Some may think that I have run out of topics to write about, so am going back to my old files to revisit concerns I had formerly addressed. But the truth is that not-a-few problems which had surfaced in 2020 or even in 2019 remain so far unresolved. Such problems had been pronounced by our government as issues of concern that required urgent reform, but no action was taken regarding them. I do not write to reproach the government for inaction; I perfectly understand the huge challenges the authorities confronted throughout the last year. Rather, I write to draw attention to the fact that these key problems yet persist and need prompt action.
The problem I present today was tackled in previous editorials in 2019 and 2020; the last was published on 26 January 2020, almost a full year from today; yet it remains unresolved. It concerns the tuk tuk and the minivan, and is a two-pronged problem that involves two separate predicaments. The government had announced that the problems caused in Egyptian streets by the notorious unlicensed, unsafe tuk tuks would be resolved through replacing them with safer minivans that run on natural gas. But it later became clear that such a replacement would in itself constitute a problem given that minivans themselves make up a problem of their own. It was necessary then to solve two separate problems: that of the tuk tuk and that of the minivan. The situation appears to have so far eluded Egyptian authorities. I ask my readers to excuse any repetition or redundancy, since I need to refer to my earlier writings.
Tuk tuks were introduced to Egypt as much-needed means of transport in unplanned, overcrowded, underprivileged districts. In absence of planning or official response to control emerging slums, they grew to become an on-the-ground residential reality impossible to overlook. Their randomly created narrow roads and alleys were inaccessible by standard means of transport, the exception being bicycles, motorcycles and charrettes … Tuk tuks did not start off with the intention of breaking the law or defying traffic codes; they started operating within clusters or stations on the outskirts of the slums and at the tips of the main roads at which the slums are built. They would carry passengers in and out of the depth of the slums, expertly wriggling through the narrow alleyways, but not daring to venture into main roads.
The slovenly official attitude that allowed the slums to mushroom was applied to the tuk tuk predicament: successive governments turned a blind eye to it. They neither demanded that tuk tuks acquire licences, nor did they require them to be driven by licensed drivers. The roads over which they could be allowed to travel were never officially indicated, nor were they restricted to the slums they were meant to serve. With government sloppiness and absence of monitoring, it was not surprising that young untrained youth with no driving licences would take to driving tuk tuks and, right on their heels, mere lads with no education took on that task. Predictably, they wreaked havoc with the streets they ventured into. Under government laxity and inaction, it was only natural that these lads should sneak with their tuk tuks out of the slums, and look to navigate roads served by regular means of transport. They started timidly, to test the waters then, with further official blind eye and inaction, boldly took to navigating side streets then main roads, bridges, and tunnels. And why should they not when no one ever stopped them and no official authority ever deterred them?
As to the minivan, it is a smaller version of the microbuses that roam Egypt’s streets, carrying passengers to various destinations for a fee. But whereas microbuses are licensed to transport passengers, minivans which have been running the roads of Greater Cairo for years are licensed as private vehicles. In absence of due supervision and control, however, they went into the business of transporting passengers for a fee. To say nothing of the reckless driving the minivans have become notorious for; the drivers throw to the wind all traffic rules, thanks to the small size of the vehicle.
In September 2019, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced a plan to replace Egypt’s “unlicensed and unsafe” tuk tuks with “safe, licensed minivans that run on natural gas”. Cabinet spokesman Nader Saad said at the time that Dr Madbouli would hold meetings with tuk tuk manufacturers to discuss the possibility of shifting their production from tuk tuks to minivans. Please note the term “tuk tuk manufacturers”; the unruly wrongdoer, the tuk tuk, is being manufactured in Egypt under the eye and nose of the government!
Truth is that the tuk tuk is no devil, neither the minivan any saviour; the real culprit behind this double-count heedlessness of the law is governmental ineptitude. There is still a chance to legalise the tuk tuk, however, to define its routes and strictly oversee its compliance with the law. This would maintain a means of transport that serves millions and offers livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of unskilled youth. The opportunity also exists to license minivans for transport of passengers, and to bring the vehicles and their drivers under adequate technical standards that would secure the safety of those who ride them and that would impose discipline on the roads.
We have carried the problems of the tuk tuk and the minivan from 2019 to 2020, and are again carrying them into 2021. Will the new year bring in the long-awaited answer?
22 January 2021