Tuk-tuk driver Mohram Abdul Jelil waits for customers inside his motorised three-wheeler in a Cairo street. Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo: Whether in Egypt’s working-class areas, villages, or on highways, it is ubiquitous. The tuk-tuk, a motorised rickshaw, has become a main mode of transport in this country of nearly 100 million people.

Its low fares, compared to other means of public transport, and small-size mobility have boosted its popularity. The three-wheeler vehicle has also provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians amid life woes resulting from harsh economic reforms.

However, the tuk-tuk has gained notoriety after several of its unlicensed drivers were found guilty of unlawful acts, including drug trafficking, thefts, rape and even murder.

Months ago, Nermeen Rami, a university student, was talking on her mobile phone on an almost empty street in Cairo when a tuk-tuk driver snatched the pricey gadget and sped off.

“I screamed for help and ran after the tuk-tuck, but it soon vanished,” the 23-year-old woman told Gulf News.

“It looked like the rest of tuk-tuks, having no plate number or a distinct sign. I reported the incident to the police, but they have not since been able to identify the culprit because tuk-tuks are still not licensed in Egypt, although the only place that they have not entered yet is our houses!” she added sarcastically.

Egypt first came to know the tuk-tuk in the early 2000s when the government allowed its importation from its native Asian countries in an attempt to generate new revenues for Egypt’s state coffers.

The three-wheeler finally  found its way into cities near Cairo

The three-wheeler initially hit unpaved, tortuous roads in rural areas. Gradually, it found its way into cities near Cairo.

During security breakdown that Egypt experienced following the 2011 ouster of long-time president Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, the tuk-tuk reached and proliferated in Cairo.

The now-deposed Mohammad Mursi once greeted tuk-tuk drivers in a public address in a clear bid to drum up their support for his rule.

The three-wheelers can now be seen crawling on the Ring Road, a highway encircling the Egyptian capital.

In recent months, there have been calls for banning the tuk-tuk in Egypt with critics accusing its operators of compounding the country’s traffic congestion, involvement in illegal acts and employing child drivers.

“Being an unlicensed vehicle that does not respect traffic regulations, the tuk-tuk should be prohibited altogether,” said Shehata Mohammad, the head of the Cairo-based non-governmental Arab Centre for Integrity and Transparency. “It is also difficult to reach offenders in crimes and thefts involving the tuk-tuk because this vehicle has no licence,” he said.

Mohammad’s group has filed a lawsuit, requesting a blanket ban on the use of tuk-tuks in Egypt. No date has been set for a verdict in the case.

Some tuk-tuk drivers have defended themselves against what they call a “distortion campaign”.

“I drive a tuk-tuk, owned by a neighbour, for 12 hours every daily in return for 200 pounds [Dh42] in order to support my family,” said Mohram Abdul Jelil, an ex-wall painter.

“This vocation has saved my family from starvation because my previous job is no longer in demand.”

The 46-year-old father of four blamed the “bad image” of tuk-tuk drivers on misconduct of some of them.

“There are some youngsters, who take drugs while they are at the wheel. They also harass women and speak badly to customers. But not all tuk-tuk drivers are like this. We are out to earn our livelihood with the sweat of our eyebrows. We don’t deserve this distortion campaign.”

While backing the legalisation of tuk-tuks, he is concerned about licensing fees.

“I can hardly support my family with my wages amid all these high prices of everything. How can I then pay licensing costs?”

Nearly two million tuk-tuks are estimated to operate across Egypt. They are believed to be a main consumer of the country’s heavily subsidised petrol Octane 80.

Traffic authorities have refused to license them, saying they do not comply with safety standards.

In an attempt to bring the situation under control, some local councils have recently issued identification tags for tuk-tuks working in their areas.

Abdul Fattah Mohammad, a member of the Egyptian parliament, plans to present a draft bill for legalising tuk-tuks nationwide.

“Legalising the tuk-tuk should happen as soon as possible in order to protect people and curb traffic chaos,” he said in media remarks.

His draft suggests that the driver of the three-wheeler should be aged above 18, and that designated service routes should be defined for tuk-tuk operators who should be properly trained before they receive the driving licence.

“Most areas of Egypt are suffering from the non-regulated proliferation of the tuk-tuk,” Mohammad said. “In several cases, children are seen driving them, posing danger to passengers and pedestrians alike.”