CAIRO // The black and yellow tuktuk, the motorised rickshaw, swerves off the main street into a warren of side roads full of potholes, narrow valleys running between towering apartment blocks, drifts of rubbish and old women selling vegetables in shaded doorways. "Police," says 16-year-old Mahmoud Mohsen, not breaking his rhythmic horn tapping as he glances over his shoulder at the passengers crammed in the back seat.
Like much of Egypt's economy, Cairo's tuktuks operate in a grey zone of unlicensed, unregistered business. The industry began in regional towns that lacked public transport, but like the urban immigrants along the length of the Nile the three-wheeled Indian imports quickly made their way to the rapidly growing suburbs of Giza on Cairo's west bank. As the city's transport system struggles to cope with a population estimated at 20 million and growing, demand for tuktuks in cluttered capillary streets has also grown. But now, stabilising demand and lack of government licensing mean the industry in Cairo is under constant threat.
With reliable statistics hard to come by, the best estimate of the industry's size come from Ghabbour Auto, the region's largest independent assembler and distributor, with a near monopoly on new tuktuk sales in Egypt. The company, which had revenues of 5.2 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh3.47bn) last year, began importing tuktuks in 1998. "Since 1999 we have sold 125,000 units," says Bassem el Shawy, the company's director of investor relations. Sales grew 29 per cent between the first quarter of last year and this year's first quarter, from 6,752 to 8,479 units. "We are hoping to sell in 2009 approximately 40,000 units and have growth of about 10 per cent to 15 per cent yearly," says Mr el Shawy.
Mariutaya's Aruba Street is ground zero for Cairo's tuktuks. Along its length the industry unfolds: one-room showrooms, grease-smeared workshops and miniature tuktuk-sized petrol stations. "They sell for 14,750 Egyptian pounds," says Mahmoud Khaled, another tuktuk driver. Sporting torn jeans and rubber flip flops, Mr Khaled leans against a plastic wrapped tuktuk in front of the showroom where he works.
"We used to sell 10 to 12 a day. Now it's very different, maybe three a day, or we can even stay one month without selling one," he says. "All the problems now are because tuktuks have no licences." Operating without licences means that tuktuk drivers and owners are subject to the vagaries of Cairo's police force, a situation that has led to dropping demand for the vehicles. "The tourist police stopped me on the way to a petrol station on Pyramid Street," says Mr Khaled. "They tried to take the tuktuk. I ended up leaving them with 500 pounds after calling a friend to bring the money."
Back on the road, Mahmoud Mohsen - already considered middle-aged for a tuktuk driver even though he is only 16 - discusses the life as he weaves between donkeys and dogs, ancient taxis and trucks spilling over with rubble from the construction sites that dot the road. "It's my cousin's, I'm working on it, renting it for 55 pounds a day," he says. "Otherwise there are two shifts; one in the morning for 30 and nights are 35."
A ride costs 1 pound per large city block and he brings in about 100 pounds on an average day, pocketing 35 pounds for himself after paying for petrol. For Mahmoud Mosen, unlike many young men that come to Cairo solely to drive tuktuks, it is not a living, just a way to make some quick cash during a summer break from school. Tuktuks are an important secondary source of income to meet the spiralling cost of city living.
"Tuktuks sometimes support three houses," says Mr Khaled. "The guy driving it in the morning, the one at night and the owner. And they pay for another house for the mechanic, too." On a quiet side street Um Farouk, 57, looks up from polishing a tuktuk parked in the entrance of his single room shop. Bearing tattoos from his time in prison during a previous life as a local strongman, Mr Farouk now lives alone in the shop, making ends meet between his work as a decorator and driving the tuktuk.
"Sometimes business is light, so the tuktuk brings extra money," he says. "I bought this tuktuk in Omroneya for 18,750 pounds," he says, running an eye proudly over his investment. "It's the 2007 model, the best model. It's different to the newer ones, the finish is better." Mr Farouk drives the tuktuk four or five hours a night, making about 50 pounds. Like everyone associated with the industry he complains about the lack of licensing adding to the already heavy competition. "There's too many tuktuks now, but then again there's also too many people," he says.
Turning the key, the motor roars and he listens as it settles into a steady rumble. "I've heard that the government will start making licences by the owner's ID," he says. "But even if they don't, I'm not going to sell it. I don't need the money and it's good for business." firstname.lastname@example.org