Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cops not in charge

“Get out of the cab! Get out of the cab! Get out of the cab!”
I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened. Evening had set on downtown Cairo and a crisp breeze blew as a policemen dressed in black screamed and grabbed at an enraged cab driver. The taxicab was stopped in the middle of the road at the northwest corner of the massive Tahrir Circle, 100 yards from the American University and the massive government administrative building, The Mugamba. The corner is generally an insane mass of bodies; it has become a de facto bus stop, and pedestrians wade two and three lanes into the four-lane thoroughfare to catch the overcrowded buses that occasionally slowdown for potential passengers. Cabs weave through the mass, horns blaring and occasionally stop to pick up their own passengers, then speed off.

But the fight that was breaking out was beyond the ordinary mayhem. “What have I done?! What have I done?!” The cab driver screamed. I crowd quickly formed. “Just tell me what I’ve done!!”

The policeman snapped back: “Give me your license! I’ll tell you what you’ve done when you get out of the cab! Turn off the motor! Look! Look! A crowd is forming! Just get out of the cab!”

As the crowd grew to perhaps 20 people, myself included, the fight continued and the volume grew. Neither side seemed to be giving in. At one point the policeman looked as if he was about to slug the driver. The driver remained adamant – he was not getting out. Many in the crowd grew bored of the scene and returned to lazily looking off in the distance for their own bus.

Suddenly, the policeman let go of the cabbie, walked a few steps away and began talking on his cell phone. Calling for backup, no doubt. One of the onlookers turned to the driver who by this point was past furious, “just get out of here.” A second agreed, and a third.

The driver started his motor again and the policeman turned, but something had changed. “What are doing?” He asked, but did not yell. The officer’s voice had grown weary, and there was little fight in his posture as we walked towards the stopped car. Instead of responding, the cabbie put his foot on the gas, and sped off.

What just happened? Such a scene is unfathomable in the American context. What had the driver done? How could the cop have just let him go?

I scratched my head, shrugged by shoulders and waved down a cab for myself. “Agousa?” I asked the driver (In Cairo, cabs can choose to pick you up or not as they please. You thus have to tell the driver where you are going and they decide whether you get a ride). He accepted my destination and I jumped in.

The policeman rushed over.

“Can you pull over to the side please,” the officer asked as he stood directly in front of my stopped cab. “Over to the right please, thank you.”

My driver did as he was told, but grew noticeably uneasy.

“Give me your license,” the officer asked.


“Give me your license!!”

“Why? What have I done??”

The scene began again, only this time I was in the middle of it.

“You’re not allowed to stop here! Give me your license.”

At this, the cab driver loses it.

“What are you talking up?? Cabs always stop here!! I didn’t even stop, I just picked up a passenger and now we’re ready to go!!” This is ridiculous! Look at all the people here!!

“Turn off the engine! I’m calling for help! Give me your license! Get out of the car!”

Another crowd gathers. ‘Oh jeez” I think, and inch to get out of the cab. What do I do? Take the driver’s side? Cabs always stop here, whatever the law is. Hail another cab to make a point? Walk away?

One of the onlookers joins the fight, “Look! He’s a foreigner!” he says pointing towards me. “Look how confused he looks! Just let them go.”

And then, just as it seems a fistfight is going to break out, the cop gets on his phone, the driver starts his engine again, a second onlooker suggests I get back in, and the cabbie and I speed off.