Can Egyptian taxis survive in the age of Uber?
Policemen check taxi driver – Youm7 (Archive)

CAIRO: Driving in the front passenger seat of a taxi to avoid suspicion from local police is a measure usually taken by those engaged in an illegal activity, not patrons of a car service that is set to upset the taxi system of a city of 20 million residents.

Some 10,000 Egyptian drivers are now registered with Uber, said Uber board member David Plouffe at a seminar on business administration and entrepreneurship held by the American University in Cairo (AUC), adding that he believes the government realizes the value proposition of such platforms.

A total of 40 percent of Uber drivers in Cairo were unemployed before joining the company, a figure “understandable amid economic difficulties,” Plouffe said Monday.

Under Egyptian law, all taxis are required to have licenses; ride-sharing services like Uber and Careem side-step licensing, which professional drivers say cuts into their customer base.

On Tuesday, dozens of taxi drivers blocked the Arab League Street in Cairo’s Mohandeseen demanding government action against Uber and Careem, an online transportation network company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. Many complained the competition impedes them from making payments on their cars, according to Youm7.

Endangered species

“Uber and Careem will go extinct and only the taxi will remain, because we work even under the most difficult circumstances,” a taxi driver who requested anonymity told The Cairo Post, recalling the Taxi of the Capital project that was introduced in 2005, which was ordered over the phone, but largely went unheard of.

“During the revolution [in 2011,] owners of private cars left their cars at home and took taxis because they were scared of the security vacuum.”

He said taxi drivers are sometimes labeled “thugs” because they can handle difficulty situations; giving an example of a taxi driver friend who, he claimed, saved a girl from being abducted on the road, he hinted that owners of private cars are not brave enough.

Uber launched in Egypt in 2014, but has gained momentum in the past few months with many people posting their experiences with its drivers.

Drivers of regular taxis have demonstrated in recent weeks to protest Uber and Careem. They slammed the two companies for “working illegally, not paying taxes and benefitting a foreign country,” rather than Egypt.

“A new service won’t fit in old regulations,” Plouffe commented on the legality of Uber, calling for “modernized laws.” He added that the company has been in touch with the government and wants to build its relations with it.

“Cairo is not the first city where such protests have occurred,” said Plouffe, adding that “taxi drivers will never want competition,” but eventually laws were issued in many countries to accommodate Uber’s type of work.

Women on the go 

According to the United Nations, 81.8 percent of sexual harassment takes place on public transportation; most Egyptian women avoid sitting in the front of a taxi to deter unwanted attention.

Uber is “eager” to build a relationship with civil society in Egypt, and last year formed a partnership with Harassmap, an Egyptian award-winning initiative against sexual harassment, to raise the awareness of drivers and also train Uber’s woman drivers on how to react when harassed.

Only five percent of Uber’s drivers are women, according to Plouffe.

Some users of the services have written on social media the police have stopped Uber and Careem drivers to question them.

En route to the AUC seminar, The Cairo Post chose to sit in the front passenger seat, next to an Uber driver to avoid suspicion. The driver stopped to ask a licensed taxi driver on the road for directions. The other driver obliged, probably oblivious of the fact that he was helping the Uber service.

“I am never without a customer as long as I’m logged in,” the Uber driver told The Cairo Post, adding that the Uber application is “user-friendly.”

At the seminar, Plouffe said 600 drivers joined the company only on Monday; the high demand by drivers is another factor for governments to allow Uber, he anticipated.

Uber’s future

Uber wants to make a decision to not buy a car possible; less car ownership will mean fewer cars on the road, Plouffe said, adding that Uber and the like complement the metro and the network of buses because there is always “something missing.”

Bids by the Egyptian government to ease crippling traffic congestion include expanding the bus network, increasing the number of Nile ferries, launching a river cab project, and establishing monorails. It also plans to establish a faculty for river transport, and another for tunnels.

Emphasizing the need for getting fewer cars on the road, Plouffe stressed that the youth want to be mobile; they do not want to be restricted by a driving license wherever they go.

Plouffe anticipates an even larger turnout of drivers, whom he called entrepreneurs, because Uber provides its drivers with “maximum flexibility,” as they want to control their engagement as in when and where to work and for how long.

Many of Uber drivers do not choose Uber as a career, but they get on the road to pay an unexpected bill or save for a vacation, as they can work for just a few hours a month, Plouffe said.

Plouffe said “if we can do that for people in the margin, that’s gonna be a game changer.”

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