CAIRO -- It's known as "the national dream." And that might not be much of an exaggeration. Beneath Egypt's crowded and claustrophobic capital city lies what many feel is the last, best hope to make Cairo livable again.
In a city rapidly collapsing under the weight of its own population, government officials and city planners have turned their hopes underground -- to the only subway system in Africa or the Middle East.
"It's an idea that has been long overdue. They should have started it in the '60s," says Sayed Ettouney, a Cairo University professor of architecture and urban planning. "The only solution for this city is to go underground."
Started in 1981, with financing and engineering from the French government, the Metro opened its 26.5-mile first line amid massive hoopla in October 1987. Now the government has even more ambitious plans. Construction started in 1993 on a second 12-mile line underneath the River Nile. The grand opening of its second phase is scheduled for this year, and a third line is being planned to reach the Cairo International Airport on the northeast edge of the city.
Government officials are shamelessly proud and effusive in their praise for the Metro project -- "the symbol of Egypt in the next century," gushes National Tunnel Authority Chairman Moqbel al Shafi. But there's an element of almost desperate optimism at work. If this doesn't work, one senses, there is no plan B.
`The only hope left'
"This project is the only hope left for people living in Cairo," says Ahmed Sultan, vice governor of Cairo Governorate. He estimates that 1.5 million cars jam Cairo streets each day on a road system built to handle a third as many.
Since the days of the Aswan High Dam, Egypt has fostered massive all-or-nothing public-works projects, most of which tend to falter after a few years due to mismanagement, lack of follow-up and chronic government corruption and inefficiency.
What makes this project a mild surprise is that the government actually seems to be pulling it off. The Cairo Metro is efficient, clean (spotless compared to the rest of the city) and popular.
The first line and the first phase of the second line carry an estimated 1.8 million passengers per day -- roughly 75,000 per hour. For an average fare of 50 piastres (about 15 cents) a ride, the Metro is more expensive than most other Cairo mass-transit options, but much cheaper than an average cab ride.
"It's comfortable, it's clean, it's on time," says daily rider Salim Mohammed. "This is one of the best projects I've seen from the government in years."
A descent into a Metro station from a Cairo street is an almost surreal experience in contrast. Stations are clean, quiet and well run. The machinery that accepts the yellow ticket stubs is well-maintained. Security, including some ominous-looking German shepherds, is tight. Guards occasionally turn a good-natured blind eye to turnstile-hoppers, but graffiti are nonexistent, littering subject to an immediate fine and no-smoking restrictions (a fairly new concept in a tobacco-loving country) are strictly enforced.
Crowds, especially during peak morning and afternoon rush hours, can be suffocating, though, and riders often have to elbow their way onto and off the cars.
Still, even the most crowded subway car is a haven of personal space compared to the above-ground city buses, which cost half as much to ride. For women, who sometimes have to deal with mysterious, groping hands on the buses, a pair of women-only cars on the front of each train offer more civilized company.
"You see what it's like when you leave the streets and enter the Metro," Shafi says. "It's like a different world."
Occasionally quite a gaudy world. Away from the relentless gray dust that coats above-ground Cairo life, Metro designers seem to have been seized with flights of decorative whimsy. Elaborate murals and shocking streaks of pastel and primary-colored tiles line the stations. At times, it seems the subway rider has entered the tiled bathroom of a person with lots of income and questionable taste.
Decorative quibbles aside, the government clearly cares deeply about the Metro project -- and for many Egyptians, it's nice to know they can get it right when they care. The key, according to Ettouney, is the fact that the Metro system has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of Cairo's sagging infrastructure.
"The system works precisely because it is not at all connected with the rest of Cairo," he says. "If you're building the best bridge or the best multi-story parking garage, you still have to plug that into an overcrowded and nonfunctional city infrastructure."