Problems on hold
The Administrative Court’s recent ruling to halt the operation of Uber and Careem on the Egyptian market spurred a spate of anger among the public and the media. Uber and Careem are transport ridesharing companies that entered the Egyptian market in 2014 – 2015; Uber is based in San Francisco and Careem in Dubai. The recent anger was not at the court ruling, which the media took care not to criticise, but at the government which had dragged its feet throughout the years the two companies operated in Egypt, till the court outlawed them. Uber and Careem were allowed to work without bringing their operation in line with Egyptian laws that govern the transport of passengers.
The situation is not a first; I dub it as a typical ‘marvel’ of our country, a practice long placed on hold. A new product or service enters the market; it is advertised and promoted among users, members of the public get to use it until it becomes a daily fixture; all of a sudden, the public wakes up to a rude fact: the product or service is outlawed and banned.
This marvel of a situation occurred with the tuk-tuk, the small, black, three-wheeled vehicle which roams the streets of Egypt’s overcrowded, underprivileged neighbourhoods acting as a much-needed, cheap-fare taxi. Owing to its small size, it navigates alleyways not easily accessible by cars or buses. And even much earlier than the tuk-tuk which came to Egypt some 15 years ago, privately-owned microbuses which worked at transporting passengers had found their way to Egyptian streets, filling the shortage gap in transport supply created by too-few public buses and an ever-growing population. As in case of the tuk-tuk, the microbuses, which offered a much-needed service, created havoc with the traffic situation that was not designed to accommodate them, making a mockery of street discipline. The government turned a blind eye till the situation appeared to get out of hand, upon which it suddenly woke up and decided to ban the service. But it was too late; in both cases of the years-apart introduction of the microbuses and the tuk-tuks, the services had become an indispensible on-the-ground reality. The government had no option but to succumb to public demand and legalise the operation of the vehicles, catering thus to the people’s furious demands, and covering up for its failure to take adequate action at the proper time. The same is still happening with vehicles dubbed ‘sardine cans’ that currently roam the streets. They are smaller than microbuses, but offer the same chaotic transport service, and are characterised with the same reckless driving on the road. Since they are not legal means of transporting passengers, they do not hold taxi or public transport plates, but function with private license plates. No one has objected to the operation of ‘sardine cans’, or so we think, until we unwittingly get slapped with a court ruling outlawing them.
Taxi drivers have objected to Uber and Careem, claiming their operation breaches equal opportunity, since the two companies do not pay the same taxes or fees imposed on taxi drivers. In this, the taxi drivers are right. However, we must own that the service provided by Uber and Careem is disciplined, distinctive and refined. In record time, they were able to attract a strong customer base by offering a service which was the antidote to the normally shoddy taxi service in Egypt. Passengers were grateful to be spared the smugness and arrogance of taxi drivers who would agree or refuse at their own whim to give the passenger a ride, charge exorbitant prices disregarding the metre, smoke or swear or use indecent language, and ignore the minimal standards of car cleanliness and fitness.
Who is responsible for this flagrant predicament in the transport market where the lawful service is chaotic and detestable whereas the quality service is unlawful? It is beyond doubt the government’s failure to provide Uber and Careem with an adequate legal umbrella. The recent court ruling prompted a wave of anger that is troubling the market, at a time when we are doing our best to project to the world an image of a stable, secure, investor-friendly Egypt.
As soon as the Administrative Court’s ruling was out, Uber and Careem demanded a legal halt in execution of the ruling until the Higher Administrative Court looks into the appeal they had launched. Both companies already have approvals to operate issued by the Cabinet and, once the current predicament surfaced, the Cabinet announced it has referred a draft law regulating the transport of passengers through the use of online applications—which applies to Uber and Careem—to the House of Representatives. The Cabinet claims that the draft law it had approved on 22 November 2017 takes into account all remarks by a previous court recommendation on the operation of Uber and Careem. So it took the Cabinet four months to refer the draft law to parliament. Is it a coincidence that the draft law should be sent to parliament directly after the recent court ruling, or was this a mere attempt by the Cabinet to save face?
I would like to draw attention to one final concern. Uber and Careem’s operation in Egypt must not be regarded as simply a ‘luxury’ service which caters to the classes that commonly use taxis and mobile phone applications. It is no secret that the service has created hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for young persons who are role models of commitment and discipline, and who have positively contributed to the passenger transport industry in Egypt. They bought cars on instalments, settling their accounts from their profits. Should their effort be wiped out overnight? It is imperative that Uber and Careem services should be swiftly legalised.
In March 2016, Watani reported on Uber and Careem versus Cairo cabs:
1 April 2018