When you stop a taxi and ask the driver to take you to Ard al-Lewa, the answer will almost always be “I’ll drop you off outside.”
The heavily populated area just off Sudan Street in Mohandiseen has become one of many areas across Egypt only accessible in tuk tuks, the three-wheeled motorized vehicles that appeared on the streets in the mid-2000s.
In informal areas and villages where the roads are narrow and unpaved, the tuk tuks venture where no cars or buses can, providing a service that is now endangered by the state’s recent crackdown on the ramshackle mode of transportation.
In February, the government put a one-year hold on the import of tuk tuks and intensified its crackdown on unlicensed motorized vehicles. Police pick-up trucks have been spotted carrying over a dozen confiscated tuk tuks in recent months.
Following a report from the State Commissioners Authority recommending banning tuk tuks, the Cabinet issued a decision suspending the import of tuk tuks and its parts for a year. The decision also gave tuk tuk and motorcycle owners two weeks to acquire the necessary licenses before their vehicles are confiscated by the Ministry of Interior.
In its report, the State Commissioners Authority argued that tuk tuks pose a danger to security and health and are in violation of traffic, customs, import and export laws which regulate their presence.
The report goes on to say that tuk tuks have become prevalently used in thefts and other crimes, and are difficult to trace by the authorities, due to their ability to escape down small alleys and their lack of proper licensing, adding that they are a health and safety hazard due to their polluting engines and poor stability.
The report acknowledges that tuk tuks offer a cheap service to people who need them and provide work opportunities, but adds that their disadvantages overshadow any benefits. The report also blames officials for letting tuk tuks spread with no licensing and says that they are legally liable for their negligence.
However, experts say that attempts by the government to eliminate tuk tuks will create a gap that will affect the residents of areas that are dependent on the vehicle, as well as unemployed owners who depend on them for income, and may even have larger repercussions on the economy.
52-year-old Gamal Mohamed stands in front of his tuk tuk, which is parked in a queue at the entrance of Ard al-Lewa.
Mohamed has been working as a tuk tuk driver for five years to supplement his income as an employee in a private company, in order to support his family of eight. However, since the company went bankrupt last September, his tuk tuk became his only source of income.
“I am only doing this because I have to. What company is going to employ me at this age? What should I do, steal or work on the tuk tuk to make ends meet for me and my children? And what would make them leave their schools and work?” he asks, pointing at the other younger drivers around him, asserting that all those who drive tuk tuks do it because of a lack of alternative options.
Another driver, Ibrahim, says that the licensing is not as simple as it sounds.
In 2009, Ibrahim says he paid LE1,500 for a license and an equal amount in bribes. However, he was still stopped by traffic officers telling him that he got the license from the Traffic Authority, but he needs another license from the local authorities as well.
“I will not follow through with this process,” Ibrahim, who also work as a secretary to a physician, says. “I paid a lot of money before and it was all in vain.”
Most drivers are either not familiar with the licensing process or cannot afford it, so they continue to operate without a license, limiting the area in which they can drive to avoid security checkpoints.
Following the state’s decision in February to give owners of motorcycles and tuk tuks two weeks to operate legally, long lines were seen outside of traffic departments, with owners complaining that they were made to return every day for weeks and that the employees wouldn’t finish their paperwork unless they paid bribes.
Housing and land rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Yehia Shawkat says that the state is responsible for letting tuk tuks become a widespread phenomenon throughout the past few years without proper licensing, even though the mechanism for obtaining this license — which is the same as the one needed for motorcycles — was already there.
Shawkat says that the tuk tuk in itself is not problematic if regulated. On the contrary, he believes it responds to an important need for transportation in a lot of areas, and is fuel-efficient.
Other than putting the thousands that rely on it for income out of a job and inconveniencing the residents who depend on it, Shawkat says that the decision to ban the import of tuk tuks could also hinder the development of some areas.
In some areas in 6th of October City and other remote locations, tuk tuks are the only mean of transportation. Shawkat says that the absence of tuk tuks could delay the development of some areas, which are built but have been left deserted because of a lack of transportation.
Shawkat says that the state’s attitude toward tuk tuks is the same as its attitude toward informal housing areas. Instead of supporting people who have found solutions for problems that the state failed to address, the government blames the people for its own failures, he says.
Mohamed points out the dangers of the state continuously stripping away the alternatives of the poor.
“The country is turning the poor people into monsters, they are leading them toward exploding, why are they tying people’s hands, do they want the poor people to steal and kill?” Mohamed asks.
When asked what he would do if the tuk tuk was banned, 30-year-old tuk tuk driver Mohamed Ramadan and his 23-year-old brother Ahmed, who also works on a tuk tuk, reply with no hesitation. “We will sell hashish,” they state, asserting that they will have no other solution.
“Some people misuse tuk tuks and some people use them to make a living. The state shouldn’t treat everyone the same,” says Ramadan, who has been supporting his household by driving his tuk tuk for the last four years.
The tuk tuk drivers in Ard al-Lewa have solutions for the concerns over tuk tuks: they ask for an easy and inexpensive licensing method and for those under the age of 18 to be banned from driving. They also say that they have approached the Traffic Authority to ask for a parking lot for tuk tuks in order not to block Sudan Street, but have not received any response.
Tuk tuks have acquired a notorious reputation due to the prevalence of under-age drivers who operate some of them. While residents of upper-class areas, such as Maadi, where tuk tuks have recently started appearing, feel inconvenienced by their presence, residents of areas such as Ard al-Lewa rely on them heavily.
Ghada Hassan, a 25-year-old resident of Ard al-Lewa, says that tuk tuks provide an essential service for her to use with her four-year old daughter to transport them from her house to the nearest microbus station, a 15-minute walk that she would have to make three times a day otherwise.
Urban planner and author of the book “Understanding Cairo: the logic of a city out of control,” David Sims, says that the fact that the state ignored tuk tuks for years before deciding to ban them is a continuation of the cycle of neglect that festers in the city.
Pointing out that they offer an indispensable service and are efficient, he calls the decision to ban them shortsighted.
“As often happens, it’s a question of class perception,” he says. “Those who want to ban tuk tuks never used them and have rarely been to informal areas, so they don’t know their advantages.”
Sims says that, as suggested by the drivers, having a proper licensing process is all the regulation that is needed to keep this vital service and eliminate its downsides.