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Metro fare hike prompts protests and arrests, adds to the burdens of Egyptians
 
 
Courtesy: urbanrail.net
 

In the long line at the ticket window at Helwan metro station, two women kill time by talking about the new fares. One of them tells her friend that her daily commute now costs LE35.

“What are we to do?” her friend responds. “The people who voiced their objection yesterday were arrested. This is what the future holds for us: Either go to jail or starve to death, either of which will be very soon.”

Protests and arrests

The Transportation Ministry effectively raised the metro fare on Thursday evening from a flat LE2 to a variable fare ranging between LE3 and LE7, depending on the distance traveled.

On Friday and Saturday, videos and photos circulated on social media depicting scenes from Cairo’s metro stations. Passengers jumped turnstiles by the dozens. Protests broke out, there were hostile arguments between people and the police. Calls to boycott the service have emerged and a mobile app was developed as a workaround. In response to the discontent, the Interior Ministry stationed security forces in and around metro stations, and dozens of protesters were arrested.

A video from the Helwan metro station showed an angry crowd chanting in protest on the platform, remaining defiant even after security officials appeared to issue instructions to leave the station.

Another video from the station shows a woman shouting at passengers on the platform. “None of you is a man. Anyone who took the metro to work is not a real man,” she says. “If you want to arrest us, go ahead.”

On Saturday, the Bread and Freedom Party posted a photo on their Facebook page that showed people at Sadat metro station holding signs. Another video, which the user who uploaded it said was filmed at Marg metro station, circulated showing dozens of passengers jumping the turnstile onto the platform.

Security forces arrested 28 people from Helwan metro station on Saturday, 18 of whom were later released, according to Amr Mohamed, a lawyer at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Ten more people were brought before the prosecution on Sunday, and on Tuesday, Helwan prosecution ordered their release pending investigations into charges of illegal assembly, destroying a public facility and assaulting public employees, Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters (FDEP) lawyer Fatma Serag tells Mada Masr.

The arrest count from Sadat metro station was 12 and included Bread and Freedom Party members Asmaa Abdel Hameed and Abir al-Safty. According to the party leader Elham Eidarous, security forces assaulted and arrested the two women at the station before taking them to an undisclosed location. The 12 defendants, including the two Bread and Freedom Party members, were brought before State Security Prosecution on Sunday and Monday and were issued 15-day detention orders, according to lawyer Mokhtar Mounir.  

Eight others, who were arrested at Maadi metro station on Saturday, were brought before State Security Prosecution on Monday evening and issued 15-day detention orders, pending investigations into charges of joining a terrorist group, participating in a protest and obstructing access to a public facility, according to Serag.  

Media campaigns were launched against the calls to boycott the metro and against the protests that broke out in Cairo metro stations. The campaigns designate those asking for a boycott as Muslim Brotherhood members and “Facebook activists.”

While the FDEP places the total number of those arrested and brought before the prosecution at 30, Gamal Eid, the head of ANHRI, tells Mada Masr the total number of arrests was much higher. According to information the network has received from lawyers and families, at least 80 people were arrested and released amid the security crackdown, with the whereabouts of some of them remaining unknown.

The metro authority announced on Thursday that it would introduce a new, variable fare on Friday, increasing the price of some tickets by up to 300 percent. Demonstrations broke out at several metro stations across Cairo over the weekend to protest the increase.

Just one day after the price hike took effect, a Facebook page named “General strike – Metro” was created, calling for a boycott of the service between May 11 and 15. Despite garnering a 94,000-person support base as of the time of publishing, the extent of the response to the call is unclear. Mada Masr reached out to page administrators, but received no response.

The Faculty of Computer and Information Sciences Ultras, another Facebook page dedicated to posting about information and communication technology primarily for university students in the field, announced that a group of developers created an app to circumvent the fare raise. “Baddel Tazkarti” (Exchange my Ticket) is available on smartphones running on Android. The page explains, “If you are traveling from Helwan to Marg or crossing from Helwan to the second or third line, it is easy — You would buy a ticket in Helwan, and when you arrive in Marg, you exchange your ticket with someone who bought their ticket in Marg and is headed to Helwan. That way, it would appear [to the machine] as though [both of] you just went in and out without actually traveling any distance. If you need to cross from one line to another, you exchange your ticket with someone who is going the other way. That way, both of you would appear to have traveled across as few stations as possible. Thus, everyone would only pay LE3.”

Mada Masr has not been able to get in touch with the developers to obtain more information on how the app works.

Some opted to resort to the judiciary to petition the hike. On Saturday, one lawyer appealed to the State Council to revoke the decision. Other lawyers also filed a lawsuit with the State Council against the transportation minister and the head of the National Authority for Tunnels to petition for the decision to be revoked.

Parliament also expressed concern about the price hike. The legislature’s Transportation Committee summoned Transportation Minister Hesham Arafat to discuss the decision at an emergency meeting.

Uneasy calm

By Sunday, relative quiet prevailed. The Interior Ministry had deployed a heavy security presence in and around Cairo’s metro stations. Armored police vehicles were stationed just outside Helwan station, and dozens of Central Security Forces personnel were positioned along nearby streets, ready and alert.

Across the street from the station, one police tank was stationed outside a café. The owner tells Mada Masr, “Since the metro protests took place yesterday, a detainee transport vehicle and a tank have been positioned outside my café. They mean to scare patrons so nobody will talk about what is happening. My business has been suffering since yesterday. They consumed two kilos of coffee and three kilos of tea and sugar, not to mention all the bottled water, and they don’t pay.”

At Saad Zaghloul station, Mada Masr tried to speak to several commuters about the decision to raise the fare, but no one was willing to speak to journalists. One passenger turned his eyes to the security forces on the platform then back to us, placed his hand on his mouth and said, “Shut up.”

But the quiet and the heavy security presence did not prevent all forms of protest.

One commuter, a psychologist who asked that we refer to her as Laila, tells Mada Masr that she jumped the turnstile at Ain Shams station along with a number of other passengers. When she tried to record the moment with her phone, security forces attempted to arrest her. An elderly woman saved her by shouting at them. When Laila arrived at Cairo University station, she shouted at the clerks to allow her to exit without a ticket.

Laila tells Mada Masr that she noticed that there are fewer passengers using the metro than usual. Yet, she does not think she can join in on the boycott. “I can’t do that,” she says. “There is no one fast means of transportation that I can ride to my place of work. [The metro] is the best, fastest and most convenient.”

Ahmed Shohdy, a librarian who works in Sayeda Zeinab near downtown Cairo and lives in 15th of May City, rides the metro to his job every day. Even though he owns a car, it is not practical for him to drive that distance on a daily basis. Therefore, he drives 14 km to Wadi Hof station, then rides the metro to the library, traveling across 13 stations. “I’m aware of the boycott, and I’m strongly for it, but it is not feasible for me to participate, because I have no other options.”

“Maadi is the nearest place someone who lives in Helwan could be working,” Shohdi adds. “A lot of Helwan residents work in far corners of the city. The metro is faster and more reliable for them,” he says, especially given the Autostrad’s state of disrepair.

Anger under the surface

The protests may have died down, but the anger of passengers has not.

At Marg station, a vendor, seemingly in her 30s, tries to get through the turnstile, carrying women’s clothes and accessories she intends to sell on the metro on her shoulders. Several police conscripts and a commissioned officer surround her in an attempt to confiscate the goods she is carrying. She resists.

“I will get through and you will not stop me,” she shouts. “I just bought your LE7 ticket. Let people go about their business.”

Other passengers back the woman and shout at the officer: “Let her through. People have enough troubles as it is.”

She boards the women’s car, just in time, and bursts into tears. “What more are they going to do to us? Yesterday, my husband threatened me and my children if I ask him for more money.” The women rush to buy her merchandise to console her.

They quickly spark up a conversation and share their complaints. “What are day laborers who support their families to do?” one says.

“He keeps taking from the poor and giving to the rich,” another mumbles, in reference to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

A third woman says that all four members of her family ride the metro on a daily basis. She estimates that the latest hike will send their transportation expenses rocketing from LE240 to LE1,680 a month, while her and her husband’s salaries combined barely amount to LE4,000.

The conversation digresses to the increase in the price of rice. “The government wants to put us on a mandatory diet,” one woman says. “This is unfair. Rice is the staple food for children. It goes with anything and can be added to anything to make satisfying meal.”

Others bring up the episode of Amr Adib’s talk show “Kol Youm” (Every Day) that aired the previous night, during which the host called upon people to contribute to pay off Egypt’s national debt. “Why don’t he and his [fellow talk show hosts] donate their salaries to pay off the national debt? Are debts only to be paid off out of the pockets of the poor?” one woman says with a tone of disapproval.

In a car mostly occupied by men, everyone is quiet, until a father speaks to his son on the phone to warn him not to take part in any of the actions at metro stations. “Take off the minute you have your ticket. We don’t need any trouble, and I don’t want to be going from one police station to another looking for you.”

Another man sarcastically comments on the heavy police presence over the phone. “They are one step away from bombing us,” he says.

Confusion among ticket clerks about the new variated fare and how to calculate the number of stations traveled further exasperates commuters who recurrently ask, “How much will my ticket be?” This question then prompts shouts of frustration from other passengers down the line, demanding that the clerks not cause them to be late for work, given that they are already paying higher fares.

Amr Abdel Moneim, a Facebook user, posted about his experience on Saturday. “As usual, I headed to the Khalafawy station to ride to Dokki. That is nine stations. After the hike, my fare should be LE3. I told the clerk that I would get off at Dokki. He asked me for LE5. I argued that I would only travel across nine stations, but he said it was 10. Anyway, I [bought the ticket.] When I tried to exit the platform at Dokki station, the machine wouldn’t take my ticket. The clerk came over and examined it. He tried to insert it into a different machine. It wouldn’t take it either. It showed that the ticket was ‘invalid.’ He asked me where I boarded. I said Khalafawy. He said, ‘That is nine stations away. Why did you buy a LE5 ticket?’ He then informed me that I couldn’t use the ticket to exit the platform because I didn’t travel across more than nine stations.”

The Thursday metro price hike is the second in less than 14 months. In March 2017, the metro fare was doubled from LE1 to LE2. At the time, the Transportation Ministry cited LE200 million in annual losses since 2010 and LE500 million in debt as the reasons for the hike. Ali Falady, the chairman of the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation (ECMMO), said last year that the company was not seeking to turn a profit, “but rather working toward ending the service’s dependence on the state budget to cover improvements and maintenance, and toward providing a better service for Egyptians, especially given that over 3 million passengers use the metro every day.”

The latest hike, which ranges between 250 and 300 percent, has come as a shock to many.

However, Arafat had told the press in January that the plan to increase metro fares was likely to be rolled out in May. The decision was still under consideration, according to Arafat, who stated that the new fares would potentially range from between LE3 and LE6. In December last year, Sisi also stated that the metro fare could not remain the same, saying that the old fare was not sufficient to fund the expansion of the metro grid. “It cannot be done with the current fare, not even with a 200 or 300 percent increase. This is the blunt truth of it,” he said.

Regarding the latest hike, ECMMO published a statement on Thursday in which it cites a “94 percent deficit in the budget for maintenance, overhauls and updates for fiscal years 2016/2017 and 2017/2018. The metro has also accumulated LE618.6 million in losses.”

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Basma Ghoneim 
Hadeer El-Mahdawy