islamic revival in Egypt, but some people said the burden of the street, like the struggle of daily life, has reinforced a conviction that God’s hand must be helping people get through their day.
“It is amazing how people survive, and how Egypt continues to remain standing, and how the people can still, if they are patient enough, sometimes get to their destinations,” said Osama Anwar Okasha, a television writer whose shows explore Egypt’s social and political life. “It is as though there is some miracle. The solution is in the hands of some invisible force.”
Chaos. It is often the word associated with Egypt’s roads, its maddening bureaucracy, its uneven, ill-prepared health-care system. But it is only chaos to the untrained eye, the uninitiated and, in the case of driving here, the weak of heart. There is a system, from top to bottom, that may be corrupt, class-based, inefficient and ineffective, but it is a system nonetheless.
Drivers almost never look behind them. And they rarely look to the side. Instead, the whole flow of cars moves like a school of fish, straight ahead, weaving, darting in unison, until one predator – usually a microvan packed with passengers – goes on the attack. The traffic stops, usually, when a traffic officer steps into the road.
“In all civilized countries there is no such thing as a guy standing giving signals for 10 hours,” said Brigadier General Hussein Bedeir, as he supervised the officers supervising the flow of traffic around Talat Harb Square. “But here, it is what people are used to.”
Overall, the Egyptian system seems to function on three basic principles: Every man for himself; when necessary offer a little baksheesh (money); and accept that money and connections always go first.
“We are people who don’t do things unless someone is there to make us do it,” said Essam Qassem, a cab driver fighting his way along Hassan Sabry Street in the well-to-do area of Zamalek.
But people here say the lawless nature is not without a reason. These same traffic police assigned to make traffic move are also ordered to make traffic stop. They close the streets so Mr. Important does not have to tolerate the indignity of traffic. That makes people mad. That sense of injustice, felt by the common man stuck for hours in deadlocked traffic, fuels disregard for the law, people here said.
“The problem of Egypt is not that the Egyptian people do not like order,” said Salah Eissa, editor of Al Qahira, a weekly newspaper published by the Ministry of Culture. “It is the problem of making exceptions in enforcing this order – and this applies to traffic. It is something that provokes Egyptians and pushes them to think that since it is all a question of bullying, then every man to himself and everyone becomes a bully.”
Back at Talat Harb Square, the day was getting hot and Hussein’s radio was squawking like crazy. Horns. Exhaust. Aggressive drivers.
“You get used to it,” Hussein said.
There are 6,000 traffic police officers in Egypt, and in Cairo alone the police estimate they manage as many as two million cars squeezed into a system designed to accommodate half a million cars at any one time. The police at each corner and intersection are teamed in groups with duties divided based on rank.
The men with long black sleeves are at the bottom of the ladder.
“Yes, it is very hot,” said Said Galal Ahmed, 21, as the heat rose off the blacktop on a day that the temperature soared over 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit). Ahmed, 21, was wearing a plastic reflective vest, long black sleeves over his long white sleeves. He is a military conscript paid the equivalent of $26 a month. He must serve for three years. His sole duty is to step into the street to stop traffic, then wave it on when it is time to go.
Hussein was higher on the ladder. He was wearing a light, short sleeved shirt and carried a walkie-talkie, the universal symbol of power in the Middle East. Anyone can carry a gun, but a two-way-radio represents being part of something bigger, something with power, in this case the Egyptian police.
With his supervisors around, Hussein limited his conversation and smiled a lot. But across town, a traffic police officer named Muhammad Ahmed was more open. He said he made 400 Egyptian pounds a month, or about $70, of which 150 pounds goes to rent.
To make ends meet, he said he took other jobs, but without saying so acknowledged another fact of life in Egypt: the traffic police routinely take “tips” to allow people to park illegally, to remove boots from seized cars, to look the other way.
Tipping is not exactly condoned, but it is regarded as a safety valve, a way for people to make a few extra pounds at a time when prices are rising and salaries are not. It is also widespread at all levels of the system.
Mona el Naggar contributed reporting.

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