Via NY Times, by Kareem Fahim
A Metro train arrives at the Sadat station in Cairo. More Photos »
The subway had taken them in no time across the city, underneath the broken metropolis and its maddening obstacles, from one sleek station to another. The rest of the journey home, in a microbus or a car, would not be so pleasant. “Transportation,” said one of the men, “has become more exhausting than work.”
In this often capricious city, the Metro is something of a miracle. Efficient and orderly, it is frequently referred to as the one thing that always works.
That is not new, but it has become even more appreciated in the year after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, a period that heaped confusion on caprice, as the police vanished, people marched and Egyptians struggled to find their bearings.
A saying made the rounds, reflecting public impatience with the disorder and crediting the uprising with two irritating changes: the sudden addition of a digit to the nation’s cellphones and the change of satellite television frequencies.
But the trains were still dependable. In the subway, little changed except the name of a downtown station, which was renamed “Martyrs” from “Mubarak.”
“If there was a crisis in the Metro,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a 20-year-old commuter, “the people would have another revolution.”
Above ground, the crises multiply. On Wednesday, at least 11 people were killed during clashes, and presidential candidates stopped their campaigns in solidarity with grieving families. Egypt’s Parliament suspended its sessions this week to protest the government’s various failures, and Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador, closing its embassy after protests outside.
In recent weeks, there have been bus strikes and gas shortages. Every day, without fail, an old Fiat breaks down, bringing traffic in some stretch of Cairo to a halt. During one recent bus strike, the subway trains were full of people trying to escape the chaos above, slipping into an orderly parallel world available for just one Egyptian pound (about 16 cents).
Outside the stations, vendors packed the plazas, selling strawberries, SIM cards and socks. Many stations were plastered with posters of a presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whose bearded, smiling face was famously ubiquitous before his recent disqualification from the race because his mother is a United States citizen. Several platforms provided refuge for couples, the kind of privacy a city of 18 million people can lack.
Some of the trains were old, dating back to the opening of the subway, in 1987, with wooden window shades on the outside that recalled Cairo’s old Beaux-Arts buildings. Some people said that when the trains were empty, they felt nostalgic for the old trams.
During rush hour, there is no nostalgia, just the crush dreaded by commuters around the world.
Three million people ride the subways each day, according to Ahmed Abdel Hady, the subway authority’s media coordinator. Construction on Cairo’s third line, now under way, will bring trains from the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba all the way to the airport, providing an alterative to the clogged surface roads and bridges.
“If the subway stopped, all of Egypt would stop,” Mr. Hady said, bragging about a service that actually covers only a small patch of the country. “It’s the fastest, cheapest and safest means of transportation in the country.”
Mr. Hady said the line was largely unaffected by the frequent labor strikes following the revolution. But labor activists said even the vaunted subway was not immune: workers have been holding regular sit-ins for the last week, complaining that the new head of the Metro has failed to honor previous pledges for wage increases and bonuses.
For now, the workers, who do not include the train drivers, have not tried to halt the service, with many saying they are worried about the impact on the country.
“Not now,” said Hossam el-Nabawy, the vice president of the Metro workers syndicate, who said drivers had staged work slowdowns in the past. He warned: “If the treatment is bad, the whole system will collapse.”
For now, the trains run, filled with small talk and grand debates. On one crowded train, a man supporting Egypt’s military rulers disagreed, quite civilly, with a man supporting its Islamist parties.
“The army is the main partner in the governance of Egypt,” the first man said.
“But we made a deal with them to rule the country temporarily,” the Islamist supporter said. “Who has the majority now? Tell me.”
The army man arrived at his station, and his fellow commuter sent him off warmly. “Take care,” he said. “I hope the transportation works.”
Some of the conversations are less civil. On Sunday, as Alaa Ahmed, 21, went to board the train, an older woman approached her and asked her about the style of her head scarf — why was she wearing it in the Spanish style, with the ends of the scarf draped around her neck? The woman disapproved.
“I said, ‘How does this concern you?’ ” Ms. Ahmed recalled a short while after the conversation. “This is something between me and God.”
Then the woman insulted her, according to Ms. Ahmed, starting by saying: “God will plague you.” Ms. Ahmed, sitting on the platform with a friend, said she preferred traveling to work in her car.
On the platform at Mezallat station, Hussein Mohammed, 26, said he had an urgent appointment but a few minutes to talk about his hopes after the revolution and the trying months of transition since. Nearby, the trains arrived quietly, every few minutes, more often than the cranky subway lines in New York or London.
Then he excused himself, saying he really should be off: his wife was in labor.
“It’s O.K.,” he said as another train approached, four minutes after the last. “I’ll make it.”
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.