I cannot forget a scene that I witnessed during my visit to Egypt a few weeks ago. A young woman blocked the road with her small car, which fit her petite size, in front of a large truck which stood nearly two stories high and which took up the entire street.
The young woman stepped out of her car and stood in the middle of the street, shouting angrily at the truck driver, who had tried to avoid traffic congestion on a highway linking Cairo and 6th October City, by driving over a barrier in the middle of the road and into oncoming traffic.
The scene was like an ant threatening an elephant (if we take into account the difference in size between both vehicles). Surprisingly, the elephant was forced to comply with the ant, and returned to its original lane after being embarrassed at his recklessness, exposing the lives of others to danger.
The scene of traffic congestion and busy streets is another side to everyday life in Egypt, with people spending several hours a day in traffic. It is an issue which needs to be exposed, particularly in overcrowded Cairo, whose residents found themselves in the position of having to organize the traffic themselves for several weeks following the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, before traffic police returned to their duties.
The chaotic rush hour scenes in Cairo reflect the scenes during the crisis that led to the 25 January Revolution in Egypt. During the revolution people were left to shout and fight with one another, trying to get to their workplaces or make appointments, before finally arriving in a foul temper, with their lungs full of exhaust fumes. None of those in positions of power have bothered to think of a serious, effective solution to lessen this amount of suffering, and the amount of fuel being wasted on congested roads, whilst it is subsidized with tens of billions of dollars.
Another aspect of road-trips in Cairo is the phenomenon of taxi talk. It is an opportunity to gauge the mood of a sector of public opinion, provided that you don't believe everything you hear.
The following are some examples of the taxi talk currently going on in Cairo: One driver was preoccupied with stories being circulated about the former regime plundering billions of dollars, and reports of attempts to retrieve such sums from abroad. The taxi driver wanted to know whether all that money would be distributed amongst the people of Egypt, if it were retrieved. For instance, he estimated that every citizen would get three million Egyptian pounds if the money were fully reclaimed.
My hesitant attempt to explain that even if this sum of money were recovered, it would be unrealistic for everyone to obtain their share in such a fashion was met with utter failure.
Another taxi driver was incensed at the sight of a small protest at the entrance of a company building, which barely blocked the traffic flow, where protestors were demanding the dismissal of the company’s board of directors. The driver exclaimed: “Whoever doesn't like their boss now wants to have them sacked.” It was clear the man was worried about a slump in the rate of overall production.
A third driver spoke about the media reports critical of the Tahrir Square protesters, which had surfaced at the peak of events. Those reports claimed that these protestors were being paid in dollars and euros to protest. The driver said that he visited Tahrir Square for a whole week in the hope of receiving some amount of money, but when he found out no one was giving out anything; he decided to return to his neighborhood coffee shop to watch events unfold.
The most interesting of all was the fourth taxi driver I spoke to. According to his account, he was among those who had staged a sit-in at Tahrir Square. He was outraged at the media’s decision to exclusively concentrate on middle class youth during the revolution. He argued that the youth coming from urban slums and poor areas were the ones who protected middle class protesters from being attacked.
From his point-of-view, which is worth considering, these poor areas should have representatives in the forthcoming government and the political process. Furthermore, he warned that the next revolution would be driven by starvation.
Egypt and its different social classes and categories are talking politics now. Those who are not familiar with politics try to learn and understand the big words they hear on television and read in the newspapers. Terms like “parliamentary system,” “presidential system,” and “coalition government,” the latter of which was misheard by some as “contention government,” and so on.
The task of the political elite, as well as the powers and leaderships which effected this change, is to explain and correct concepts for people, raising their awareness, and creating an atmosphere of political culture, so that they can make informed decisions at the ballot box.
Published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on April 14, 2011.