Egypt’s history has been shaped by the role of the Nile as the major trade and transportation corridor from the Mediterranean into sub-Saharan Africa. And today the country’s position as a pre-eminent transportation hub plays a major role in driving the Egyptian economy. It is with good reason that many Egyptians say their country sits at the centre of the world.

Egypt is the natural land bridge between Asia and Africa, while the Suez Canal is the most important element of the world’s trade networks, connecting Europe and the East. It is hardly surprising therefore that connectivity is a central theme of the Egyptian economy.

River potential

The River Nile still remains the key asset for Egyptian transport: the country’s existence was the result not only of the rich alluvial deposits that made intensive agriculture possible, but also of a favourable confluence of natural phenomena. While the great river flows from south to north, the prevailing winds are northerly, making river transportation in both directions remarkably straightforward.

But despite this, river transport today is almost non-existent, except for tourist cruise boats and the odd felucca after the cotton harvest, and could be developed easily.

A 2012 study by Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs found that “approximately 1.3 million tonnes of cargo, representing less than 1 per cent of all inland transport, is shipped via the River Nile. River cargo transportation presents a much cheaper means for transporting goods domestically.”

Rail travel

The development of a railway network in the late 19th century transplanted the Nile as Egypt’s easiest and quickest mode of transport, and rail is still the country’s most important means of moving people around. Of the 4 million Egyptians who commute to jobs in the capital from as far as 100 kilometres away, 70 per cent do so by train and 30 per cent by road, according to Khaled Ghareib, director of strategy at building materials manufacturer Lafarge Egypt.

Expanding the metro is the single most important… thing the government can do to improve [life]

David Sims, author

But years of underinvestment have left Egypt’s 5,000km rail network in urgent need of modernisation. The situation has been made worse over the past year by political turmoil, which has played havoc with timetables. Despite this, in recent months there is once again talk in official circles of developing a $10bn Cairo-Alexandria-Aswan high-speed rail link. Transport minister Ibrahim el-Demeiry said in a statement in March that the government was studying the possibility of issuing public shares to finance the project.

A deal was reported to have been signed in early April involving the Egyptian and Chinese governments and public sector holding company Aviation Industry Corporation of China to upgrade rolling stock and build an $800m electric traction line spanning 80km – Egypt’s first. It will link Bilbeis, northeast of the capital and close to 10 Ramadan City, and Al-Salam City in Greater Cairo.

Cairo’s metro, which opened its first line in 1987, is still one of only two metropolitan rail systems in Africa (the other is in Algiers). Line 2 opened in the late 1990s, and lines 3 and 4 are expected to be fully operational by 2020. The network currently comprises 70km of tracks and carries about 4 million passengers a day.

David Sims, author of upcoming book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control, says “expanding and improving the metro is the single most important -– if costly — thing the government can do to improve the life of most Cairenes”.

Neither of Egypt’s two most successful new cities – 10 Ramadan and 6 October, in the desert east and west of Cairo, respectively, with a population of more than half a million each – is served by the national rail network.

However, a proposed 6 October tram system will operate locally and connect with the proposed Line 4 of the Cairo Metro. It will be part-funded by international donors and should be completed and running by 2020.

Road network

Intercity road passenger transport in Egypt is handled by a mix of state-owned and private sector bus companies and privately operated minibuses. While fatal accidents regularly plague Egypt’s railways, the country’s roads are no less dangerous.

In its 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation documented 9,608 reported road deaths in Egypt and an estimated actual total of 10,729, giving a rate of 13.2 deaths per 100,000 of population, roughly on a par with Turkey. Egypt has barely a third of the number of registered vehicles found in Turkey (3.8 million cars versus 10.4 million, although Egypt has 950,000 heavy trucks, compared with only 730,000 in Turkey).

The minibuses that supplement the trains on intercity routes and public transport networks within cities are reliant on Solar, the heavily subsidised and polluting diesel fuel.

Urban development experts agree that Egypt should attempt to regulate this sector, as it has done before. Minibuses used to operate routes to and from South Sinai; now these are served only by coaches, with public and private operators in competition.

Traffic congestion is another reason to try to limit minibus operations inside cities. Between 2000 and 2009, passenger vehicle numbers in Egypt increased from 25 per 1,000 people to 34, according to the World Bank. A 2010 study by the same body estimated that congestion in Cairo costs the economy up to $8bn annually – 4 per cent of GDP and four times the level in comparable cities – with up to 1,000 Cairenes killed in road accidents.

Given the capacity constraints of Egypt’s underinvested railways, road haulage has naturally filled the gap and has grown rich on subsidised diesel. It now forms a powerful interest group opposed to more economical and ecological alternatives.

Shipping lines

The Suez Canal continues to generate vital revenues for the government, bringing in $5bn in 2013. In January, Cairo invited 14 prequalified consortiums to bid for a contract to turn the Port Said-Suez corridor into a 76,000-square-kilometre industrial and logistics hub.

Security will be paramount as the project includes several bridges and tunnels, which could make tempting targets for the anti-government groups operating out of North Sinai. According to the Canal Authority, 8 per cent of the world’s seaborne commerce, as well as US aircraft carriers, passes through the waterway.

In late March, the Red Sea and Alexandria Port Authorities issued tenders for three new build-operate-transfer contracts for terminals at Safaga on the Red Sea, El-Tor in South Sinai, and Alexandria, which would be transferred after 30 years.

Air traffic

Egypt has invested heavily in airports since the mid-1990s. While EgyptAir (and its nominated international partners) kept a stranglehold on Cairo International airport, elsewhere competitors were allowed. In addition to expanded and new tourist facilities, regional airports in Alexandria and Sohaj, and Assiut in Upper Egypt welcomed low-cost carriers, such as Saudi Arabia’s Nasair and the UAE’s Air Arabia, which serve the large number of expatriate Egyptians in the Gulf. Figures from Assiut, for example, showed a near doubling of passenger numbers and aircraft movements between 2011 and 2013.

Although ex-president Mohamed Mursi tentatively trialled an open-skies deal with Turkish Airlines, the new administration is unlikely to revisit the experiment. “They are still protecting the national carrier,” says Samer Gharaibeh, CEO for Africa for express freight operator Aramex.

Meanwhile, the national carrier, Africa’s largest airline, is struggling amid low passenger numbers and reduced cargo volumes, with the losses set to continue, albeit reduced. In 2011/12, the carrier reported losses of £E3bn ($429m). In 2012/13, this was down to £E1.5bn.

Civil aviation minister Wael al-Maadawi last June predicted the number of transit passengers passing through Egypt would rise to 1 million from 300,000 the year before.

Despite the carrier’s weak business performance, however, few analysts anticipated any major structural reforms. EgyptAir has long been one of the key components of the military’s control of the economy, and calls for privatisation have long been dismissed. Subsidiary EgyptAir Express has a virtual monopoly on Egypt’s domestic schedule.

Road haulage now forms a powerful interest group opposed to more economical and ecological alternatives

Decade-old plans for an aviation logistics zone at Cairo International airport called Cairo Cargo City have struggled to make progress. The split for cargo at the airport is roughly 60 per cent seasonal fruit and vegetables (mainly exported to Europe), 30 per cent textiles (mainly for US markets) and 10 per cent personal effects and handicrafts.

In the international air freight sector, imports account for about three quarters of traffic, and exports only a quarter. Up until 2011, volumes had been growing at about 11 per cent for several years. Since then, things have gone sharply into reverse and volumes are now dropping by double digits. In contrast, the domestic market is growing fast: 20 per cent year-on-year in 2011-13. Gharaibeh suggests this is down to e-commerce, which was given an impetus by the curfew imposed after the army took control last July. One million packages a year are now being couriered around the country.

Telecommunications policy

The implementation of communications technology in Egypt has largely been a success story. Ahmed Nazif, prime minister from 2004 to January 2011, entered government as the first minister for telecommunications and information technology. After a slow start, mobile and internet penetration rates soon approached those of Lebanon and Jordan.

To an initial duopoly of the UK’s Vodafone (with a local partner) and Mobinil (a partnership of Orascom Telecoms Holding and the UK’s Orange) was added the UAE’s Etisalat. Egypt now has universal mobile use, and a new system of single licensing for both fixed-line and mobile services comes into force in June.