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An Open Letter to Egypt’s Taxi Drivers, From a Foreigner Living in Cairo

March 16, 2016

Dear Cairo Taxi Drivers,

I read an article in the newspaper a few days ago and it made me angry. I had to write and tell you why. The article said that there were traffic problems in Mohandiseen because you were demonstrating against Uber and Careem. In taking this action, you are following the taxi drivers of many cities across the world who object to being undercut, mainly by Uber. I think some of the arguments put forward have merit, particularly around licensing.

Before I moved to Cairo from the UK six months ago, I had read that taxis here are plentiful and cheap, and I have found this to be true. So why would I use Uber or Careem? Well, I want you to know that I really did try to use you once I arrived, but you made it so hard and inconvenient that eventually I gave up.

Are you interested to know why? Because it has nothing to do with cost or the number of taxis – because they certainly are cheap, and there seems to be thousands of them on the roads. If you are so keen on getting my business, why is it that when I’m standing by the side of the road and you veer across three lanes of traffic to get to me, you then screech off in a cloud of burned rubber when I say I want to go to Mokattam, as if I’d just asked you to take me to the inside of a sewage factory? I plaintively stand there by the side of the road, taxi after taxi zooming up, and just as quickly zooming off. The driver looks at me disdainfully for having the cheek to think he should take me to Mokattam. I have given up several times and decided that I didn’t really need to go wherever it was I was trying to get to. In fact, I was an illegal alien for 24 hours because I couldn’t get a taxi to the Mogamma’.

Twice, I have been told to get out of a taxi because the drivers didn’t realize I wanted to go to the moon. I didn’t want to go to the moon obviously; I only wanted to go to Mokattam. One time, after my husband told you to turn right at Mo’men, you refused to take me any further because Mo’men is where you’d been told to go. I had to walk the last half-mile in the blazing heat. Just the other day, I asked one of you to take me from Zamalek to Nasr City, and you actually hurled curse words at me. I know this because I was with an Arabic speaking friend, who was pretty shocked. Occasionally, I can’t find an Uber or a Careem to take me where I’m going, but it’s rare.

Every female passenger has a dilemma. Which risk are you least prepared to accept? Certain death in an accident because the seatbelts in the back of taxis rarely work, or being harassed in the front but more likely to survive in an accident because of a working seatbelt? It’s a poser, I can tell you. Given the statistics on sexual harassment and fatal car accidents in Cairo, it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. I sit in the back, in the hope that your insane weaving through the traffic at ridiculous speeds won’t make me one of those statistics. The back seatbelts in Uber and Careem cars always work. Not only that: I can actually give feedback on, and complain about, the driver if he tries to harass me, although this has never happened.

There are some decent taxis on the road, but as far as I can see the majority are, quite literally, falling apart. I got one taxi to Mokattam from downtown, and one of the back wheels fell off. I did notice that this was a particularly decrepit taxi, but I was so happy that a taxi was taking me back to Mokattam that I decided to risk it anyway. And the driver was about 106 years old, so I thought I could probably fend off any groping. About half way through the journey, off went the wheel. He fixed it back on, but we went six miles (six miles!) with the back wheel wobbling around, threatening to fall off again at any moment. Teenagers on motorbikes were racing past (helmetless, naturally), pointing and laughing hysterically. Minibus drivers and passengers were yelling at the driver – as if somehow the fact that we were bumping along like a donkey cart with square wheels wouldn’t be apparent to us.

Uber and Careem cars are relatively new, clean, the seatbelts work, and, crucially, the wheels are always intact and stay that way for the whole journey.

And then we come to the price you charge. I have been in taxis where the meter is whizzing round like a hamster on speed. Or where the meter isn’t working at all. I once went from Agouza to Zamalek – basically one side of the river to the other – and the driver tried to charge me 100LE. Despite me repeatedly saying, “I live here,” he kept telling me it was 100LE. I gave him 18LE, which was still over the odds. Then there was the time I ended up stranded at Cairo Festival City Mall. Unfortunately, my look of desperation was probably obvious to you. I had to pay 100LE for that journey, even though it usually costs me 35LE. Why do you do this? Why? I have railed about it to my Egyptian husband, and his explanation is that some Egyptians are more interested in the immediate gain rather than the appalling and long-lasting impression that this behavior leaves behind. I know I was naïve when I arrived, and oh how that naïveté was exploited by you.

Every single one of these experiences has happened to me in the last six months – until I gave up; it honestly felt like I couldn’t get a taxi without some incident or other happening. Once I worked out how to use Uber and Careem, I was a convert. Yes, I have had problems with them, but nothing compared to the issues I have had with taxis. Every time I have had an issue, I have been able to complain, and every single issue has been dealt with to my satisfaction. Every time I have had an issue with a taxi, I have complained to a cloud of dust.

As a Western woman living in a city where my grasp of the language is rudimentary, and where taxi drivers have a reputation for harassment, I feel extremely vulnerable. Uber and Careem aren’t perfect, but here’s the thing: They’re a lot better than you. They have allowed me to feel safer and be independent in my adopted city.

So my message to you is this: Unless you address these issues, Uber and Careem (and any other similar services that crop up) will continue to take business that you think is rightfully yours. It isn’t. Instead of demonstrating in Mohandiseen, I suggest you get your act together and start emulating the competition, instead of complaining about it.

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