Cairo's downtown street vendors question new home

Osman El Sharnoubi, Wednesday 17 Sep 2014

While the relocation of street vendors means less traffic, many sellers now find themselves in a difficult predicament

Street vendors
Street vendors linger at new location (Photo: Marina Barsoum)

Last month, Egyptian security forces cleared two of Cairo’s main and overcrowded avenues by displacing hundreds of street vendors who have been working there for years without any consistent government action to address their status.

Their new home is an abandoned mall and mega-parking lot called Torgoman which is close to downtown and adjacent areas they had occupied.

Row by row, dozens of stands carrying clothes – the main good sold by the downtown vendors – fill a parking area, one of many surrounding the mall. The grounds have been painted with intersecting, numbered lines representing allotments to be filled by the various sellers.

Above the nascent market, several canopies have been erected to shield merchandise and more importantly, the disgruntled sellers, from the scorching September sun.

“We’ve been here for 17 days, look around; there are no buyers here,” Karim Samy, a young man who’s been working as a street vendor for 10 years, said, when summing up the main complaint the newly moved vendors share.

Walking a bit further on the large lot, bare canopy pillars protrude in a large open area bathed in sunlight, strewn across the asphalt lot are dozens of unused stalls giving a sense of incompletion – another of the vendors’ complaints.

Mohamed Khalil, another vendor, says they have been moved to a place with no people or amenities. Samy showed Ahram Online a makeshift bathroom at the bottom of a staircase, accusing the government of a hasty and inadequate plan.

Aside from the area where Samy was standing, the majority of the allotted area remains vacant, awaiting the arrival of more hawkers – some of whom refuse to come and others who have not yet forced out of their traditional abodes in Cairo’s streets.

The quiet of the Torgoman, intermittently pierced by squabbles among vendors or between vendors and municipal employees organising them, is matched by the calm in their previously occupied locations.

Walking down 26 July street, one of Cairo’s oldest central streets connecting downtown to the Nile through the Boulaq neighborhood, facades of buildings have emerged with the absence of cluttered stands that forced pedestrians off sidewalks.

“The situation is incomparably better now, we can see pedestrians and they can see us,” proclaimed Sayed El-Guindi, a laundry-shop owner who said he was relieved the government had finally moved.

El-Guindi, like many others, blamed the sprawling de facto markets set up in the area for attracting crime such as drug dealing and pick-pocketing and encroaching on public and private property an accusation shared by many residents.

But the quiet now blanketing the long street is not only due to the absence of vendors – notorious for their signature advertising cries and exchange of banter with potential clients – but also from the dwindling numbers of passersby.

“Less people are coming here, the vendors had their downside, but they brought people to the area who bought from my shop,” Eslam Adel, 25, a salesman at a clothing store on 26 July, told Ahram Online.

Adel conceded that the vendors which had occupied the whole sidewalk from the Nile front to the Italian Consulate at the edge of downtown were a constant irritation and caused trouble, but insisted they were beneficial to him as their customers would also view his merchandise.

Alternatives

While there is a consensus on the need to resolve the situation one way or the other, the recent government move, some argue, disregards the street vendors’ interests. Their new spaces are far from the bustle of the city centre and at the same time there is no alternative offered to customers in need of their cheap merchandise.

Ahmad Zaazaa, an architect, researcher and urban designer, is critical of the government’s approach to the issue. To him, there’s no community-based research guiding government plans.

“There must be a needs assessment, crucial questions are not being asked, like why does a street vendor stand where he does?” Zaazaa contends.

Zaazaa explained that the reasons are very specific; when a fruit seller sits at the bottom of the stairs of the footbridge over Cairo’s Autostrad fairway at the end of the day, it’s not a random decision. He’s there because his customers are men going home to their families via microbuses who stop at the bridge.

"He knows Egyptian men often prefer entering their homes after a day’s work carrying fruits; bringing fruits is the middle-class Egyptian man’s responsibility, just as bringing vegetables are his wife’s, and the vendor knows this," says Zaazaa.

He argues that the primary reason vendors occupy main streets in downtown is its accessibility to customers and its bustle, it’s counterintuitive to move them to places like Torgoman.

Joining ranks with Zaazaa against the government approach is architect and researcher Omnia Khalil, who believes the government’s top-down mentality will defeat their efforts.

Khalil says the absence of action based on participatory community planning – whereby the vendors would be a central element in devising a solution is the main problem.

“The driving idea behind the move is ‘eviction,’ and it stops at that,” argues Khalil who like Zaazaa, is skeptical of the Torgoman solution. Khalil advocates a more radical alternative to legalise and regulate street vendors and provide them with alternative spaces in central areas.

Street vendors had often voiced their desire to pay the government a formal fee in exchange for their stay.

Indeed, Zaazaa suggests leaving them in their current locations and enforcing regulations that would allow fluid movement for pedestrians and prevent encroachment on shops and harassment of passersby, a scheme already implemented with vendors in Cairo’s historical Al-Azhar district.

“You erect two small polls and spread a stand with specific dimensions that uses up very little space, it’s been done in many cities all over the world,” says Zaazaa.

"The vendors bribe policemen and municipal employees anyway, why not do this within a legal framework which would guarantee the money goes to the government and allows the vendors to find security," Zaazaa and several other street vendors interviewed by Ahram Online suggested.

"The alternative to such a suggestion is resorting to an aggressive rhetoric through portraying vendors as criminals by the government and media,"  Khalil says, which does little to solve the problem since vendors make up a significant number of workers in Egypt’s large informal economy, which former Egyptian finance minister Ahmed Galal says constitutes around 40 percent of Egypt’s overall economy.

“Their business represents an integral part to the circulation of money in the Egyptian economy, you can’t just jail them,” she adds.

The government however claims it is adamant on modernising the informal sector, formalising it to be able to better assess it and resolve its issues.

Former World Bank economist Sherine Shawarby, who just concluded her post as deputy finance minister for economic justice, told Ahram Online the government is attempting to formalise informal businesses to make reliable and precise data available, without which no proper solution will be adopted.

“Street vendors think we’re trying to harm them or that we want to impose extortive taxes on them, which is completely untrue,” says El-Shawarby. The economist added that "If any tax will be levied, it will be a symbolic presumptive tax that will only serve to track the vendors and give data on what they sell, where they’re located and other important information which would help in adopting effective policies."

"In the end, it’s also the right of the consumer to know the goods they’re buying aren’t harmful to them," Shawarby concludes.

Meanwhile, with or without the availability of studies – which the government claims to have made – the plans are underway.

Cairo governorate spokesman Khaled Moustafa told Ahram Online that street vendors in areas south and east of downtown will be removed soon and relocated to areas similar to Torgoman. He insists the plan involves trial and error and is in the interest of both the sellers and citizens present in the areas they occupy. The plans are also being implemented in several other Egyptian cities.

Mohamed Ibrahim, 45, sitting on the other end of Torgoman from where Samy’s clothing stand is erected, surrounded by tens of unfinished, empty stalls, says in a defeated tone that all he can do now is wait.

“They said they will provide a new microbus line to bring people here, where is it? There isn’t even a sign on the gates saying that this is our new location, what can we do?” he asks.

Samy, on the other hand, seems confident he will soon return to his old spot on the street.

“This will be a big failure, in a month’s time I will be back, the police have evicted us before and were forced to allow us to return,” he said.

*The name of the vendor Karim Samy was changed due to his request for anonymity 

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