August 9, 2008 2:22 am

Drivers hope to bypass Cairo roads scheme

Older Egyptians lamenting the decline in public standards often illustrate their arguments by pointing to the country’s disorderly roads. There is no lane discipline, cars are often without lights at night and it is not unusual for a driver to take a short cut by going in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

In a country where at least 6,000 people die in crashes every year because of irresponsible driving habits and the poor condition of roads, there is consensus on the need for a more disciplined system.

Nevertheless, a law that came into effect this week imposing stiff and immediate fines for violations ranging from double parking to breaking the speed limit has been heavily criticised.

All week police officers have been out checking drivers’ papers and ensuring that they use seatbelts and have fire extinguishers in their vehicles. But critics say it will take more than fines to resolve the problem.

They argue that the chaotic state of Egypt’s streets reflects decades of poor planning and an entrenched culture of disregard for the rule of law shared by much of the general public and many of those in authority.

It is common for the children of well-connected families to obtain driving licences before they have even learnt to drive. Drivers of police and government cars breach the regulations as much as anyone else.

In Cairo, where parking spaces are often impossible to find, even the most law-abiding citizens have no qualms about slipping the underpaid traffic warden some change to allow them to double park.

“The new traffic law is an example of the rise of extortion in Egypt,” wrote Amr El Shobaki, a political analyst. “With some effort and sensitivity, the authorities could have presented legislation that improves the situation on the roads, instead of one which seeks to extort money and spread corruption.”

A stipulation that all cars should carry a first aid kit, with a long list of items to deal with a variety of injuries and burns, prompted a torrent of mockery in the press. The government has promised to reduce the list and it has also denied speculation that the requirement was introduced for the benefit of some presumed importer of first aid kits.

“The fines are now so high it will no longer be enough to pay off a traffic policeman with E£5 or E£10 [$1.90, €1.30, £1],” said Salah Abdel Ghani, a taxi driver. “This is a law that will affect only the poor, like those who drive taxis and pick-up trucks. But look at how the children of the rich drive their cars: nobody tells them a thing.”

The Egyptian authorities have been at pains to stress that no one is above the law and that there will be no exemptions. Indeed, the press has carried reports that even drivers of police cars and members of the prosecution service have been fined.

But Egyptians believe the new laws will suffer the fate of previous attempts to end the traffic mayhem and fizzle out within weeks.

This seems to be the view of Cairo’s minibus drivers. They provide the main form of public transport for the millions of residents of the poor and overcrowded areas on the city’s outskirts. Many drive unlicensed vehicles or have no permits, relying instead on bribing policemen along the route to allow them to stay on the road.

A large number of them appear to have decided to sit out the current campaign and stay at home.

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