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Equality, freedom and street vendors in Egypt.

Summary: CAIRO - Nearly a year has passed since the eruption of a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians have been admired for their peaceful revolt and their determination to create a new democratic state, based on the principles of law, equality and freedom. However, the security vacuum and economic problems in the wake of the revolution are still having an impact on the lives of Egyptians.

Several Egyptian governments have tried to solve these two problems, which have only become more complicated, with no sign of a solution anytime soon. These problems have led to the creation of a ticking bomb, all over Egypt, in the shape and form of the street vendors, whose numbers have increased since the revolution. For some of them, the pavements do not suffice, so they happily occupy much of the street as well. Street vendors are nothing new in our society, but recent economic problems and the security vacuum have turned them into a nightmare. The Egyptian Mail talks to some of the vendors, who have their own problems, in a bid to try and find out how and when we can have our pavements -- and even streets -- back again. The last chaotic option On his way to his office in downtown Cairo every morning, Ahmed Hassan, a civil servant, has to fight through the hundreds of street vendors who occupy Ramses Square, one of the busiest squares in the capital.

"It only used to take me ten minutes to walk to work, but now it has become very difficult because of the crowds of vendors and customers," he says, admitting that he himself sometimes stops to look at what's on sale and to do a bit of haggling.

"When I'm in a hurry, I have to abandon the pavement and walk in the street, but unfortunately the edges of the street are always occupied by microbuses waiting for passengers," adds Hassan, who risks his life most days, as he could be killed by a speeding car.

When the baladiya (municipal police) crack down on the vendors, the pavements are empty for the next couple of days and Hassan is happy.

He wonders where the vendors have all gone, but he doesn't have to wonder for long, as they soon come back again. Salesmen, salesmen everywhere "The situation has become really unbearable," according to Samiha Bishoy, an accountant in a private company, who describes what she calls the explosion of these street vendors, who flog everything from children's toys and clothes to kitchen utensils and mobile phones.

"Some of them have even started erecting permanent stalls for their goods in the streets. They are noisy and some of them are dangerous," she says, adding that quarrels among themselves or with their clients are nothing unusual. But what really annoys Howeida Mahmoud, a 40-year-old housewife, are those vendors who sell the public dangerous goods.

"Today, you see them in busy streets day and night selling stun guns, clubs and even knives," she says, admitting that a shiver goes down her spine every time she walks by these sellers, who keep on playing with their stun guns.

The security vacuum has also given a boost to the firework salesman."These fireworks are very dangerous and it's easy for our children to buy them," warns Howeida.

Vendors are doing a roaring trade because most of their wares are very cheap. But this is also a reason to worry.

"Most of these goods are of unknown provenance and some of them are a danger to human health -- they can even kill people," adds Howeida, who prefers buying goods from shops that can be monitored by different governmental authorities.

Some economists estimate the street vendors sell about LE30 billion-worth of goods per annum (about $5 billion).

These salesman are also a source of anger for the shop owners, who fell they are losing out due to the fierce competition posed by the vendors with their cheap goods.

Some of them have gone on the offensive, occupying the pavements outside their shops with their own products.

"It's better than waiting for some street vendor to come along and occupy this space," says one shop owner, who's dumped his goods outside his shop.

Street vendors were recently in the news for the wrong reasons, when clashes erupted between revolutionaries and vendors who found Tahrir Square a paradise for their business, leaving many injured. Even historical places are not safe from their activities. Some of them were to blame for King Tut's tomb in Luxor being forced to close for several hours the other day.

A recent study by the Government's Information and Decision-making Support Centre concluded that 80 per cent of citizens find street vending a problem that should be solved. What else can they do? Although many members of the public are fed up to the back teeth with these vendors, of whom there are about 5 million according to some experts, others see them as victims who should be forgiven.

"What can people do, when they need to earn a living?" asks Hani Abdullah, a teacher, who argues that, instead of attacking them, we should respect them and try to help them.

For Said, a 30-year-old street vendor, the toys he sells are the sole source of income for his family.

"What else can I do? It's better than doing something wrong. I'm not stealing or harming anyone," says Said, a commercial school graduate, who has failed to find any other job.

He admits that the job is not easy, especially when the police raid them.

"It hardly covers my basic needs," explains Said, who, like most street vendors, rank among the nearly 18 million Egyptian workers who are not covered by social or medical insurance.

Street vending is last option for many people, who have no special skills or capital. All they have to do is ask one of the big traders to give them goods on tick and then they can start trading with a small amount of money. The tip of the iceberg In the past few months, reportedly $9 billion-worth of investments have fled Egypt, whose economy is teetering. The tourism sector is also in crisis, forcing many workers to look for a new source of income. The State's job creation schemes cost a lot of money, but, when a street vendor creates his own job opportunity, it doesn't cost the country anything.

It was about the year 2000 that university graduates started dabbling in street vending, because, despite their education and qualifications, they couldn't find anything better.

According to official statistics, Egypt's unemployment rate is at its highest in ten years.

The number of unemployed in Egypt reached 3.1 million in the first quarter of 2011, a growth of 799,000 on the fourth quarter of 2010, Abu Bakr el-Guindi, the head of CAPMAS (the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics), told local newspapers.

Egypt's unemployment rate is now 11.9 per cent, while CAPMAS statistics show that 28.9 per cent of the unemployed have a college education and 52.6 per cent some kind of technical or vocational qualification.

According to experts, the fall in the standard of living and increasing poverty (48 per cent of Egyptians can be described as poor) make the street vendors very necessary for people, who have to count every piastre whenever they go shopping.

"For several months after the January Revolution, it was great. We worked peacefully and made a good living, because the police raids and the bribes stopped, but now everything is changing again," says a street vendor called Hazem.

Sara Mahmoud, a law student, denies that revolution is to blame for this problem. "They have been always there. No-one defended them, when the police used to chase and deal with them severely. We must find a practical solution. Chasing them and confiscating their goods doesn't achieve anything," she says. Is there a solution? According to Khaled Mostafa, Cairo Governorate spokesman, the security vacuum and economic difficulties are the main reasons for what we are seeing now in the street.

"However, with the security coming back, things are improving," stresses Mostafa, adding that, instead of chasing them, the Governorate has a new policy -- trying to organise them.

"The old method of chasing them and confiscating their goods had catastrophic consequences, because they buy their goods on credit and have to pay back the big traders.

"But they need to be organised, especially in busy streets where they disrupt the traffic," he told the Mail.

One idea that the Government has come up with is to organise one-day markets for these vendors in several places around Cairo.

The Governorate has allocated certain streets to be turned into a market for the vendors one day a week, provided the traffic isn't seriously disrupted.

Vendors can participate in such markets for free, while the Governorate authorities not only organise them and provide security, but even clean up at the end of the day.

"One day is not enough," said one of the vendors after taking part in one of these one-day markets, held every Friday from 9am to 6pm. "Of course, it's not enough to earn a living for my family, and I have to find other places to sell my goods on the other day of the week." "Another idea is try and find places in different districts to be turned into permanent markets. In a few days' time, the Cairo Governor is going to open one such market in Dar el-Salam. But it's very difficult to find such places, especially in areas like downtown," said Mostafa.

According to a recent estimate, there are around 10,000 street vendors in the downtown area.

"The problem is that most of them come from outside the Governorate. They occupy vital areas and cripple the traffic. Some of them have begun building their kiosks and stealing electricity.

"The Governorate is now trying to contact and develop different vocational training centres to offer these vendors a career change.

"But we realise that most of those centres do not cater for the real needs of the market, so now we're trying to develop them, so they can provide more relevant training," he added.

"But because most of the vendors in Cairo come from other governorates, it will be difficult to provide new jobs for them all." But Egyptian vendors aren't the only challenge, as this line of business also attracts Chinese, Sudanese and even other Africans.

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Feb 13, 2012
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