Cafe-owners in activist hotspot: area under threat

Yasmine Fathi , Monday 27 Aug 2012

Cafe-owners in the Bourse area - popular amongst activists - accuse the government of trying to bring in street vendors so their businesses suffer and activists are left without a meeting place

Borssa cafe
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Cafe owners and activists held a 12-hour sit-in in the Bourse district downtown early on Monday, in an attempt to stop street vendors from taking over the area.

The Bourse, one of the main meeting-hubs for political activists in downtown Cairo, was swarmed with police cars and state security officers on Monday morning. The purpose was to move about 80 street vendors from the Qasr El-Nil district nearby into the area to sell their wares.

Cafe owners, worried that the presence of the vendors would inconvenience customers began a strike at midnight on Sunday.

"The entire cafe district is a walking area. Most of the chairs and tables are outside on the street," explains Essam El-Sherif, owner of the Revolution of 25 January Cafe in the Bourse. "So if the vendors come and sit in front of the cafe, we would lose our businesses."

Café-owners claim that the local council has been attempting to move the street vendors in to the Bourse for the past week.

El-Sherif says that after the Muslim Eid El-Fitr holiday ended, the local council began coming in early mornings and numbering small blocks in front of each cafe, which they believe was to be allocated to the vendors.

“They wanted to give each vendor an area of about a metre and a half, and they put the numbers in chalk in front of our shops,” says El-Sherif.

The cafe-owners were never officially notified of anything, he told Ahram Online. Worried about the future of their businesses, they met with the deputy governor and head of the local council.

"They didn’t deny it," says cafe-owner Khalaf Shawky who attended the meetings. "They said it was to solve what they called the 'ticking bomb' problem of street vendors."

On Monday morning, however, cafe-owners found police cars and state security officers arriving at 9am, along with 80 street vendors ready to set up shop.

“However, when they saw that we were holding a sit-in they left,” says El-Sherif.

The owners then met with the head of the local council in a four-hour meeting that ended with the council agreeing not to move the street vendors in. However, owners say that they still worried after the future of their cafes. They also believe that the government has more sinister motives.

“The Bourse cafe area is the main spot where Egyptian activists gather,” says Shawky. “During the 18-day uprising, they used to come here to eat and even shower. Now the government wants to destroy the Bourse so that they don’t have a place to gather anymore.”

El-Sherif agrees.“The Bourse cafe area is one of the reasons why the Egyptian revolution succeeded,” he says. “This place reeks with politics and that’s why the authorities want to crack down on it.”

Indeed, the Bourse cafe has been a key meeting point for activists for the last decade. Located in a strategic place, near Talaat Harb Square and only a short walk away from Tahrir Square, it became a focal point for revolutionaries to discuss politics.

And so it became a target for the Mubarak regime.

“Two years ago, they came in and smashed all the shops and stole all the equipment inside,” says Shawky. “I believe that the Brotherhood are trying to do the same thing because now many revolutionaries are turning against them.”

Many cafe-owners believe that the growing animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, from whom Egypt’s new President Mohamed Morsi hails, is the reason behind the crackdown.

“The Brotherhood know that if they hit us, the activists who hate them won’t have a place to meet,” one owner, who refused to divulge his name told Ahram Online.

While this sentiment was expressed by a number of cafe-owners, they do not have concrete evidence to point to. El-Sherif says that a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) who attended the meeting denied the allegations.

The issue of unlicensed street vendors has plagued Cairo for years. The vendors who haphazardly set up their wares on streets and pavements around the downtown area, are often considered a public nuisance because they get in the way of pedestrians and vehicle traffic. The Morsi government has promised to tackle the growing problem, especially as it hinders traffic, which is the first priority on Morsi’s 100 day plan.

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