Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

The motorcade syndrome

When the president moves, the people wait, writes Reem Leila

Al-Ahram Weekly

“I was dreaming of a time when there would be no presidential motorcade. The dream seemed about to become true, especially after President Mohamed Morsi went to Tahrir and expressed his wish to mingle with the people. Unfortunately, I enjoyed this lovely dream for just a few weeks,” said Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, an accountant living in the Heliopolis district of Cairo.
Abdel-Hamid, whose house faces the presidential palace of Al-Ittihadiya, said that nothing had changed since the election of President Morsi earlier this year. There were the same heavy security measures, and the same terrible traffic congestion. There was also the same presidential motorcade.
“I guess I will have to move out and leave the whole district for him and the following presidents. Enough of my daily sufferings,” said Abdel-Hamid. “I have to leave for work very early before the president arrives at the palace and return late after he leaves. Even if I finish early, I keep to the same schedule in order to avoid the traffic jams caused by his motorcade.”
The passage of the presidential motorcade over the past three decades has been marked by traffic jams that used to last for hours until the motorcade had passed. Presidential motorcades used to be preceded and followed by dozens of security vehicles and motorcycles, and they were not limited to the president, but also extended to include the former president’s wife and son.
When Morsi came to power, he decided to cancel all the motorcades, even for members of his family and ministers. Mustafa Rashed, assistant to the minister of the interior for traffic affairs, said that “president Morsi instructed us to cancel all the motorcades, whether for him, his family members, or even for senior officials and ministers.”
According to Rashed, the decision was designed to assist traffic flows. The president was keen not to keep the public waiting for hours in traffic on account of motorcades, Rashed said.
“The president said he would move in the streets like an ordinary person. His precise words were, ‘the time of parades and long queues behind security officers has ended’,” said Rashed, adding that the instructions had been implemented and that the traffic was not stopped for his passing.
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that traffic was one of the president’s top priorities. “The president does not want to increase traffic congestion and add to motorists’ daily agonies in Greater Cairo,” Ali said.
According to Ali, solving traffic problems is an important means towards development and will help boost security and eliminate corruption.
Yet, Morsi’s decision to cancel his presidential motorcade has been among his blunders, as he has been unable to implement the decision. Egyptians can also not forget the scene in Tahrir Square when Morsi opened his jacket to show he wasn’t wearing a protective shield underneath, but at least two dozen bodyguards were standing around him at the time.
Hoda Mustafa, who works in a shop in the downtown Bab Al-Louk commercial area close to Tahrir Square, said that “I saw him passing in the street once, just his car and a few security cars driving in the midst of traffic. The motorists were waving at him.”
Nevertheless, just two weeks after the Tahrir scene, Morsi was surrounded by a deluge of bodyguards and had started travelling in a huge motorcade accompanied by various vehicles, motorcycles and bodyguards.
Economist Abdel-Khalek Farouk of the Nile Centre for Economic and Strategic Studies (NCESS) said that before the scene in Tahrir Morsi’s motorcade had not exceeded 10 vehicles, in addition to his own car. “Currently, the number of vehicles in the presidential motorcade ranges from 40 to 50,” Farouk said.
According to research conducted by the NCESS, former president Hosni Mubarak used to have anywhere between 400 and 500 vehicles in his motorcade. When Mubarak travelled across Cairo, much of the capital would be roped off, with traffic stopped for hours until he passed and thousands of policemen standing along the route a few hours before his arrival.
Sharp-shooters would stand on the rooftops, a helicopter would circle overhead, and an ambulance would always accompany him.
Ensuring Mubarak’s security used to cost the state LE3 billion a year. “The cost of presidential motorcades, in addition to patrols, used to cost the state LE7 million per tour. When Mubarak went abroad, the tours could cost the state US$5 million per visit,” Farouk said.
Former president Anwar Al-Sadat used to use a helicopter for his tours. “During Sadat’s time, there were no traffic jams caused by his motorcades, as he rarely used to move inside the city with one,” Farouk commented. The cost of Sadat’s transport was not known, he added.
NCESS research has revealed that Morsi’s motorcade and bodyguards cost the state LE3 million each time he goes for Friday prayers. The president prays assiduously, meaning that this habit, together with the associated motorcades and protective measures, costs Egyptians millions.
Morsi’s travels across the country cost the state budget LE9 million per trip, said the research.
Farouk said that Morsi’s prayers cost the state a fortune, as could be seen by multiplying 54 Friday prayers by LE162 million a year. Over five years, this would be LE810 million.
“This is the cost of the president’s motorcade and bodyguards for Friday prayers only. The calculations exclude the prayers for the two feasts and 30 days of night-time prayers during Ramadan,” Farouk said. The calculations also do not include the president’s trips to his home village of Al-Edwa.
Given the deteriorating economic position of the country, “will the state budget be able to afford the cost of the president’s motorcade every time he goes on tour or to pray,” Farouk asked. “It is true that the cost has been reduced by at least 60 per cent, yet the cost of the president’s motorcade is still high. Why doesn’t he abide by his initial decision to cancel the motorcades?”
The presidential car used by former president Mubarak and currently used by Morsi is a black armoured Mercedes-Benz S-Class. This is driven in convoy surrounded by four other Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars to shield the president’s car.
Then there are four 4x4 vehicles stuffed with 16 soldiers, each of them having a HK5 gun. There are also motorcycles, and eight ordinary cars, two at the front and two at the back, while the other four move close to the four other vehicles.
All the vehicles contain bodyguards with guns. An ambulance and a fire engine are also among the vehicles in the presidential motorcade.
At the beginning and end of the presidential motorcade are two vehicles containing five “777” officers who are highly trained to respond should the motorcade be attacked.
“The size of the motorcade varies, depending on the president’s destination,” Farouk added.
Magdi Bedeir, a businessman who works in construction, said that “Morsi has promised us many things. Annulling the presidential motorcade is among his unfulfilled promises, like so many other promises that he has not kept.”
“My daughter is a newly-wed who lives in New Cairo close to Morsi’s home. If I go to visit her while Morsi is returning home, I know I won’t be able to move for at least 40 minutes,” Bedeir said. “It’s true that in the past motorists used to be blocked and kept stuck in traffic for hours. It seems that this is being repeated.”  
Nermine Tarek, a university student, also believes that nothing has changed. “Presidential motorcades will never be got rid of. I believe the reports that say that Morsi’s cancelling the motorcades was just to bluff people. I live just behind Morsi’s home. There are at least 15 cars there. The whole street has security and cars everywhere. Nothing has changed,” Tarek said.
“Because we live close to him, we are prohibited from leaving the house when his motorcade moves. I can’t go to university as a result, and my father can’t go to work. We are all jailed in our house until Morsi, accompanied by his motorcade, which has mushroomed to more than 40 vehicles, leaves.”
Morsi, still keen to appear in public, seems unaware that his motorcade and army of security men have started to bother people. People wonder whether the old ways are about to return, with the motorcade blocking the streets and preventing citizens from keeping their appointments whenever the president passes by.
Four members of the Lawyers for Egypt Movement, a NGO, have submitted a memorandum to the presidency requesting Morsi to abide by his initial decision to get rid of the presidential motorcade and to make public the cost of the motorcade as well as the amount spent on security.
Sameh Fouad, one of the four, said that “I and millions of others believed Morsi would move without blocking the streets as he did after he was unofficially sworn in.” Fouad blamed the president for causing disorder every time he goes to pray.
“Wouldn’t it be better if he prayed at a secluded mosque, in the presidential palace annex, or at a nearby mosque? There is no need for all this show just to let people know he prays,” he said.
Fouad said that the cost of Morsi’s motorcade and security would be sufficient to meet the demands of doctors who have been protesting for more than a month and demanding pay increases.  “The doctors are asking for a salary increase and for an increase in the budget of the Health Ministry to bring it up to 15 per cent of the state budget,” Fouad said.
Egypt is now also borrowing billions of dollars to provide food and energy for the country’s 85 million people. “How come the government is spending millions on superficial things, while people are in dire need of every single piastre,” Fouad asked.
Rashed commented on Fouad’s remarks by saying that securing the president and his motorcade was necessary and was the case for all heads of state or government.
“We block the streets for 10 or 15 minutes for security reasons. I don’t think that a few minutes is a big waste of time. We are talking about the president and his safety here,” Rashed said.

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