13 March 2016

Cairo taxi drivers are continuing their protests against Uber and other app-based companies, calling the legal status of these companies into question, reports Nesma Nowar

The tug-of-war between Cairo taxi drivers and online companies like Uber and Careem does not seem to be coming to an end, with licenced taxi drivers continuing to protest against the app-based companies, accusing them of unfair competition because their cars are not licensed taxicabs.

The taxi drivers say that these companies are "illegally" stealing their income and livelihoods, and they are demanding that the government shut them down.

Over recent weeks, taxi drivers in Cairo have organised weekly protests against the companies; some have even ambushed Uber drivers and turned them over to the police.

The protesting cab drivers did this by downloading the Uber app on their phones, registering using the cash option, and then requesting an Uber ride by pretending to be fake customers. Once the Uber driver arrives, they turn him over to the police. The same tactics have been used with Careem drivers.

On 26 February, the Cairo Traffic Authority imposed fines of between LE500 and LE700 on nine drivers working for Uber and Careem for "circumventing the law".

The legal status of the companies remains unclear. According to Uber and Careem, they are both operating legally in Egypt and are registered as tech companies. The companies say they are abiding by domestic legislation and paying all required taxes to the state.

Amr Hashem, an IT and communications expert, said that the state cannot penalise Uber or accuse it of working illegally because the company does not own a single car. "In the end, Uber is simply a company that provides IT services," Hashem said.

He said that it is the drivers using their private cars for the purpose of transporting people against a payment who would face problems and not the company. Hashem said that these drivers might have a legal cover if they are working with limousine and car rental offices that are licensed and have their own commercial registers.

Some car rental offices have hired their own full-time drivers to work with Uber. David Plouffe, a member of the board of directors of Uber, said that Uber is not only a tech company but that it also "creates economic opportunities". He said that this is particularly true in the current turbulent economic times, when it is important for a company like Uber to invest and create job opportunities.

"That is the kind of debate we want to raise with governments," Plouffe said during a discussion at the American University in Cairo this week.

Uber is facing protests by taxi drivers in many parts of the world who have been questioning its legal status. The company has also faced harsh measures worldwide, seeing full or partial bans in several countries.

Two Uber executives in France faced criminal charges in February for the "illegal storage of personal information and the operation of a service that puts passengers in touch with car-service drivers that have no professional licences".

 The company is also facing trouble in the US, including a class-action lawsuit in California by taxi drivers.

According to Plouffe, there are some 10,000 drivers working with Uber in Egypt. Uber, based in San Francisco, arrived in Cairo and Giza in November 2014 and began operations in Alexandria a year later. Careem is a Dubai-based company that started operations in Egypt in late 2014.

The number of drivers who have joined Uber has grown 73 times in one year, making Cairo the fastest-growing city for the company in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Uber is widely used by Egyptians who have praised the service for its quality and convenience. Hashem said that Uber is a good service but that it needs regulation in such a way as to be fair to all parties, including customers, the 10,000 drivers working for it, and licensed taxi drivers.

Hashem said that Uber and Careem have affected the incomes of regular white-taxi drivers, whom, he said, have the legitimate right to protest against these companies.

"White-taxi drivers pay to license their cars as taxicabs, so they are enraged when they see private cars doing the same job without paying the same expenses," Hashem told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He added that there is also an issue of sustainability when it comes to Uber. He said that there are many Egyptians who are now relying on Uber, whether for their daily errands in the case of customers, or for their income in the case of the drivers.

 "But what guarantees the continuity of the service in the long run? What will happen to the customers and drivers should the service stop for even one day?" Hashem asked.

For this reason, Hashem said it is important for all parties involved or affected by Uber's service to sit down together to address the issues and to set out a regulatory framework for the service that is satisfactory to all.

Uber is available in more than 67 countries and 300 cities worldwide and has been valued at as much as $50 billion.

Careem is trying to dominate Middle East markets, and over the past three years has expanded its operations to 20 countries, ranging from Morocco to Pakistan.

© Al Ahram Weekly 2016