Let me introduce you to Am Salah, one of many citizens of Greater Cairo who use non-mechanized means of transportation — in this case a donkey cart.
A third of Cairo’s population walk, cycle or use carts as their primary means of transportation, which is also the case for more than half of the population of Egypt’s provincial cities, such as Shibin al-Kom in Monufiya.
But the state insists on fighting users of non-mechanized vehicles, especially donkey carts. Most governors have tried to ban them by imposing harsh penalty fees, far harsher than those imposed on other modes of transportation. The penalty is almost equal to the price of the cart itself, and sometimes the cart is destroyed and the animals killed and fed to zoo animals.
Officials argue carts disrupt the flow of traffic and don’t project a civilized image of the city.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is known for cycling. Along with other state officials, he has advocated for the increasing use of bikes, which surely also disrupt the flow of traffic, although they may look more civilized.
In comparison to other vehicles, carts pose much less of a threat to passengers and pedestrians. We are yet to hear about a cart that ran over a pedestrian, for example.
The ban on carts in Egypt cannot be dissociated from its being a poor person’s vehicle. Carts sustain thousands of households, supporting low-income families in their work and mobility. They are a significant economic pillar for their owners, makers and users, as exemplified by recent protests in Assiut.
They also directly bolster the Egyptian economy, saving billions of pounds in fuel annually, at a time when energy subsidies have reached a quarter of the state’s expenditure. This all happens without any governmental interference, initiatives or awareness campaigns.
Carts could be re-incorporated onto the city’s streets through dedicated lanes in the areas in which they operate. The use of carts could also be expanded to natural reserves, tourist resorts and areas that are particularly sensitive to pollution.
This conversation with Am Salah elucidates how carts are actually the smart vehicle of the city.
Yahia Shawkat: Am Salah, how do you use the cart?
Am Salah: To transport anything in exchange for a fare. Carts are often used to transport gas cylinders, refuse or construction waste because they are especially capable of maneuvering their way through landfill sites. Also, they are less costly for customers than cars.
YS: What are the different types of cart?
AS: There are regular carts, Sawahli carts — long ones used to transport steel rods for construction, carettas — with two wheels, and carriages — with four wheels that transport people. Some people decorate their carts, not the ones they use for work though — except in Alexandra where everyone decorates their carts whether for work or not.
YS: How many cart owners are there in Cairo do you think?
AS: Many households in Old Cairo and in the cemetery area have carts. And they’re much more common in Giza.
YS: What is the reason for fewer carts in Cairo than Giza?
AS: The former governor of Cairo tried to ban carts several times. Before the revolution, we were forbidden from passing in front of churches and near Amro Ibn al-As mosque before 2 pm because of the tourists. And of course, we were not allowed along the Nile Corniche. A Cairo governor also tried to ban carts in Giza, because many of them start their journeys there. But the governor told him that he wouldn’t ban the cart until it no longer adorned the twenty pound note.
YS: So the cart has more freedom in Giza?
AS: Yes. Many fruit sellers have carts in Giza. Their owners stick to the side of the road and clean up after themselves at the end of the working day.
YS: What made you replace the cart with a pickup truck?
AS: Because of the obstacles placed on the use of carts. I was once driving on the Ramadan 10 Bridge and a car behind me was honking, so I gestured with my hands to tell the driver to pass alongside me. It turned out he was a police officer and he pulled me over, got me off my cart and beat me up until I lost hearing in my left ear. Other people have had their carts destroyed and their horse or donkey taken to the zoo.
YS: Was it expensive to replace the cart with a truck?
AS: The cart cost around LE4,000 and a good horse costs around LE1,500. A used pickup truck costs around LE40,000.
YS: With all the difficulties that a cart owner faces with the police, is the high cost of the truck the main obstacle for replacing the cart?
AS: No. Some people just believe that the horse brings good fortune. They like to have a cart, even if they have money for a pickup.
YS: I heard before that there are cart races, but that they are banned by the police. What is the importance of these races? Are there prizes, or do you take bets on winning carts?
AS: No, there is no betting on the carts. The races show the horses’ strength and that way they develop a reputation for the animal and set a price for it when it is sold. After the revolution, the races started in Fustat, where they take place every Sunday evening.