Thursday, May 26, 2005

Egypt's traffic and culture

If Egypt's traffic problems are solved, all of Egypt's problems will be solved.

I very much believe that. Egypt's traffic is a replica of our society, a big mess --and for the same reasons. Every problem in our society is reflected in our traffic. So if we are capable of fixing our traffic problems, it means that we were able to fix our societal and cultural problems.

Our traffic problem is a contribution of everyone in our society. The government has a big role, the drivers (and pedestrians) have a role, traffic officers have a role, and the law and its skewed enforcement has a role.

The government is totally incapable of devising a proper traffic system, building a safe road infrastructure (which is not about asphalt, but about road signs, traffic lights, lane markers, sidewalks), cannot set a usable traffic law, and is full of corrupt and inept officers. The officers in the street are enfocring a haphazard law that is not well defined. They are enforcing their own whims on drivers who don't know what the law today is, and have to guess if its illegal to park on this side of the road (when there's no sign), or if its illegal to take a left turn (when there's no sign) only to find an officer waiting for them at the end of the street with a violations book. You have to wait for hours if Hosni's parade is passing by, you have to give the right of way to any high ranking official (or foreign visitor) with a Jeep Cherokee entourage pointing machine guns at you.

To survive Egypt's traffic you either have to be powerful with the right connections, be filthy rich, be a thug, or mind your own business avoiding trouble. I end up being a mix of the four, but I try to mind my own business.

The powerful with the right connections will do as they please in our lawless streets, and never pay a fine. The rich, are powerful, they pay bribes, but never pay a fine. The thugs, will do as they please, never questioned, except if the government is short in money and needs some extra revenue. The peaceful and powerless have no business driving in those streets, they're just causing a traffic jam. If you want to save yourself from going insane, or from being one of the above four types of people, then your best mean of interaction with the traffic system (or any other system in Egypt) is through a proxy. Get a driver.

Those U-turns which they replaced every major traffic light intersection with, enforces an uncivilized culture of 'survival of the fittest', where you don't wait for your turn, but you take a steep left from the extreme right lane to the extreme left lane, take a U-turn, then another steep right from the extreme left lane to the extreme right lane. No yielding allowed, and there is no right of way in this situation. Force will give you your right of way, and that's the way the government wants it, and the only way our society functions.

The reckless goon drivers of the microbusses are a demonstration of the lawlessness in the streets, of the corruption that is supported by the retired police officers who own those microbusses. Human defect is exemplified in those drivers.

The decades old, unsafe and pollution friendly cars filling the streets are a reflection of the way we function and think as a society. The contrast of those old crumbled cars along side of fancy German cars and donkey carts, is a real contrast of our society.

Egyptians in fact do not know how to drive. They keep gloating that they are the best drivers in the world, and that if you drive in Cairo's streets then you can drive anywhere else. But that's not true. Knowing how to push the gas pedal and maneuvering your automobile in between other vehicles and people is not the definition of good driving. Its knowing the traffic rules, and respecting them, its knowing who has the right of way and giving it to them, checking your blind spot, and waiting for a pedestrian to cross, and so forth.

The people are certainly contributing to the mess. The government, lack of proper laws, and proper law enforcement encourages that behavior of ours. But we take it too far however, and enjoy the lawlessness. Typical Egyptian traits can be vividly seen in Egypt's streets. Traits such as always wanting to outsmart the law, taking short cuts and extreme negligence are a daily routine that we can't live without, but which are ruining our lives.

People driving in the opposite direction directly facing other moving cars, has nothing to do with lack/ignorance of laws or their enforcement. It has to do with greed and disrespect for other people's rights and for human lives.

The lack of traffic laws, law enforcement and driver education cannot be excuses for the the Egyptian drivers' attitude of extreme negligence and lack of respect for the other and for the other's rights.

What's amazing is that people somehow manage, cars get moving, people reach their destinations, traffic jams are much less than other countries, accidents are much more which people choose to ignore that fact. It works, in a very screwed up definition of the word "works", but it does.

Just like traffic. What's amazing is that life doesn't stop in Egypt, the country doesn't exactly fall into shambles, we're stagnant as a society and not developing, but we survive. A very screwed up definition of the word "survive", but we do. Is that enough though? just to survive!

Egyptian traits, cultural and societal ills are reflected in our streets. The inept government, traffic officers, drivers, and laws constitute our society, are part of it and result from it. The attitude of all these in the streets is our attitude in our daily lives, in our dealing with each other, in how Egypt is 'developed'.

If our traffic problem is ever solved, then its an indication that the rest of our problems have been solved.


Me, Myself and I said...

When my son was in grade 2 or 3 i can not exactly remember (he is grade eight now-brilliant) i had to help him read some arabic text...Years have goneby and i can not forget what i read that eve...The "dars/topic" was about Traffic in Egypt-El Merror or Adab El merror". The text went as far as i remember, and anyone with a kid can check that out-curricula apparently does not change, " asbaha el meror fee misr kanounan laa yaheed anho al saeer aw al sae'k bedoun in taaqaa aleyhe gharama/youhasaab---Traffic has become a law (?)in Egypt which neither pedisterians or drivers can break without being penalized". I so well remember looked at my little one after translating it to him and said, so what do u think Abdou....he looked at me and is the hekouma...Raising kids with a distored sense of reality...Are they that stupid, it does not even cross their mind that kids can see through..Wow can not they wait a little bit before starting deception

praktike said...

Why don't more people drive scooters in Cairo?

MS said...

The street that i live on in Montreal, which is a major downtown road, lesa metsaphlet gedeed. In the process of course, all the white lines dividing the lanes and all the lines at the traffic lights have disappeared. Even though they still haven't repainted them, everyone is driving in thier lanes as if the lines were there.

I've been contemplating this for the past two weeks. The contrast between that and what goes on in 'midaan rab3a' pretty much sums up why things in Egypt are the way they are. Generally, there is no feeling amongst individuals that they are all citezans of the same country. Of course, i'm not excusing those who aren't providing the needed transportation infrastructure and rules.

egyptiansally said...

Amen, Mohamed.

I think the problem is that there are no standards. My dad came to visit me in March and wanted to get a driver's license. When he went to get his test, they said he didn't need one, with a lot of "ya bey" and "ya basha", "ya khawaga" and then he got his driver's license (which said he was a permanent resident!) within half an hour. I asked him if he'd bribed someone and he said he didn't see it that way, which ensued in a lengthy discussion about bribes in Egypt. But he made a good case which I hadn't considered: If the government paid these people decent wages then they wouldn't have to resort to favoritism in order to get a little extra money. My dad felt he was just operating within their system (for he was totally willing to take the test) and that it's his duty to give them "something" more than their meager wages.

The same goes for the soldiers conducting traffic. There's no motivation for them whatsoever to manage traffic efficiently. Atrocious wages, disrespect from the drivers and pedestrians, and standing in the sun all day. Why should they care to regulate traffic? I think if they were given reasons to take pride in their job then traffic would actually have applicable rules and regulations. Of course this goes double for the way the country is run.

DNA said...

Traffic does have applicable rules and regulations. Everyone knows them, no body follows them because Egyptians always think that they either a) know better than the government or b) are beyond the law.

And I don't prescribe to the suggestion that people accept bribes because they aren't paid enough: high-ranking officials, politicians, business leaders accept bribes, eventhough they get paid tons of money.

mostafa said...

I read in a scientific journal about public safety a paper about traffic in Cairo and other chaotic cities. (Sorry no link as it was several months ago) They attributed this mainly to the way traffic officers fine people. In cities with chaotic traffic, the police is standing taking the reg. numbers of cars breaking traffic laws. They get to pay the fine several months (and sometime years) after they broke the law. However, countries with a more civilized traffic have police on motor bikes to stop and issue a ticket on spot. And they mentioned that countries that transitioned to this form of punishment, showed a improvemnt and citizens started to comply with the laws.

However, I am skeptical if it would work in Egypt. We have people corrupt to the bone marrow. No (or even wrong) traffic signs. Way too much cars. And whatever you mentioned in your post.

DNA said...

In some countries in Europe, you get mailed a fine. They have an address for each plate number and the person registered to the plate get's fined, even if he wasn't driving the car. He can take his case to court if he feels he wasn't fined justly.

For me, the case of the seat belt epitomizes everything 'corrupt' about the average Egyptian.

Hani said...

I posted an entry on the same issue a while ago.

If Egypt's traffic problems are solved, all of Egypt's problems will be solved.

A statement that might seem too optimistic, but I think its right on the money.

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Darell said...

As expat living in Cairo for many many years, I think this article nails the root cause on head, and a very good read. Well done! I linked this in my blog found at

Increase Your Web Site Traffic said...

Traffic in Egyptian cities has labelled "chaotic" by expatriates and Egyptians alike. Though some vestiges of Western types of formal traffic control systems can be found in Egypt, these systems do not organize traffic as in European and American cities. On the other hand, though some see chaos in Egyptian traffic, there is a form of latent order, because traffic, in the sense of movement, does occur. If the western form of formal order does not prevail, then what system orders Egyptian city traffic? This article presents the argument that traffic behavior is a form of social interaction that can be studied as a social psychological issue. Weber, Mannheim and other social theorists have set forth the distinction of the formal as opposed to the substantive in their discussions of rationality. Weber's work will be used to initiate the idea that the formal, socially conventionalized rule systems that order Western traffic patterns do not function in the Egyptian city environment. Next, the formal/substantive distinction will be integrated with some linguistic research to show a connection between the ordering patterns of language and other cultural aspects. The rudimentary grammar of creole languages is presented as a model for Egyptian traffic behavior. Stated simply, the rules for a linguistic ordering are set forth as a model for an ethnographic behavioral ordering. Finally, to cap the argument, empirical evidence in the form of an ethnography of the Egyptian traffic scene will be matched with the theoretical model to substantiate its validity and enhance its explanatory power.

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Alan Renner said...

As an American Contractor to the middle east it always amazes me to see countries like Egypt that are so "screwed up". I for one believe it has nothing to do with Egypt or the Egyptians, rather I believe it's the fault of the Arab culture where as the author said they seem to delight in getting away with anything they can without regard to anyone else, in short personal behavior in public seems more based on who the person thinks they are and how much more they are entitled to something than the next person.

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Eva said...

Quite a number of people around the world love to take cheap flights to Egypt for vacations but they get concerned on the traffic issues this country faces. Gradually as time is passing by this problem is being sorted out and travellers from around the world are coming to this magnificent holiday destination.

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Muminah Tannous said...

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