Egypt / Travel

Secrets to Driving in Cairo

Cars in Cairo by Keri Douglas

Once you get it – you get it.

Frantic warnings introduce me to driving in Cairo, “It is crazy like nothing you have ever seen before!”

Upon arriving in Cairo and driving to the hotel, I got it and it wasn’t this frantic bizarre scene I was expecting. Modern day driving in Cairo isn’t about how fast or obeying laws – it is about space. With 17 million people living in the Cairo area it is a challenge to get from one location to another around the city. Public transportation is a must or even hitching a ride on the highway is the norm. However, the driving scene is a different beast.

People who have the money to own a car and extreme patience for traffic are the ones who drive or actually hire a driver.  The cars are a modest size with plenty of dents and zings. Everyone once in a while a luxury car would go by. Mini buses are abundant and large tour buses stand out. The roads are smooth in the most traveled areas. Off the main roads, it is an adventure in how to keep your car together and not have to replace your shocks.

Anyone with a fear of speed, not to worry. There are just too many people and too little space for a replica of the German Autobahn to exist. It simply isn’t possible.

When I saw my first fender bender in heavy traffic around a circle, I learned no one has car insurance.  Except they do have insurance for bodily harm. So, people work it out between themselves as to how to compensate for the damages or just shrug their shoulders and accept – an accident is an accident.

There are a few sidewalks but people naturally just walk along the road with not a worry in the world. There are cross walk signs but this is not the guiding principle. When people want to cross the road – they set  their intention, determine the speed of the cars and when they notice a slight break in speed and obtain eye contact with the drivers – they proceed to walk across the street. Most importantly, similar to walking across the street in Vietnam, under no circumstances does anyone change their mind and turn around mid-stream.  It is a well choreographed orchestra of relationships with drivers carefully allowing pedestrians to cross the street without stopping.  If all else fails, a pleasant handsome Tourist Police officer will escort pedestrians across the street. Drivers obey his traffic instructions.

At night, beware – whether driving or walking across the street, many drivers do not turn on their headlights. Local lore is that it saves energy.

There are no animals in the road dead or alive like in Nepal or India. So, drivers are free to drive and not be in constant fear of the unexpected appearance of a sacred animal or be stuck on the road with an obstinate animal, which refuses to move.

One tip, drivers will have the most pleasant driving experience by traveling along any presidential route be it Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or even the most recent visit of President Barack Obama. In fact by the Sultan Hussein Mosque, just for a portion around the mosque the road became this glorious work of art of black pavement with vibrant yellow marking and then dramatically changed as the road weaved behind the mosque. My favorite taxi driver, Gamal, said, “This is Obama Road.” There is historical precedence because the road to the Giza pyramids was created for Empress Eugenie of  France to be able to visit in her carriage.  More than hundred years later the road was paved for the visit of then President Jimmy Carter.

So, the rules to know for driving in Cairo before a couple of secrets are revealed:

  • If you have a fender bender, talk and work out the situation.
  • Do not hit any pedestrians.
  • Follow the Tourist Police traffic instructions.
  • Have plenty of extra time and patience in traffic.
  • Have bodily harm insurance.
  • Pick up a hitchhiker.
  • Protect the car and drive on presidential routes.
  • Use headlights at night.

It is important to know all drivers are responsible for making sure no harm is done to others.  One afternoon returning to Cairo, the most extraordinary picture happened in front of me.  Two young boys, perhaps 12 or 13, were peddling hard on their bicycles up a hill on the highway.  Without helmets, too.  My first reaction was  these kids were crazy. Then I was told a secret of driving in Cairo.  These two young boys were smart to burn off energy knowing that all drivers around them would make sure nothing would happen to them.  Every driver on that highway that afternoon became a parent to those boys and created a protective circle around them so that indeed nothing would happen.

And, now for the most important observations of driving in Cairo. It isn’t about queuing up behind the car in front. Driving in Cairo is about using all horizontal space available in the direction you are traveling.

A similar situation may be trying to pay for produce at a farmers market where the cashier is not in a fixed position and moves freely alongside the table.  Once the customer get the attention of the cashier – with a few others – each prepares to follow the cashier and offer money for the produce. When the cashier is ready –  payment is made. This is not like a typical grocery store where one queues into a single orderly quiet line with the cart to pay.

So, Egyptian style is using the space available to arrive to the destination. Most roads have dividers whether concrete or small raised markers. The key is to know the yellow lane lines are not there to indicate where to be on the road but to indicate how much horizontal space is available on the road.

Be prepared, knowing the space available, drivers will pass on the left and the right. At times there may be four cars across – if they all fit – or perhaps two cars with a truck. It is about space. This is the secret. If one sees an open space – it is taken. It is a game of puzzle pieces in motion.   If the other car is bigger or filled with a family, graciously they are allowed to go first.  And, if all else fails, drivers become religious and pray for others.

For full disclosure, I did not drive in Cairo. I repeatedly asked Gamal if he would allow me to drive his taxi. He was kind enough to allow me to sit in the front seat to witness real Cairo, but driving was not an option.

By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C. (Copyright protected.)

For practical driving assistance while in Cairo, go to the CSA, an organization, which supports the international community living in Cairo to have the best experience possible.  Or – better yet – hire Gamal to drive you around Cairo and beyond.  E-mail me for Gamal’s phone number.


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