I am a bit of a railfan, and I have been following the development of the Cairo Metro system since first living in Egypt ten years ago. Better public transportation is desperately needed in Cairo, as the cost of long commutes in informal microbuses jammed in traffic acts as a massive regressive tax on the poor. However, improved transportation is also a huge source of anxiety for an uncertain regime in transition. The lynchpin of the Cairo Metro, Sadat Station under Midan Al-Tahrir, has been closed since August last year to hinder the assembly of any more protests at the symbolic heart of the ongoing Egyptian revolution. But the government is still taking out billions of Euros of development loans to build more metro lines. Does the government want Egyptians to have a subway system or not?
Interim President Adly Mansour inaugurated the second phase of the Metro’s Line Three tonight. This addition doubles the length of the initial segment of line three, opened two years ago between Midan Al-ʿAttaba and Abbaseya, through a no-man’s land of exhibition, conference and ministry buildings and the Cairo Stadium, all the way to the upper-class suburb of Heliopolis.
The ultimate goal of this thrust of construction is the Cairo International Airport, as indicated by the destination signage in phase one, which somewhat optimistically read “DIRECTION: AIRPORT.” The plan for the westerly direction of construction is under the Nile, through Zamalek and toward Imbaba. The engineering challenges associated with these next phases seem much greater than the first two phases, much like New York’s legendary Second Avenue Subway, where a first phase is slated for completion in late 2016. However, the government has secured LE 1.5 billion in loans from the European Investment Bank and French Development Agency, so it is safe to say we’ll be taking the Metro to Zamalek before taking the “T” line to Hanover Square.
The path of phase two was somewhat predictable: the new line mostly traverses state-0wned land, so right of way was easier to procure. Then again, as a result, several stops are removed from residential areas and may see little daily use, just like the Gezira Opera station. However, it is striking just how close the Cairo Stadium station is to Rabaʿa al-Adawiyya square in the northwest corner of Nasr City. This intersection, adjacent to a huge Ministry of Defense office complex and barracks, was the site of a security service massacre on August 14, 2013 of between 638 and more than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting the coup that removed ex-President Muhammad Morsi from office.
It is impossible to predict the wildly shifting meaning and uses of public space in a city as large as Cairo. Rabaʿa al-Adawiya obtained its ignominy long after construction began on the new line — does this mean the government will leave Cairo Stadium station open, or only open it for special events? The Metro Authority claims it will finally open the platforms at Sadat/Tahrir station for transfers between lines one and two in a week, to relieve congestion at the only other transfer point, Martyrs/Ramsis station. However, it will lock metal gates barring all exits and turnstiles — which begs the question: what about fire or other emergency exits?
The system remains under siege in a myriad of other literal and figurative ways. A bomb planted in front of the ʿUrabi station in downtown Cairo killed a passer-by and injured two others last Friday. When Metro Authority Chairman Major General (that’s right) Ismail al-Nagdy didn’t like some of the questions an Al-Arabiya TV news reporter asked him about litter and beggars in the Metro during an interview two weeks ago, he had his staff forcibly confiscate the crew’s equipment.
The Metro is accelerating the pace of social movement and communication at a moment the state would prefer Egyptian society slow down and shut up. The ideology of development cracks wide open once again! Call it the revenge of Baron Empain, the Belgian speculator who built the first electric tramway in Cairo and invented Heliopolis, whose kitchy Hindu-temple-style mansion sits near the brand-new terminal station of line three.