Egypt, land of the camel and donkey cart, is rolling into the auto age, mostly in cars built here in a sprawling factory that has become one of the biggest industrial enterprises in the Arab world.
The private automobile, always the prerogative of foreigners and a few rich Egyptians, has become the new symbol of a consumer society. With the country's economic climate transformed since the 1973 war, more and more Egyptians are finding the money to buy one of the basic Fiats rolling off the assembly line here. A major expansion of the plant's capacity is one of the country's industrial priorities.
"We can't cope with the demand," said Adel Gazarin, chairman of the state-owned NASR Automotive co., which operates the factory. "After 1973, there was a sudden change in the market pattern. More people can afford cars and we had a big lag in production."
On the traffic-choked streets of Cairo and Alexandria, where the noise is deafening and the pollution stifling as drivers lean on their horns and compete for space with donkey carts and flocks of goats, it seems the last thing Egypt needs is more cars on the roads.
But Egyptians who have cashed in on the tourist boom, or have brought home foreign currency from jobs in the oil states, or are lucky enough to own apartments they can rent out at skyrocketing prices are suddenly snapping up commodities they could not afford or that were unavailable in the Nasser years. At the top of every family's list is the new car - status, mobility, and freedom from dependence on the appalling public transport.
Egypt, a country of 40 million people, has fewer than half a million private cars on the road. Spain, a country of similar population, has about 5 million. The United States has one car for every two people.
In automotive terms, Egypt is about where the United States was after World War I. But this country is starting to catch up. The auto and truck plant here employs 11,000 workers. Auto production is scheduled to be nearly tripled next year. And a new plant, to make Volkswagens under license from the German firm, is scheduled to be built in Alexandria.
On the roster of the world's auto makers, the NASR corporation hardly rates a mention. It is turning out between 12,000 and 15,000 cars a year, using mostly imported components. In the Egyptian context, it is an industrial giant and a keystone of the country's fragile economy.
According to Gazarin, 120 Egyptian manufacturers supply parts and equipment to the NASR plant, which for many of them is the only customers. And the auto industry's relative weight in the economy is growing rapidly.
Under an agreement with Fiat of Italy, he said, output is to rise to 40,000 cars a year, and the precentage of locally made components is to increase. That in turn will require the government to encourage auto purchases and make new investments in highway and parking facilities. Already the first elevated freeway is being cut through downtown Cairo.
The Nasr Co., founded in 1960, makes tractors, buses and trucks as well as cars. Most parts of the trucks and buses are made in Egypt, including a six-cylinder diesel engine, tires, crankshafts, batteries, window glass and rear axels.
The limited productive capacity of Egyptian industry has failed to keep trucks as well as cars. The Egyptian army snaps up most of the trucks and the plant's capacity of 600 buses a year cannot meet the demands of Cairo alone, which is buying buses abroad a thousand at a time.
Saleh Abdel Fattah, manager of the truck and bus assembly plant, said he could increase his output by working extra shifts, but his Egytpian suppliers cannot deliver the components he needs.
The first choice for an Egyptian car buyer is European model such as a Mercedes or Volvo. But import duties ranging upward from 100 percent put those cars beyond the reach of all but a few.
That leaves the local product - four models, two built under license from Fiat of Italy, one under license from Fiat of Poland, and one under license from Fiat's Spanish parter, Seat.
Prices are resonable. The cheapest model, a two-door Seat 133, is listed at 1,950 Egyptian pounds, or $2,800. For the most popular model, a four-door Fiat 123, the price is 2,960 pounds, or about $4,250.
But the most Egyptians, there is a catch: If they wish to pay in Egyptian pounds, there is a three-year wait. Only by paying in dollars or some other international currency can they get immediate delivery. That is because the company receives no hard currency allocation from the government is scanty holdings to use for buying the imported components, so it must earn its own.
For the same reason, Egypt exports 5,000 cars a year - more than a third of its output - to Iraq, which pays for them in dollars. Those exports lengthen the waiting list here, but Gazarin says each car purchased in hard cureency finances 40 percent of a car to be sold in Egyptian pounds.
He estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the overall value of each Egyptian-built car consists of parts made in Egypt. The rest must be imported. Only the polish Fiat has an Egyptian-made engine block.
The percentage of domestically produced components is expected to increase as Egyptian factories making spark plugs, batteries, coil springs and gaskets step up their output.