New traffic law puts brakes on driving in Cairo

August 6, 2008

The streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo have been unusually quiet since the start of the month and cabbies say they now drive around in fear of the massive police presence, evident at all major intersections. The big junctions have a police “liwa” on duty — equivalent in rank to an army major-general — along with up to a dozen subordinates enforcing, or perhaps working out how to enforce, a draconian new traffic law.

The newspapers publish daily reports of the number of tickets they have given out the previous day — at least several thousand, for offences such as failing to wear seat belts or stopping beyond the white line at a junction.

On the first day some drivers were ticketed because they did not have the first aid kit which the new law requires them to carry, although the Interior Ministry had postponed that requirement for three months until pharmacies could stock up on them.

Egyptians assume that this unusual requirement is designed to benefit some businessman close to the government but no one has identified a suspect or produced any proof. With millions of vehicles on the road, many of them without working lights or brakes,let alone first aid kits, much money is at stake.

What has most put people on edge is the sudden shift away from tolerance of rock-bottom driving practices and vehicle maintenance standards. The trouble with the new system is its unpredictability.

One driver of a four-wheel-drive vehicle was stopped and had his licence seized because the vehicle had a metal crash bar attached to the front. When the driver argued that was how the cars rolled off the production line and came out of the showroom, his argument fell on deaf ears.

Drivers have warned me that I should have all the dents and scratches patched up on my car in case the police don’t like the look of it. But I’m happy to take my chances. After all, most cars are in worse shape and they can’t remove half the vehicles from the streets of Cairo without massive disruption.

Even since the new law came into effect, policemen have still been seen taking money from drivers, not a good omen for what the Interior Ministry billed as a fresh start. As long as those meant to enforce the law are taking bribes, there will be no law enforcement, as one taxi driver put it.                 

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