Image: Matthias Toedt/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Of the 9.4 million licensed vehicles roaming the streets of Egypt, 2.5 million are in Cairo and Giza alone, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). With these cars crowding the already bustling streets of Cairo, and the impossibility of finding a decent parking lot, a new phenomenon has spread like a cancer from Cairo to Alexandria: the ‘Soyas.
The Soyas are parking attendants, mostly unlicensed and often aggressive towards drivers simply looking for a place to park their cars. The Soyas have turned into a parking mafia, seizing unclaimed parking areas and forcing parking fees on drivers.
No sensible person would argue with a “Sayes” [singular of Soyas], because their reaction would be unpredictable at best. Were someone to challenge the might of a Sayes by refusing to pay a fee or not committing to the time slot they had been allocated, a threat would be meted out. A typical warning sign would be a small scratch on the car. Female drivers in particular would steer clear of any confrontation with a Sayes so as to avoid any ‘inconvenience’ in the street. Still, on a lucky day a driver might be able to sneak out of the parking lot without paying the Sayes.
No sensible person would argue with a “Sayes”, because their reaction would be unpredictable
One of the most striking elements about the Soyas phenomenon is that it is happening right under the nose of the state and their enforcers, the police. Interviews conducted for this article confirmed that in many cases the Soyas are operating unlicensed and claim ownership of the land they grabbed.
Heba Hamed, a designer from Cairo, said she might pay up to three different Soyas a day: one near her work, another near her gym, and a third if she decides to go out for dinner. On average, she pays 25 EGP to what she called the “thugs” of the streets. She added that she had received threats of damage to her car if she refused to pay the parking fees.
Mariam Amr, also from Cairo, said she is forced to pay 200 EGP a month to her Sayes, Ahmed, who works in the car park next to her work. Her alternative is to roam for hours in her car looking for another parking space.
This is the other side of the story: there are people who are actually in need of the services of the Soyas, and prefer to pay someone to take care of their car instead of waiting for hours for a free parking space.
Honour among thieves
Ahmed, the Sayes, said he inherited his profession from his father who owned a legal permit to be a guard in the area where he is currently working.
This permit had expired a while ago, he said. Despite this, Ahmed not only continues to work in the same area as if he owns it, but has actually expanded into new territory. He has also never been arrested, or even investigated, for his actions despite not having a permit and not paying a penny to the government for the land he took by force.
Like a mafia, the Soyas have their own code of honour and ethics: a Sayes cannot take over a parking space from another Sayes. In the event that this happens, a squad of Soyas would drive out the offending Sayes. Ahmed said that some of the Soyas he knows working at the moment have criminal records.
On the banks of Nile in a posher part of Cairo, the Soyas charge more but behave just as badly
Location, location, location
On the banks of Nile in a posher part of Cairo, the Soyas charge more but behave just as badly, threatening and harassing their customers if they delay their payments or do not have enough change.
In these areas, the Soyas have cut a deal with the local municipality to pay around 3,000 EGP for the parking spots they want. The municipality in turn is supposed to hand them tickets that they should use to fine drivers. This is meant to regulate the Soyas, but in reality does nothing of the kind as the ticketing system is ignored and the Soyas continue working according to their old ways.
Who to turn to?
In an attempt to deal with the problem, the Egyptian parliament passed a law was to regulate the activity of parking attendants. The law sets a number of conditions for a candidate to be eligible to be a licensed Sayes, including being above 21-years-old, literate, possess a driving licence, and pass a drug test. Even these most basic of requirements would put the majority of Soyas working at the moment out of a job.
The law also required each governorate to set up a committee to oversee parking lots and issue regulations to govern the scope of the Soyas’ work. The committee would identify areas in need of Soyas, determine their working hours, and a set the maximum fee that can imposed on drivers. A penalty of six months in prison and a 5,000 EGP fine would be handed down to any Sayes working outside the supervision of the committee.
In 2017, the traffic police also announced that anyone harassed by a Sayes could complain to their special hotline. The hotline was responsive, and callers are ensured that the traffic police usually send the nearest police officer to an area with a dispute between a driver and a Sayes, whether they are licensed or unlicensed. But this only underscores that the police are aware that there are still unlicensed Soyas in the streets.
Egypt’s notorious lack of political efficacy discourages even the most annoyed of complainants of attempting to step forward and report harassers, knowing the response will be slow if they are lucky, and non-existent if they are not. The laws and the hotlines have thus had a limited impact on the ground.
Thinking long-term, not legally
In an interview with Al Ahram English, Samia Khedr, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University, emphasised that the reason behind Soyas phenomenon was the chaos in Egypt’s streets. Khedr believes that the law alone will not be able to solve the roots of the problem.
She emphasized that better urban planning was key to any solution, including putting in place a spatial justice policy that would prevent people from monopolizing unclaimed areas, whether by Soyas or others.
Khedr also suggested local administrations stop granting building licenses to residential towers with insufficient parking spaces, and that the same should go for shops, banks, and cafes in residential neighbourhoods.
According to Egypt Today a Cairo governorate has already started work on implementing smart, multi-story parking lots that can hold a large number of cars in a bid to solve Cairo’s chaotic and congested traffic, as well the Soyas phenomenon.
Efforts should also be made to reduce the rate of unemployment in neglected governorates in Egypt and implement development projects to reduce poverty and migration rates.
In Egypt, many unauthorised activities take place, and there is always a gap between the de facto and the de jure. The notion of making money from what is not yours is becoming increasingly widespread in Egypt, especially in the streets, where the survival of the fittest governs. The Soyas phenomena, however, should not be normalised.