Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—A street vendor sings a famous Egyptian song that mocks the overcrowded streets of Cairo. He then takes over a sidewalk, turning it into a makeshift café as he lays out plastic tables and chairs right in the path of pedestrians.
This is a familiar scene now in the Arab world and Africa’s largest and most populous city, currently buckling under the strain of hosting at least 10 million residents, according to the latest official figures. Traffic, congestion, and overcrowding are persistent topics of conversation among Cairenes. But these conversations have recently found a new villain in the tale: the hordes of street vendors which have proliferated on sidewalks and in squares since the January 25 revolution.
Street vendors have always been part of the furniture in Cairo, but their presence was restricted to certain known areas and very much under the control of the city’s police force. Since the 2011 uprising, however, Cairo—like other parts of the country—has experienced a noticeable absence of security on the streets, leading street vendors not only to appear in new places, but to further crowd those they already used.
They can now be seen all over Cairo, particularly its Downtown district, selling everything from clothes and household appliances to pirated DVDs and popular Egyptian fast food.
But neither public resentment nor government anger have succeeded in finding a solution to the phenomenon which, as one disgruntled taxi driver put it, threatens to turn Cairo into “a street vendor capital.” Struggling to find his way through the city’s teeming streets, he added: “What is strange is that it [selling on the street] goes on until late into the night.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Khalid Mustafa, a spokesperson for the Cairo Governorate, said: “The phenomenon of street vendors has increased noticeably following the January 25 revolution, when people lost their means of earning a living and moved to Cairo from various regions. Their trade requires no capital, which makes it easier [for them] to spread.”
He added: “Dr. Abdel-Qawy Khalifah, the former Cairo governor, tried to bring them together to learn a trade, but they rejected that, and the confiscation of their goods could cause bigger problems, even if it is a violation of the rights of residents and shopkeepers. The governorate now provides them with [designated] sites, in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, to make their activity legal.”
Residents in the capital say the increase in the number of street vendors may have been caused by the absence of related laws to govern and control the activity, leading to a worsening of the situation amid an unexplained government silence.
Unemployment and the preoccupation of the police with political problems such as protests may have also contributed to the problem.
One Cairo denizen who believes the authorities need to do more is Ibrahim El-Sayyid, a doctor who lives and works in Nasr City. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The problem is getting much worse amid the silence of the authorities, which do not take strong action against these violations of public rights. The sidewalks have become the property of owners of fast-food kiosks and cafés to the extent that there is no sidewalk where we can walk, not to mention illegally parked cars which are left by their owners because they do not have their own garages.”
He added: “The state has one of two options: either it criminalizes these violations in the streets and sidewalks and confiscates the goods and imposes fines on them, or it provides these people with places with reasonable rents away from the streets, which are the property of the public.”
Cairenes and Egyptians in general have now despaired of finding solutions to the problems until the country’s political roadmap is concluded with the election of a new president and a new parliament. But they are not the only ones waiting. Street vendors themselves welcome more government involvement in their trade. As one vendor, Hussein Ali, put it: “People are waiting for the return of the state.”
Sitting in front of his stall in Cairo’s chaotic Ramses Square next to the city’s main railway station, Ali said: “We as street vendors are prepared to leave the street immediately if the state provides us with shops. This trade in the streets is our only source of income, and most of us support large families.”
With a wife and three children to support, Ali’s only source of income is trade. He said he hoped the authorities would find him another place where he could legitimately conduct his business.
Ali continued: “We were given many promises, none of which were delivered, because they are just daily promises, not to mention the demand for bribes which police officers receive to let us stay in the streets, which is the best evidence of the spread of corruption in the country.”
Egypt’s unemployment rate has been rising steadily since the 2011 uprising, reaching 13.4 percent in January, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. With a young population, few job opportunities, rising inflation and rent prices, as well as the lack of sites provided by the government for traders and the country’s byzantine bureaucracy, street vendors have simply found the cheapest and easiest place they can to flog their wares.
But rising prices in Egypt may also be contributing to the proliferation in street vendors. With small overheads compared to their more legitimate competitors, and utilizing less pricier supply chains—whether due to acquiring their goods illegally or otherwise—street vendors are able to sell their products at dirt-cheap prices.
Unsurprisingly, some of those most irked by street vendors are naturally their immediate competitors.
Ibrahim Metwaly, a shopkeeper in Cairo’s Downtown district, said: “Street vendors have become a headache for the state, and their numbers are increasing due to the migration from the villages and other areas, and most of them are selling products that are sold by other traders.”
He added: “They [street vendors] trade without permission from the council, not to mention other never-ending problems with us. We shopkeepers pay taxes, rent and electricity rates to the state in order to practice our trade legally without anyone violating our rights, which is not the case with them. They pile up in large numbers in front of our shops and trade illegally amid the silence and inaction of the authorities.”
“The state must immediately investigate the causes of the problem and deal with them before the problem becomes an epidemic difficult to eradicate,” he concluded.
Since the 2011 uprising a number of police crackdowns on street vendors have taken place, occasionally resulting in deaths. As part of an initiative promising to solve a number of Egypt’s most pressing problems in the 100 days following his election last year, former President Mohamed Mursi ordered the forced removal of street vendors in order to tackle Cairo’s mounting traffic problems.
But since Mursi’s ouster last July they have remained, turning Cairo’s streets into stalls, cafes and even warehouses. Adding to the already-incessant din in the city, they beckon pedestrians—potential customers—to approach and look for a bargain.