As temperatures in Egypt’s Cairo soared to their summer highs in tandem with the academic year’s end and Eid el-Adha holidays, fleets of Cairenes have embarked on their annual migration to escape the capital’s heat, heading towards gated compounds that line its northwestern Mediterranean Sea shores, where cooler breezes blow over pristine beaches.
Their hours-long commute to the North Coast, or El-Sahel, takes them along a newly-modified highway that has sparked recent controversy for its complex layout, which incorporates nine “maze-like” suspended roundabouts and two-way service roads.
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Following instructions by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, renovations done to the Alexandria-Matrouh Highway – more commonly referred to as El-Sahel Road – were designed to minimise road collisions that have killed thousands, and increase traffic capacity.
“Before the upgrade, the old El-Sahel road used to be one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, yet remained one of the most frequented,” a source at the Arab Contractors, the state construction giant involved in many of the government’s infrastructure projects, told Al Jazeera.
Yet, many users of the revamped road have been quick to point out that its “flawed” design could potentially lead to it defying its goals. Social media users shared videos of vehicles coming face-to-face with other vehicles in a gridlock on the flyovers as drivers struggled to figure out where their exit was.
“It felt absolutely chaotic,” said Sandy El-Nouby, 26, a vacationer who recently travelled the highway. “There were little to no direction signs along the road. For someone driving there for the first time after the renovations, I drove 14 additional kilometres [8.7 miles] because I did not know which sub-road or bridge goes where,” she said, describing the journey as stressful.
The criticism has reached el-Sisi. At the height of the online clamour, the country’s Minister of Transportation Kamel El-Wazir appeared on Egyptian television to say a committee had reviewed the flaws of the renovated highway at the behest of the president, and was working out a solution.
Yet, earlier in July, the road and its problematic roundabouts remained open to streams of beachgoers during the Eid holiday. Although Twitter users shared unconfirmed reports of vehicular accidents, no crashes were confirmed officially.
In 2019, the old El-Sahel road was dubbed by a pro-government newspaper al-Bawaba as “The New Road of Death” after 60 car accidents in a span of two months left at least 20 commuters dead.
These accidents were caused by “the sporadically-placed U-turns along the Alexandria-Matrouh Highway”, explained the Arab Contractors’ executive manager who asked to remain anonymous, adding that, at the height of summer, vacationers used to take the closest U-turn to access their coastal village, shifting abruptly from low to high-speed lanes, drastically increasing the number of accidents.
Nearly 15,000 car accidents happened along the old road in 2016, according to the government’s official statistics bureau, leaving more than 5,300 people dead, and more than 18,500 injured.
Those alarming numbers, as well as the government’s ongoing push to build new roads across the country, brought about renovations to a busy 55km (34-mile) stretch of the 780km (485-mile) highway.
The works, which began in mid-June, saw the highway’s expansion from four lanes in each direction to 10, through the addition of two extra main lanes, and four two-way service roads on each side. The project also introduced nine suspended, multi-lane roundabouts, each with associated on and off-ramps, to replace the traditional U-turns.
“This effort aims to limit and control the points at which drivers can switch lanes, therefore, actively reducing the rate of accidents,” explained the Arab Contractors source.
Officially, Egypt has appeared to be doing a good job in advancing its road network. Since setting road infrastructure development as a priority in 2014, 23,500km (14,602 miles) of road networks have been renovated and extended across the country, and Egypt has advanced from 118th in the quality of its roads in 2014’s World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report to 28th by 2019.
But the situation surrounding the El-Sahel road is just the latest to have led to a debate among Egyptians, with some praising the developments and others expressing scepticism.
‘Confusing and tricky’
According to 22-year-old vacationer Adham Abousrei, service roads on either side of the highway, which carry the most traffic, now lead “almost to the entrances of many of El-Sahel’s gated communities, causing portions of the road to become congested whenever several vehicles queue to enter one.”
El Nouby, who travelled the highway from Cairo, also observed that some drivers abuse the lack of barriers in segments of the two-way service roads, taking illegal U-turns and causing further congestion near the coastal villages on one side of the highway, and the cafes and restaurants on the other.
But not everyone thinks the road is problematic.
“It is tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it is a safer upgrade from the old road,” Mohammed Wassef, 26, who travelled to El-Sahel a few days ago, noted.
Kuwait-based Egyptian civil engineer Ahmed Ragab said on his YouTube channel Creative Engineering that the road is safe but is ”incompatible with the Egyptian driving culture, in which drivers never bother to learn about road etiquette”.
“In addition to setting up directory signs, separating the two-way service roads, and increasing the number of police forces patrolling the road, there must be a widespread awareness campaign explaining this road, and others, to the general public,” he advised.
Authorities have started taking such measures.
Police have started to patrol the highway intensively in an attempt to enforce the rules and help out people struggling.
The Egyptian General Administration of Traffic has also set up an operation room to monitor drivers on the road through radars, while the Ministry of Interior has put out a guide on how citizens should use the roundabout and its bridges.
El-Sisi, meanwhile, said the highway would only be fully completed in mid-August, and blamed contractors for not making that clear to drivers.
“When a road is completed, this includes its technical works, the addition of road signs and directions and police forces to regulate the movement,” el-Sisi explained. “Wait until it is completed and explained to you.”
This article was published in collaboration with Egab.