Egypt, The Cruel Logic Of Al-Sisi's Crackdown On Street Vendors

As Egypt's economy nosedives, the jobless are forced to hawk wares in the streets. It all makes the new president's efforts to eliminate street vendors seems especially harsh.

Street vendors causing traffic jams in Old Cairo.
Street vendors causing traffic jams in Old Cairo.
Passant Rabie

CAIRO — As the streets of downtown Cairo start to fill up with pedestrians headed home after work, hoards of young men spread sheets across wooden tables and begin emptying fabric satchels along the narrow pavement. Some toss slippers across their tables, others fold T-shirts into neat piles, and a few carefully arrange watches and bracelets.

Across from Talaat Harb Square, Ahmed Sabry is lining up a collection of knock-off sunglasses diagonally across an old car’s windshield. The dusty old vehicle, and the space it is claiming on the street, belongs to his brother-in-law. Sabry has been renting it from him for the past month.

“These are special circumstances, but this is not my field,” says Sabry, who used to work as a sales representative in Saudi Arabia. He hasn’t been able to find a well-paying job since returning to Egypt.

Egypt’s economy has faltered over the last three years, and its official unemployment rate has risen to an all-time high of 13.4% in 2013 (compared to 8.9% in 2010). It’s no coincidence that the number of street vendors has also dramatically increased. After President Hosni Mubarak’s police state lost its authority and grip on public space following 2011’s Jan. 25 uprising, street vendors proliferated along the sidewalks and sometimes double parked on the streets of Cairo’s already crowded central district.

But Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised to restore order and security if elected president, so the government has launched a heavily publicized campaign against street vendors and other forms of low-level illegality or nuisance. Every other day, security forces storm the streets of downtown Cairo, forcing vendors to clear their merchandise from the streets.

“It was meant to happen,” says Omar Nagati, an urban planner and architect, and the co-founder of CLUSTER, the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research. “The relationship between the community and the state has shifted dramatically, and the former order is gradually being restored.”

According to Bassem Shokry, a clothes vendor who used to sell his goods on a sidewalk on Qasr al-Aini Street in downtown Cairo, “My three colleagues and I had over 10,000 pounds worth of clothes confiscated by police forces. We are now both indebted and jobless.”

The street vendor says that those who resisted the confiscation of their goods “were beaten and humiliated by security forces on the streets.”

Nowhere else to go

“Neither the Cairo Governorate, nor any other governorate, has offered us an alternate marketplace from which to sell our merchandise,” the vendor complains. “I just want a small shop or even a kiosk from which I sell my goods. I’m willing to pay my taxes, utilities and other dues. We already have to pay off locals and policemen to work on these streets.”

Shokry concludes, “Without access to work or an honest income, thousands of these vendors may resort to criminal activities such as drug-dealing, pickpocketing and theft.”

Yet, elsewhere, vendors aren’t actually being driven out permanently. Nagati describes the raids as a ritual in which police create a big scene. But the vendors all have storage spaces in nearby buildings whose doormen agree to hold their merchandise.

“They disappear into the cracks, and half an hour later they come back on the street,” says Nagati.

Ahmed Hussein Ali, head of an independent street vendors’ syndicate that was established with the help of civil society groups in 2012, admits that he and other members of the syndicate inform vendors when the police will be storming the street. In fact, he says, the whole cleanup campaign is happening in coordination with the syndicate.

“The Ministry of Interior is now dealing with us with compassion,” Ali says. “They tell us in advance so that there are no clashes between vendors and security forces.”

He says there is now collaboration between the syndicate, whose goal is to protect the rights of street vendors, and the authorities. The syndicate is working with the Cairo governor on a plan to regulate vendors, he says.

Endangered trade? Photo: Mitch Altman

Part of this plan is to move street vendors to designated market areas: Two potential locations are a piece of land in the Matareya neighborhood that can hold up to 800 small shops and another one in Galaa Street downtown where a three-floor mall will be built.

We'll believe it when we see it

Ali, a young street vendor selling men’s clothing on a downtown sidewalk, who declined to give his full name, says that he has been hearing about the new markets for a long time, but no concrete action has been taken yet.

Ali’s familiy has had a claim on the spot he occupies for close to 15 years. The business was passed down from his father to him and his brothers. But he says he has no particular attachment to the physical space.

“If they move us somewhere else where I can make money, then I’m OK with it,” he says.

Vendors’ syndicate head Ahmed Hussein Ali estimates that there are around 91,000 street vendors in Egypt, more than half of whom he claims are syndicate members. Obviously, it will take the creation of many new market areas to accommodate so many.

“It’s a question of capacity: How many can you fit? And also a rights question: Who has the right to decide what happens in the street? If you can only accommodate 50, then who gets to decide?” Nagati asks.

Standing in the harsh afternoon sun, surrounded by long racks of clothes on each side, the young street vendor Ali looks down on others who have only joined the field more recently and are renting spots rather than owning them.

Ali explains that 15 years ago, when his father claimed this spot as his own, there was no need to pay rent. But today, he says that there are groups of five to six people who stay in surrounding alleys and take over spots in the streets that they later rent to vendors.

“It’s out of control,” says Ali. “They don’t really know the trade. It’s not their field.”

CLUSTER’s Nagati agrees, saying that the street vendors have become a sort of mafia.

Ahmed Hammouda, the owner of a men's clothing shop on Fouda Street, prefers the original street vendors to newcomers who have taken over the trade and caused overcrowded conditions in downtown streets. Hammoud says that before the 2011 revolution, police controlled vendors and collected money from them every day. But after the uprising, police did not have a strong presence in the streets, and the street trade was taken over by so-called thugs.

Hammouda has a good relationship with the street vendor in front of his store, Mohamed, who sells women’s jewelry, as the two have known each other for years.

“Nobody can come here. This is his spot,” Hammouda says. “But the ones over in Talaat Harb and other areas that are new to the field, they don’t own any of their spots.”

A cosmetic crackdown

Hammouda also says that the new ones don’t respect the shop owners: They stand in front of the stores selling the same merchandise at much lower prices. “If I sell a shirt for 100 pounds, he sells it for 25, because we shop owners have bills to pay like electricity and rent,” Hammouda explains.

Street vendor Sabry admits to being part of the problem. “After the revolution, it has gotten much worse,” he says. “The streets are now filled with thugs. They cause traffic jams, and everyone lays out their merchandise four or five meters into the street.”

On Talaat Harb Street most evenings, street vendors and their customers take up most of the sidewalk and street, leaving just a single narrow lane for cars to snake through, causing traffic jams.

But Sabry adds that he was forced into his trade by economic necessity.

Which is why Nagati believes that the solution to the problem should go beyond a largely cosmetic crackdown, intended to show that the government is in charge again. “It’s a superficial level of restoration, a sort of beautification, but the problem will not be solved,” he says. “You have to look at why it’s happening, create jobs, and engage this marginalized community.”

For their part, street vendors are willing to go wherever their business will be as profitable, or more profitable.

“If they move us to a place where we don’t make any money,” says Ali, the young men’s clothing vendor, “then we will come back here even with the government crackdown. We will hide during the security raids in alleys like we used to do before the revolution,” he says.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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