Cairo subway thrives beneath the chaos

Friday 22/05/2015
Egyptian women board a car at the Shohadaa, (Martyrs) metro station in Cairo, Egypt

Cairo - The Cairo Metro system sprawls across the city, delivering an estimated 3.6 million passengers per day over three different lines and approximately 78 kilo­metres of track, both above ground and below the city centre.
In a city known for its dysfunc­tion, the Cairo Metro stands as a singular achievement. It’s reliable, well-maintained and relatively clean. And it may be the only place in Egypt where no-smoking rules are actually enforced. At 1 Egyp­tian pound — about 13 cents — per ticket, the Metro is a bargain even in a country like Egypt where near­ly half the population of 90 million lives near or below the poverty line.
“It’s like the life train,” said Leila Abdel Basset, a 24-year-old jour­nalist who has taken the Metro to work every weekday for the past three years. “It’s crowded in some stations and empty in others but it always gets me to my station.”
Veteran Metro riders know the tricks and unwritten rules. For starters, men have to be careful not to accidentally step onto one of the women-only cars; those who for­get may receive a hostile reaction from women onboard.
Savvy passengers know to avoid the morning and evening rush hours when the cars often are packed to capacity with com­muting civil servants and rowdy students. Others carefully choose their cars to avoid those that stop closest to station turnstiles and are likely to be the most crowded.
But not everything runs smooth­ly. The cars are not air-condi­tioned, which can make conditions truly miserable on a crowded sum­mer day. At peak times, stations can devolve into violent wrestling matches, with passengers aggres­sively crowding in from the plat­form, which prevents riders from exiting.
At the same time, a sense of community also exists. Riders commonly and freely give up their seats to elderly passengers or women with children. During Ramadan, the holy month when observant Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, volunteers pass cups of water on the train cars at sunset.
The dependability of the Metro became crucial during the 2011 up­rising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power. The massive Sadat station extends underneath Tahrir Square — the heart of the revolu­tion and the site of dozens of pro­tests and violent clashes in the years since. Even when the streets surrounding Tahrir were blocked with cement walls and barbed wire, and tear gas from the clashes above filled the platform, the Met­ro still ran.
“The Metro was the tunnel to the revolution. It was the best trans­portation,” said daily rider Lobna Tarek, a 26-year-old photographer.
But the Metro’s immunity to Egyptian politics ended following the July 2013 military coup that ousted Islamist president Muham­mad Morsi after massive protests. In August 2013, when authorities violently cleared out a pair of pub­lic sit-ins staged by Morsi support­ers, Sadat station was closed and hasn’t reopened.
Tahrir was a major hub for pas­sengers switching between lines — most of whom have had an ex­tra 40 minutes added to their daily commutes
Since the coup, a simmering in­surgency, launched partially by Morsi loyalists, has occasionally targeted Metro stations. The insur­gents have used stun grenades de­signed to sow panic without caus­ing serious casualties.
But despite everything, the trains keep running.