Last year, a documentary about Cairo won the prize for best Arab documentary at the Abu Dhabi film festival. It covers the period from 2009 to 2012, a time in which the Arab spring sprung, a revolution overturned Egypt's government, and the country’s first democratic elections took place.
But Cairo Drive isn’t a film about politics. It’s a film about traffic.
Traffic can seem to define Cairoites’ lives, not least because so much of them play out in cars, sitting stationary in traffic. The city is home to 20m people, 2m cars and 23,6000 miles of road. Long waits and terrible traffic jams mean many socialise through open windows, trading insults, cigarettes and small talk. One of the film's stars points out that for young men, who tend to live with their parents until marriage, their cars are the only space they have to themselves: "It's the place where you kick it with your friends."
Traffic laws are largely ignored, and drivers take their cues to stop and go through a language of honking (most honks, it turns out, translate as insults about other drivers' mothers). As another of the film’s subjects puts it: "It's like that Frank Sinatra song, 'Do it My Way'. We all just do it our way".
The endless honking and chatting seems quite fun, but there’s another side to the traffic. It blocks ambulances, kills pedestrians and causes horrible pileups, especially on the city's ring-road. Originally built to ease congestion, this road is now used just as recklessly as the city's other routes, and at higher speeds. One mother featured in the film is so worried about the ring road that she sits in the car with her son on his journeys to and from school, pointing out speeders or swervers to her driver from the edge of her seat.
The World Bank carried out a study on Cairo’s traffic problems in 2010. It found that the annual cost of congestion in the greater metropolitan area amounted to around 50 billion Egyptian dollars a year: 4 per cent of Egypt’s entire GDP. Even Jakarta, also densely populated, famous for its traffic and rapidly expanding, only loses 0.6 per cent of Indonesia’s GDP to traffic costs.
The study recommended cutting back the fuel subsidies, which make up a fifth of the Egypt’s government budget; it also wanted improvements to public transport and pedestrian routes, and a significant investment in traffic lights. Earlier this year, Hartwig Schafe, the World Bank’s director for Egypt, suggested similar solutions in a post for Ahram Online.
Fuel subsidies across Egypt were cut this year, increasing the price of gasoline by over 70 per cent and sparking protests. But some of the government’s other attempts to tackle the problem don’t quite match the World Bank’s proposals. One recent road education campaign in schools involved students sitting at a red light in a toy car, explaining that they won't rush, even though they're late. They sing a traffic lights song, with lyrics that run:
"Yellow, yellow, yellow means wait, wait, wait...even if you're late, late late."
For Sherief Elkhatsha, the film’s creator and director, traffic was a focus in itself, but also acted as a route into other issues. His subjects were often suspicious of filming, and, as he told an audience at a screening of the film at the Barbican last week, many cautiously said they “didn’t want to talk about politics”. “Of course,” he continued, “we’d by start talking about traffic and then, ten minutes later, they’d be onto politics.”
His hunch was that traffic plays a central role in politics and city life: each major event since 2009 has brought with it a change in the city’s traffic patterns. During the revolution, when police were absent from the city’s roads, citizens took to directing traffic themselves, and for a short period, drivers appeared to be following road laws. Yet, as Elkatsha noted at the screening, the situation soon regressed: “People took democracy to mean their freedom alone. It ends at the tip of someone else’s nose, so they could drive however they wanted.”
How has the political situation in Cairo changed in the past couple of years, Elkhatsha was asked. “All I can say is that traffic is slightly worse,” he replied.