Flying the flag for Egyptian ingenuity

Bassem Abu El-Abbass, Michael Gunn, Tuesday 1 Mar 2011

In tough economic times, Cairo traders are discovering that patriotism sells

No sign of sales flagging (Photo: Reuters)

It's been a political rally ground, a campsite and a battlefield, but these days Tahrir Square sometimes seems like an open-air market. 

The last two weeks have seen a bewildering assortment of revolution-inspired merchandise appear for sale on central Cairo's main intersection. It ranges from the expected -- T-shirts emblazoned with 'January 25th' and images of those killed -- to the quirky; fake car number-plates commemorating the uprising and curly wigs stripe-painted with Egypt's national colours.
Biggest seller of all is the red, white and black Egyptian flag, a golden eagle stamped across its centre. 
"No-one wants to buy normal clothes right now but everyone in Egypt wants flags," says Mohamed Mostafa, standing near Tahrir's central traffic island amidst a half-dozen black plastic sacks bulging with nylon and plastic poles.
Mostafa runs a small clothing workshop in the northern Cairo district of Shubra. Two weeks ago he came together with 19 other smalltime manufacturers to start a flag assembly line, their 200 combined workers stitching and printing thousands of copies of the Egyptian standard in three sizes.
Mostafa estimates a medium-sized flag costs LE2.5 to make, selling for LE5. He sells an average of 500 a day and plans to keep up production for another two weeks.
Ahmed Mostafa, who normally runs a clothing stand in Giza, stands in the forecourt of Tahrir's towering Mugamma building, merchandise arrayed before him. He sells T-shirts as well as laminated card 'necklaces' depicting the uprising's martyrs, but flags are easily his most popular item.
"It's become a fashion statement," he tells Ahram Online. "When you enter a house now you have to show the flag that proves you were part of the revolution."
Industry heads say canny independent manufacturers are benefiting from a gap in the textiles and clothing market caused by a range of factors that pre-date the revolution.
"Egyptian traders know how to exploit any situation,'' said Mahmoud Syam, vice-chairman of the spinning and weaving syndicate, who says global price hikes for raw materials and a series of earlier industrial protests in cities like Mahalla, had already weakened the country's industry before January's large-scale unrest.
"There was a big fall in the textile trade in the last few months with the number of workers in the public sector falling from 700,000 to 70,000," Syam explains. "Right now there are only four active textile companies in Egypt from a total of 31 - Mahla, Dyeing, Damietts and Stya. This means private factories have a great opportunity for making sales."
Concerns have been raised, however, about the materials used. Industry officials accuse unlicensed workshops of cutting costs by using polyester, cotton and silk illegally imported from the Far East.
"We do not recognize the source of material for these flags," says Mohamed El-Morshdy, chairman of the Textile Industries Chamber, who believes such unpoliced imports may combine with ongoing labour disputes to bring a 'huge crisis' to the textile industry. This would have a knock-on effect on garments, dyeing and printing, he says.
But as the economy wavers, this questionably-sourced merchandise is providing a lifeline for those at the selling end, whose normal line of employment shows no sign of reviving.
"I've had no work since the start of the revolution," says Fathi, who runs a shoeshop in Giza but now stands a few paces from the shattered front of Hardees burger restaurant, flags stacked against his shoulder. 
He gestures to a fellow salesman, normally a baker, sporting a long beige gellabiya and an incongrous striped curly wig. "Selling these is the only thing we've found that gives our families enough to eat."
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