Uber takes the wheel in Cairo, but who is really benefiting?

Cairo is the Middle East and North Africa’s fastest growing city in terms of Uber usage

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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As Uber drives up its business in Cairo, with a staggering 30,000 drivers already servicing the app, it is pertinent to ask why commuters are turning to the international transport giant and who is really benefiting.

Cairo is the Middle East and North Africa’s fastest growing city in terms of Uber usage with 70 percent of the capital’s drivers providing Uber services, 40 percent of whom were previously unemployed, according to an official press release. In addition to the job opportunities made available by the introduction of the service in Cairo, Uber changed the lives of countless Egyptian commuters, especially those concerned about the safety of regular cabs and those dying to take a break from driving through Cairo’s notorious traffic, a notion confirmed by Uber Egypt General Manager Anthony Khoury.

“Uber transformed urban mobility for millions of Egyptians when we launched in Cairo, introducing a safe, reliable and efficient way to move around the city,” he said.

Uber’s advent in Egypt was, however, far from hassle-free. In addition to protests staged by drivers of regular cabs who found in Uber a serious threat to their livelihood and who demanded that the service be banned altogether, questions have been put forward as to whether Uber has really managed to solve any of Cairo’s pressing problems.

While drivers of regular cabs, commonly called “the white cab” in Cairo, accuse Uber of stealing their customers, those same drivers are considered by customers to be amongst the main reasons for Uber’s success. Complaints about cab drivers were mainly centered around tampering with the meter in order to increase the fare or not agreeing to turn the meter on to start with, which led to endless bargaining between drivers and customers. Added to this are other reported behavioral patterns on the part of some cab drivers that pushed customers away. According to Abdel Rahman Abul Wafa, the first Uber driver in Egypt, these include smoking in the car, refusing to drop off customers at their exact destination, using cellphones while driving and inappropriate advances with female customers.

“All these issues disappeared with Uber and if any such thing happens, the customer can instantly report it to the company, which will take an immediate action with the driver,” he told Egyptian newspaper Akhbar Elyom. Abul Wafa added that Uber attracted customers by helping them celebrate a number of occasions: “For example, the company offered free rides on New Year’s Eve and delivered gifts on Valentine’s Day.” The protests staged by white cab drivers drew the government’s attention to the violations they reportedly commit and drove the Customer Protection Agency (CPA) to work on monitoring them, especially as far as fares are concerned. “The agency contacted the Ministry of Interior to request that white cab licenses will only be renewed after examining the meter and making sure it was not tampered with,” said CPA director General Atef Yaacoub said, according to newspaper Youm 7.

Uber fares, however, remain a problem for some people since they change depending on the pickup place and the time of the day. Michael Zakhari, an Uber agent in Egypt, admits that prices can increase by 50-70 percent during rush hours and in neighborhoods where demand is extremely high: “Many customers have been complaining about the price surge and this will be partially solved through increasing the number of cars in Cairo,” he said.

Sameh Abdul Moneim, founder of the Uber Café Facebook group, which supplies drivers and cars for Uber, said that other factors contribute to the price surge in Cairo.

“Prices were high throughout the holy month of Ramadan because demand increases remarkably, especially on extremely hot days,” he said, according to Al Borsa News, while also stressing the importance of bringing more drivers on board.

This gap between supply and demand has been a major concern since Uber was introduced in Cairo, especially as it leads to customers’ inability to book a car in advance, thus making the ride contingent upon the availability of nearby cars.

Nasser Hamdi, member of the Egyptian Automobile Manufacturers Association, said that the introduction of Uber service played a major role in reviving the used cars market in Cairo and which had for a long time been stagnant.

“Sales increased by 60 perent because youths can now use the cars to earn money through working as drivers for Uber and similar companies,” he said, according to the Masra Al Arabia website, adding that cars manufactured between 2012 and 2015 are particularly popular among young drivers.

Middle class youth have shown particular interest in working for Uber, not only as a means of increasing their income but also due to the overall difference of the Uber experience, characterized by mutual respect between drivers and customers, which is not always the case with regular cabs. Surveys and interviews demonstrate that this can be attributed to the fact that both customer and driver come from a similar cultural, educational, or social background. The same interviews and surveys, however, reveal drivers’ concerns over the legal position of Uber in Egypt and which makes them feel quite insecure and might drive many of them to quit. This will remain the case until the House of Representatives issues a law that regulates the work of Uber and similar companies like Careem.

Women are seen as the main beneficiary of the introduction Uber in Cairo. With the rising rates of sexual harassment in the capital, women had become increasingly apprehensive of taking taxis, especially those who live in the outskirts. This has changed remarkably with Uber due in part to the cooperation between Uber Egypt and Harass Map, an NGO that counters sexual harassment. According to Alia Suleiman, spokesperson of NGO’s initiative entitled Safe Spaces, the agreement with Uber is based on making the car a safe space for women who choose to use the service. “We trained Uber staff, who in turn trained the drivers,” she said, according to the Akhbarak wesbite, adding that through this training, drivers get to know the meaning of sexual harassment as well as how to deal with a woman who was harassed or the person who harassed her.

While Uber cannot be credited for solving any of Egypt’s traffic problems, its partnership with the Egyptian traffic updates application Bey2ollak, announced on Uber’s first anniversary in Egypt, guarantees a smoother ride for customers. Through this partnership, Bey2ollak updates Uber drivers on congestion points, construction work and road accidents, thus enabling them to choose the fastest route to the customers’ destination.

“We’re glad that we’re helping our users reach their desired destinations in the safest, most convenient way,” said Bey2ollak CEO Mohamed Rafea, accordng to website Egyptian Streets. “We are also excited to be Uber’s first API partnership in Egypt.”

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