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.
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.
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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.