Cairo's communal minibuses: the loud, filthy taxis relied on by millions

Known as 'el microbasat', the mode of transport reflects many of the Egyptian capital's defining features

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They dart and weave through the streets of Cairo at all hours of day and night, ferrying millions of low-income residents around the Nile-side city of 20 million.

Their drivers are notorious for recklessness, constant hooting, foul-mouthed rants and unruliness, earning them constant resentment — even hatred — from the Egyptian capital's motorists and pedestrians.

There are at least 50,000 communal taxis in the city, serving three million passengers daily.

Many of the minibuses, known in Arabic as the “el microbasat”, will likely soon break down, with loud diesel engines, broken air-conditioning, filthy seats and suffocating exhaust fumes.

When they are filled to capacity, which is often the case, they look like cans of sardines with 16 passengers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, with little leg room.

The minibuses have their own terminals which, in many ways, mirror all that is amiss with the city. They are heavily littered and filled with stalls serving greasy and often fried food, the smell of which fills the air. Coffee and tea are served in glasses off rickety stands. Altercations are common.

The life-endangering speed with which some of the minibuses enter and leave terminals send pedestrians scurrying out of their way.

Generally viewed as a necessary evil, the communal taxis are banned from city landmarks like Tahrir Square or the downtown area. They are also prohibited from going into upmarket districts such as Zamalek or Garden City.

That leaves them snaking through backstreets and overcrowded residential areas rarely frequented by the city’s affluent residents but which serve as an eye-opener for anyone who wishes to see one aspect of the life led by the majority of Cairenes.

The microbuses often feature loud diesel engines, broken air-conditioning and filthy seats. Photo: Mahmoud Nasr / The National

Cases of assault and sexual harassment are not uncommon on Cairo’s communal taxis, prompting police to stick flyers on the back of seats that list the names and mobile numbers of senior officers at local stations that should be contacted to report a crime.

“I use the minibuses when I am travelling alone but I only use taxis when I am with my wife,” said Hany Abdullah, a 60-year-old Cairene who spent much of his life as a company driver. “The drivers constantly use offensive language, it’s hot inside them and the driving turns my stomach.

“People say they are good drivers but my view is that they drive like they have nothing to lose so everyone makes way for them.”

Yet, Cairo’s communal taxis have for decades been the city’s largest and most reliable public transport institution. Their reach is unmatched by other modes of transport and they offer a somewhat passenger-friendly service not available to those using the city’s regular taxis, metro or buses.

Moreover, their fares — which vary according to distance — are cheaper than bus or metro rides.

Would-be passengers can flag them down anywhere along their designated routes. If seats are available, the driver swerves sharply to his right to pick them up, often drawing expletive-filled reactions from other motorists.

Passengers can also alight whenever they choose after giving the driver a few seconds’ notice.

Those who wait along the route to catch a ride on el microbasat often use familiar hand gestures that inform the drivers of their destination. These include an upside down “V” for victory sign to indicate the Pyramids road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Making small circles in the air with the index finger indicate the city’s Circle road, Cairo’s most perilous.

The minibuses weave through the streets of Cairo at all hours, ferrying millions of low-income residents around the Nile city. AP

Fares are collected by the passengers, who routinely pass the fare back-to-front until they reach the driver, who nonchalantly counts the money several times and gives back change, all while steering.

In many ways, the el microbasat epitomise some of Cairo’s defining features, from dangerous living and chaos to the incessant noise, air pollution and overcrowding.

The drivers look fatigued. They consume copious amounts of coffee between runs, often argue with each other while waiting for their cars to fill up. Heated rows with passengers over change are not uncommon.

The punishing heat of Cairo’s summers makes everyone edgy, while spontaneous conversations between passengers who have only just met can offer a window into the trying life of most Cairenes.

“I will not move over, I am tall and there is no leg room for me there,” a man in his 30s defiantly shouted one recent afternoon when asked by a fellow passenger to allow for more space.

Passengers use familiar hand gestures to inform drivers of their destination, with small circles in the air with the index finger indicate the city’s Circle road. Photo: Mahmoud Nasr / The National

'The work of the devil'

On a different ride, a bearded man in his 50s exchanged harsh words with a younger woman whose wish to swap seats with him was rebuffed. A female passenger intervened, appealing for calm.

“This is the work of the devil who moves among us to turn us against each other,” she said.

“I don’t want to argue with her, she has a kind face,” the man flirtatiously said with a grin.

The woman who intervened then turned her attention to the passenger next to her, a recently widowed woman in a black abaya and a matching hijab.

“His family wants to take my youngest kid from me,” she complained. “But I said no. Let them take me to court if they want to. They can only take him if I remarry. Who wants to remarry these days?”

On another ride, driver Mohammed Ali shared with the passenger next to him his views on the old and battered Volkswagen minibus he was driving.

“They are manufactured in Germany to operate on petrol, but we amended the engines to run on diesel because it is cheaper,” he said, as the voice of the late Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum singing a love song blasted from the radio.

“It is like you amputate a man’s leg and replace it with an artificial one. You cannot expect him to run, he will just hobble,” he said, while navigating the notoriously congested traffic on Faisal street.

Updated: July 08, 2022, 6:00 PM