They have been called ‘the people’s tanks’ or, more caustically, the ‘black cockroaches’. But that has been the bitter humour of those who are in no need for the services of the tuk-tuks; those small, black,
three wheeled, unlicensed vehicles which roam the streets of Egypt’s overcrowded, underprivileged neighbourhoods acting as much-needed taxis.
Last month the interim government slapped a one-year import ban on motorbikes and tuk-tuks, along with their manufacturing components. Predictably, the decision stirred huge controversy among the public, especially concerning tuk-tuks which have become a staple on the narrower streets in Egypt.
Opinions varied. Whereas the decision was applauded among those who have no need for tuk-tuks and see them as an utter nuisance that effectively disrupts traffic and public order in the most orderly spots, those dependent on tuk-tuks for transportation or making a living through them were bitterly opposed to the ban.
“Part of our daily life”
A few years ago, when the first tuk-tuk was seen on Cairo’s streets there was much opposition from people who claimed it gave Egypt an uncivilised image and was used for criminal purposes such as theft and kidnapping young women. Now that the tuk-tuk no longer encroaches on the busy thoroughfares, opinions have changed.
Especially in rural Egypt and in slum areas in Cairo the tuk-tuk is everywhere. Mariam Badran, an office worker in her thirties, summed it all up when she said: “We can’t get rid of it, but neither can we live without it. Despite everything, we need the tuk-tuk. It would be good to have laws regulating its routes and the age of the driver, but this should have been settled since it was first introduced on our streets. The government should also deal strictly with those who breach the law,”
Hayam Saeed, a student who lives in the overcrowded Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba, told Watani: “The tuk-tuk is now part of our daily life. It saves time and effort and easily navigates the crowded streets and alleyways.”
“The government’s decision on a one-year import ban will not be easy to apply,” says Hisham Fayez, 26. “I hope the government cancels it, or at least does not renew it for another year. Many young men who can’t find other work make a living driving tuk-tuks, even university graduates.”
Some of those who make a living out of tuk-tuks are still children. Muhammad, who is only 13, said: “I am very unhappy. Driving a tuk-tuk gave me an income of some EGP300 [USD43] a week. Now, how am I to provide for my mother, brother and myself?”
According to Medhat Sidhom, an accountant, the tuk-tuk is a quick means of transportation used by more than a million people daily, especially in randomly-built areas. Banning imports of tuk-tuks, Mr Sidhom says, does not only harm the importers, but also the public. Drivers no longer accept a low fare because the spare parts are becoming steadily more expensive. It would have made more sense, he says, to legalise and regulate the operation of tuk-tuks, specifying the areas in which they can run and the drivers’ age. Anyone who uses the tuk-tuk to commit a crime must be severely punished.
According to the government, the ban was imposed because of the high incidence of crime using motorbikes and tuk-tuks whose small size makes them very handy in making a swift escape.
A statement by the importing company GB Auto declared that the import ban would have a slight effect on the companies’ 2014 profits, but expressed concern that the decision would negatively impact the Egyptian economy and sharply affect underprivileged areas nationwide.
All those involved in the business will be hit hard. Sameh Nabil, who deals in tuk-tuk spare parts in Imbaba, says the ban on imports of tuk-tuk components will lead to a major crisis because tuk-tuks depreciate very quickly. “Most of them need weekly maintenance even when they are brand new, so what about when they are five years old? Short term depreciation will lead to many poor families all over Egypt losing their sole income. The government’s decision was too fast.”
Mahmoud Eissa, director of a large tuk-tuk dealership, told Watani that the year-long ban on the import of tuk-tuks will affect some 35,000 persons distributing or selling tuk-tuks and spare parts. Mr Eissa’s company deals with some 450 traders. It is expecting that the selling price of a tuk-tuk will go up to about EGP30,000 as compared to EGP19,000 before the ban.
“The rate of unemployment and crime will increase,” Mr Eissa says, “as will the black market activity.”
“The decision should have been studied well before it was issued,” economics professor Sharif Mukhtar says. “There must be alternatives for families who rely on the tuk-tuk as an effective means of transportation, and who depend on it for a livelihood. “The decision is sure to impact Egypt’s economy,” he says, “especially in terms of customs, taxes and the rate of unemployment. Unfortunately, though, it is not expected to reduce the crime rate or terrorism.”
6 April 2014