Catching Uber in Cairo with Mahmoud


My trendy early-adopter Gen Y and Millennial friends will be shocked to learn that I’ve never used Uber before. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the disruptive technology and all, but I generally drive everywhere myself, not being a big drinker – unlike my trendy early-imbiber Gen Y and Millennial friends.

But Cairo was always going to be different. Unlike throughout most of Europe – and particularly countries like the Netherlands – you can’t count on everyone, or actually almost anyone, speaking English. Thanks to the wonders of GPS technology and app development, with Uber you can bring the car to wherever you are and you can also type in your destination; no need to learn, in this case, the Arabic and the Arabic script. Plus, you can be sure that Uber drivers will have better and cleaner cars, and won’t try to rip you off like the cab driver I had to use later in the day, who once we reached the destination magically didn’t have a lot of change for a 100 Egyptian pound note.

(Yes, Uber, I’m happy to accept a sponsorship in exchange for this free advertising.)

So taking advantage of my hosts’ wifi (another great Australian invention) this morning I downloaded the Uber app, put in the address as shown by the GPS and typed “Egyptian Museum” as the destination. Almost instantly, Mahmoud in his trusty old Chevrolet popped onto my iPhone screen about five minutes away. I requested and he accepted the job. I then spent ten minutes waiting outside the apartment block, watching the icon of his car dance around the map on the screen in every which way and direction, variously making Mahmoud 3 minutes away, only to be 10 minutes away a few second later, then 5, then 3, then 5 again. And so on. This wasn’t a malfunction, unless you consider the Cairo street network and traffic to be malfunctions, which in truth they are. On narrow side streets cars double park or randomly stop for an unknown reason, blocking the traffic completely; what happens on major arteries makes Sydney during rush hour seem like Bathurst 500. Cairo is a city of 20 million people built for 3 million, with infrastructure built decades ago (mostly under the British administration), and untouched since then, to match. Enough said.

In the end I had to walk about 100 metres to get to Mahmoud as he was unable to get any closer to me. As the old Arabic saying goes, if Mahmoud won’t come to Arthur, Arthur will have to come to Mahmoud. Or something like that.

Driving in Cairo is not for faint-hearted, or for Westerners. It gives lie to an otherwise sound conjecture by Friedrich von Hayek about spontaneous order arising out of thousands of seemingly random individual actions. In Cairo, there is only spontaneous chaos. There are few traffic lights and even fewer rules. Take the lines of traffic for example. In countries like Australia or the United States they are meant to channel cars in an orderly and safe fashion. In Egypt they are merely a suggestion. Thus Gamal Abd El-Nasser Rd running along the west bank of the Nile is one of the more significant roads in central Cairo. It has three painted lines in each way, but for all of my five-minute drive along it with Mahmoud there were always five improvised lanes of cars driving at moderate speed in the space for three. In Cairo, the lines shimmer and weave like fata morgana, the desert mirage, with cars constantly darting in and out and changing the streams of traffic for no apparent purpose. They can drive at 40km an hour within inches of each other, which back home would cause at best instant apoplexy and at worst road rage. Indicators are used but for what exactly I don’t know since the cars so often drive so close to the bumper of the car in front that you can’t see their flashing lights. Claxon is the preferred mode of inter-car communication, though I imagine you have to be born here to understand the subtle language, or for that matter even realise which beep relates to you as opposed to any one of the dozen other cars around you.

Cars are not the only objects on the road to be mindful of. There are also people, who are crossing multi-lane streets through the fast moving traffic. In a city of few traffic lights, where cars don’t generally stop to let pedestrian through, this is the only way to move around. In fact, it is perhaps the most important skill I’ve learned in Cairo today. I won’t call it a survival skill, because constantly courting injury is a very antithesis of survival. But it’s important nevertheless. A pro tip if you ever find yourself in a similar situation: use the locals as human shields. It’s not like Egyptians are any less inclined to run over one of their own as opposed to a weird foreigner with a camera, but at least crossing in the shadow of one, two or three Cairan pedestrians can turn fatal into merely painful and save you an awful lot on medical bills – as well as on having to visit an Egyptian hospital.

Mahmoud got me to my destination all in one piece, without getting into any accidents, though there was at least one instance of a push with a bumper. The fare was reasonably inexpensive, and afterwards I received a receipt through email. Thank you, Mahmoud, thank you, Uber. Egyptian life’s middle name seems to be “disruptive” so I’m not sure if the country need disruptive technology to disrupt disrupted reality, but I’m told that when the local taxi drivers blocked a busy thoroughfare with their cabs to protest the Uber interlopers, the authorities sent in the bulldozers and cleared the road. My Gen Y and Millennial friends would call that freedom.