No one ever imagined, back in 1987 when the underground metro first operated in Cairo, that it would be the transportation lifeline of the Egyptian capital. If we had known then that the day population of Greater Cairo would reach 15 million, and that two million commuters use the Metro every day, we would have understood that life in the capital would be at a standstill without it.
The Cairo Metro provides jobs for some 6000 workers, and was the first in Africa and the Middle East. Trains carry two million passengers every day, at the heavily subsidised price of one Egyptian Pound per trip. The middle two carriages in each train are reserved for women only until 9:00pm every day, so they can feel safe from harassment.
The Cairo underground system was the brainchild of Sayed Abdel-Wahed, an engineer with the Egyptian Railway. He presented his idea of solving the traffic flow in Cairo to the government in the 1930s, but was ignored. In 1954, however, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser brought in experts from France to assess the project. The French experts had a vision regarding the future of public transport in Greater Cairo, and recommended establishing a network of two subway lines to serve the most densely populated districts. The first was between Bab al-Louq and the Ismailiya Canal, 12km in length, and the second was from Boulaq Abul-Ela to the Salah-Eddin Citadel, a length of 5km. Other national projects gained priority, however, and the Metro project was shelved.
By 1969 Cairo’s transport situation had reached crisis point, but Egypt’s economy was suffering greatly in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel and the Metro project could not proceed. In September 1970, however, the Cabinet recommended that the project should be given priority; a tender was announced and won by the French company Sufreto.
Going under the Nile
Work on the first phase of the Metro began in 1982. The line stretches 29km from the south Cairo suburb of Helwan to Ramsis Square, site of the main Cairo Railway station. It opened in 1987. The second stage extends from Ramses to al-Marg in the east of Cairo, a distance of 14 km, and was opened in 1989. The Ramsis metro station links passengers to the main railway lines.
The project was designed to carry up to 60,000 passengers per hour on trains that ran at a speed of up to 100km/hr. It was very successful on economic, social and environmental fronts, and greatly alleviated the problems of traffic jams and crowded streets in the capital, quite apart from reducing pollution as a result of reducing the volume of surface vehicles.
The second metro line came into being in 1996. It extends from Shubra in the north of Cairo to Giza in the west, a distance of 19 km, with 20 stations serving, among others, Cairo University students. The line had to pass under the Nile, and deep drilling machines were used to connect the eastern and western banks of the river, passing through al-Gezira Island where a station was built at the Cairo Opera House. This line, which was completed in October 2000, is designed to carry 45,000 passengers per hour.
The third line will eventually run from the densely populated district of Imbaba in the west of Cairo to Cairo International Airport in the east. The first and second phases are already in operation.
Future projects include a metro service for Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt.
The cost: more than 100 billion
According to former Minister of Transport Ibrahim al-Demeiri, the cost of establishing the first metro line was EGP2 billion; the second EGP9.7 billion; and the cost of the two completed phases of the third line was EGP12.2 billion. The section of the third line currently under construction will cost EGP18 billion. Another EGP18 billion will be needed for the fourth phase, while the fifth and sixth lines that will interlink other Cairo districts require investments of some EGP64 billion.
After the Arab Spring
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011, demonstrators used the main Metro stations as protest venues. Clashes took place on the rails between police and demonstrators, and several stations were sabotaged while a few have been seriously destroyed, including Helwan, Maasara, Dar al-Salaam, Ezbet al-Nakhl and al-Marg. Those under renovation were thrown into chaos because of the lack of security, and these included the station at Hadayeq al-Maadi where a pedestrian bridge was ruined by protestors forcing passengers to cross from side to side over the rails and threatening their lives. Some stations were repeatedly restored and re-attacked, making the restoration process a nightmare.
Again in the wake of the security breakdown which followed the Arab Spring, street vendors have taken to occupying huge swathes of station areas, making it difficult for commuters to move about and navigate the stations. The vendors also extended their activity to the sidewalks and roads close to stations, causing huge problems for residents and commuters as they occupied space, screamed to advertise their wares, pushed pedestrians around, and had regular street fights. At the central Attaba station alone, more than 75 street vendors sold everything from appliances to clothing to shoes. They employed ‘spies’ to alert them to police raids. A vendor who asked to remain anonymous said he was not afraid of getting caught. “I have been caught five times, but I still come back here because it is the best place to sell,” he said.
As though the vendors are not enough, beggars plague the subway. They sit and beg, or ride the trains shouting out tragic stories in the hope of a generous response from passengers. The Metro company constantly broadcasts via its internal network the message: “Please don’t sympathise with the beggars in order to combat this phenomenon.”
The Metro is secure
Ahmed Abdel-Hadi , director of the Media and Information Department of the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation, told Watani: “The Metro is very well-secured, and there is a security alert against any suspect person in subway stations, in addition to the plans in place for handling any malfunction or damage by protesters, and explosive detectors at main stations.”
From cultural forum to insulting graffiti
Before the January 2011 Revolution, some Metro stations regularly hosted art exhibitions and cultural performances. Right after the revolution, Sadat station witnessed an exhibition in which 130 Egyptian artists took part, showcasing fine arts and photographs reflecting life on the Egyptian street. More of the sort was planned, but the turmoil in the country rendered such plans unfeasible. A few stations had to be closed for fear of commuter safety, while others were turned into strongholds of people supporting one or the other of the conflicting political forces in Egypt, the pro-military or the pro-Muslim Brothers. Meanwhile the legendary cleanliness of the stations was marred by gross graffiti messages scribbled by the Muslim Brothers against the man who is now President Sisi.
A life of its own
“On the metro,” Marihan Saeed, a university student who trains at Watani says, “You get to be in the thick of activities of the Egyptian community. You encounter people from all walks of life: the aggressive, quarrelsome types; and the kind-hearted ones who are willing to help. You might see a thief get caught, with people leaving whatever they are doing and running after him until they catch him. You can hear heated discussions about anything and everything, but especially politics. In the Metro you can obviously feel the non-communication that modern technology and social networking has taken us to; so many people have their eyes glued to their smart phones or tablet screens. On Metro carriages you can also encounter those witty, funny, innovative vendors who make you smile and buy the product they are selling. They’re very different from street vendors, who are too pushy; they have never studied marketing or mass communications, but they frequently get under your skin. The Egyptian Metro, in short, is not just a means of transport; it is a whole life that springs up between the lines, stations and commuters.”
6 August 2014