Cairo's street vendors: a curse and a blessing

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 13 Nov 2012

As struggling street vendors continue to lay claim to Cairo's streets, amidst police roundups and mixed public reactions, sellers and urban specialists debate the future for 5 million Egyptians

Clothing stands under the 15 May Bridge in the central Boulaq district, in spaces designated for parking (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)

The growing number of street vendors in Cairo’s bustling streets has caused many people to blame vendors for increasing the city's chronic traffic problems.

Many observers note that vendors' presence has significantly increased with the rise of unemployment over the past several years, and especially so in the two years of lax security that followed the 25 January Revolution.

The stands put up by the vendors in the heart of the city – common sights in Talaat Harb Street, 26 July Street, and Ramses Street in central Cairo - are examples of locations where vendors have been facing increasing attacks for clogging up the veins of the city.

In his 100-day plan, President Mohamed Morsi ordered the removal of street vendors, in order to tackle traffic problems.

A number of police crackdowns which have been carried out over the last two months have turned violent; for example an incident which took place on 15 October in Giza Square, leading to the death of one of the vendors.

"We cannot afford to leave Cairo"

"I have become sad at the sight of the street," Ashraf, 36, an owner of a kiosk selling wallets and belts in a street corner in Downtown Cairo’s Talaat Harb, ssid. Ashraf added that he does not sympathise with "illegal vendors." In contrast to those vendors, he is legally registered and has been paying rent for the past 10 years while working in the trade.

Ashraf laments that traditional customers have started thinking twice before coming to shop in Talaat Harb Street. Congestion, traffic and what he describes as "unruly behaviour", put people off.

He explained, however, that while he is not against people making money, he believes there are more "legal ways" for them to carry out their activities.

The government of Mohamed Morsi has proposed several suggestions to regulate freelance vendors. Some of these have included setting up designated market spaces for the vendors in the 6 October City and El-Obour Market on the outskirts of Cairo, and assigning kiosks for them to rent.

"If they provide us with designated spots, many of us would go", stated Islam, 20, a streetvendor in Downtown Cairo's 26 July Street.

Islam, however, thinks that the suggestions made to move vendors were not reasonable and would not be effective.

Alaa, 29, who sells goods in bustling Talaat Harb Street, stated that if he were sent away to one of these areas on the outskirts of the city, he would spend approximately LE200 daily on transport back and forth, in addition to the storage place he would need to rent. According to Alaa, the losses would be significant for him, working as he does without a fixed income.    

'We are from here'   

Ahmed Hassan, 25, who shares two stands selling women’s shirts with two other vendors in Boulaq near downtown, does not find this idea of moving to larger markets feasible and does not believe it would gain any attention, and will therefore be ineffective.

The networks in the area, and the level of mutual trust and familiarity, are echoed by the vendors as crucial factors in their choice to stay.   

"We are from here, from Boulaq, and we have been living and working in the area since we were kids," said Ahmed. He added that most of the young men selling clothes in the street - currently occupying parking spaces under the 15 of May bridge - started working in the nearby Wekalet El-Balah market as children and then moved out to the main street once they got older.

The relative sense of freedom from strict professional requirements is also what attracts these young men to the work they do.

Street vending has been seen as a social problem, a result of large-scale unemployment and poverty and citizens taking matters in their own hands, attempting to make a living.

Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat, who specialises in urban space and politics, and taught for years at the American University in Cairo, explained in a recent article titled 'Marginality: Curse or Cure' in the 2012 book 'Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt', that "urban marginals" pursue two major goals.

The first aim of vendors is redistribution of social goods and opportunities taking place through the unlawful and direct acquisition of roads, pavements, etc.

The second goal, Bayat says, is "attaining autonomy" as a form of independence from regulations, institutions and discipline "imposed by the state and modern institutions."  

Khattab, 26, who shares one of the stands with Hassan, claimed that he had tried working at one of the big retail stores for two months and then decided to quit.

"This job is better as to a large extent, as you are your own boss," he explains.

He explained how the requirements of his past job, such as having to abide by long fixed working hours, dressing in uniform, and dealing with unfair working conditions including the constant threat of wrongful terminations, were unfavourable to him.       

Consumer demand for affordable goods

Mohsen Abu Bakr, who spent a year doing extended fieldwork with street vendors outside a mosque in Cairo’s Ramses Square, believes there is no "solution" to the problem per-se.

Abu-Bakr believes that the approximately 5 to 6 million vendors countrywide, who make up a significant factor of the informal economy, are a natural phenomenon given existing public interest in their cheap goods.

"As long as there is a demand, they will continue to thrive," he said.

Abu-Bakr added that if the vendors were not making money, they would not continue to occupy the same spaces and sell. They are needed, according to Abu Bakr, because it is a luxury for the majority of Egyptians to go to a specific place such as a mall, and consumers therefore need this accessibility in busy areas.

"We sell the same products you may find in other shops at a quarter and sometimes even less of the original price and thus we make it more affordable for the consumer; we are helping society," Hussein, 26, who shares a stand in Talaat Harb, told Ahram Online.

Commenting on their relationship with the shops they stand in front of, Hussein asserted that there was usually no conflict between the two. 

"In fact, we complement each other; as a customer is leaving the shoe shop behind us, he picks up a jacket from here," and vice-versa.

Not looking for trouble

"We are not looking for trouble; we try and do our job and earn a living, and we do not want to get into trouble," Islam states.

He adds that the vendors are, however, being scapegoated and rounded up for crimes they have usually not committed. The latest of those crackdowns took place a month ago, he states, was the result of microbus drivers getting into a brawl, ended in several of the vendors in Boulaq unjustly rounded up by the police.

Abu Bakr asserts, however, that while they are regarded as unlawful, the general way by which they work is through a so-called baltagy or head of the area, who assigns them certain spaces to stand and who gets a daily fee in return. He adds that in most cases, this is in coordination with the main police officer in the area, who also gets a share.

Regardless, Alaa asks: "Why would I get into a fight and risk having my LE7,000 worth of clothes on a stand being taken away? We know our situation is sensitive and we understand the risk we pose; that is why we try and behave ourselves as much as possible."  

"We know we are an unwelcome sight, and we are distorting the general view of the street, but there is no alternative," he added.

Pointing at a neighbouring vendor in Talaat Harb Street, Alaa asks: "What would force a 50 year-old man, a father of three, to stand here until 2am for only LE 30 a day?"

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