Published on Arab Voices

To make sense of Egypt you need first-aid kits, fire extinguishers, and pressure washers

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ImageIn 1989, I remember reading in Al Akhbar, a prominent government newspaper, that all cars in Egypt were mandated by government to have first-aid kits and the police would be randomly stopping cars to check if drivers were in compliance.  No first-aid kit, you would pay a fine.

I remember thinking this is crazy, but I bought the first-aid kit anyway.  So did eight million other people who had cars.  I recall going to a car parts store to buy my first-aid kit, and the salesman told me there was only one kit that was in compliance according to the requirements of this new law.  Could this get any more bizarre? Then the salesman added a factoid:  “You see ya basha someone is trying to make a killing selling these kits to suckers like you.”  Could he be right?  Could someone rig legislation to make a buck (a pound) off the unwitting Egyptian?  No, this couldn’t be.  I complied.

Amazingly, in less than a week I was stopped by a traffic policeman who asked to see my first-aid kit.  And low and behold I had it.  The car behind me didn’t and he got a fine.  “Sucker,” I thought, as I drove away.

A few years later, they were at it again.  This time Al Akhbar announced that the government had mandated every car in Egypt had to have a fire extinguisher.  Good lamb that I am, I bought my fire extinguisher, was stopped at a police check point again and asked for my fire extinguisher.  I had it, but the car in front of me didn’t.  He was getting a fine.  This time I wasn’t thinking “sucker,” because I’d concluded we were all “suckers.”  All eight million people driving cars, being required to buy first-aid kits and fire extinguishers.  Yes, someone was making “suckers” out of all of us.

Shortly afterwards my car broke down, and the first-aid kit did come in handy.  I stuck bandages to my mirror to signal to passing traffic that my car was “injured” on the side of the road.  My fire extinguisher was stolen shortly thereafter, likely by a fellow motorist who didn’t want to buy one.

I thought the days of government “fatwas” were over until I picked up Al Akhbar approximately two weeks ago.   An official from one of Egypt’s governorates was announcing on page one of this important government rag his innovative idea for creating youth employment opportunities in his province.  I detail it without exaggeration.

The official announced he had purchased several thousand pressure washers, machines that spew out strong blasts of water that have a variety of uses.  For LE 20 (around $3.50) a day he intended renting these to several hundred youths who would make their living washing cars.  

But, there was more.  One person by himself could not rent a pressure washer.   No sole proprietorships please.  Rentals to teams of three only, no more.  And, every team absolutely must include a female renter.  Well, good for you, being positive on gender issues. 

The final bit of information we were given, and to reiterate this was on page one of Egypt’s second-largest government newspaper, was that if the pressure washer broke down the governorate would fix it for you for free because all the pressure washers were under warranty.

And, that was the end of the story.  No address as to where to rent the pressure washer.  No phone number, nothing.  Only a front-page picture of a pressure washer big enough for you to see the “Made in China” emblem.

My initial take on this was to see who I still knew in the Prime Minister’s office with the intent of having this official prosecuted for misuse of public funds.  But, hang on I thought in reflection, maybe what was being proposed was just simply above my capacity to absorb.   Imagine what Egypt would be like if this actually worked. 

These teams of three would be everywhere.  Ten of thousands of youths would be employed washing Egypt’s many cars.  Money would flow into countless households and better still hundreds of thousands of cars would be clean.  Cars in Egypt are really dirty.  Filthy, actually.  Now, I can see what the official saw.  Eliminating filthy cars from Egyptian roads by procuring thousands of pressure washers that youths would rent to make money.  Eureka, why couldn’t someone like me think with this level of innovation?

I imagined the fancy PowerPoint proposal from the official that blew the Governor away.   I’m sure the Governor was told their governorate would lead the way in youth employment with the procurement of these pressure washers. The Governor ate it up. 

And, as for the girl in the teams of three, yes, I get it, even if you don’t.  Marketing, you dummies, marketing.  She stands on the side of the road wearing a very colorful headscarf holding a sign in Arabic saying “car wash, this way.”  Just like High School kids in America do.  

If you don’t get the big picture, you don’t understand Egyptian long-term planning.  For decades now the state has been investing in cars all fully equipped with first-aid kits and fire extinguishers and now they can be cleaned on every street corner.   And, for all of you non-Egyptians without first aid-kits and fire extinguishers in your cars, it would follow that you drive a very dirty car.  “Suckers.”


Khaled Sherif

Chief Administrative Officer

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