Who’s the town for?

Three weeks ago, the government began to clear street vendors from Downtown Cairo, where they had filled up both pavements and streets.

Now the vendors have been relocated to Turgoman, a parking complex located about 15 minutes away from the Ramses train station, next to which a central bus station resides.

Turgoman is almost completely abandoned. It is off the beaten path and few actively seek it out. The parking lot has no stalls or anything resembling a market. Instead, its entrance is guarded by large police vans.

The government claims this is a temporary measure until an official marketplace for vendors can be built Downtown.

The vendors in Turgoman, who were assigned numbers for spaces in the parking lot, complained that no one would be interested in coming, partially because it did not look like a market. There were only two stalls open two weeks after their eviction and, although there were about 15 vendors in the parking lot, there were no customers. The only other occupants of the parking lot were approximately 20 policemen posted at the entrance.

The street vendors in Turgoman had a litany of similar complaints; namely, that they could not sell anything in the new location and, without money, they were unable to provide for their families. Abu Faida, an older vendor with two children in university, says that without the business from Downtown, he doesn’t know how he is going to continue to pay for them. “Where does the food come from? Where does the rent come from? What is the solution?” he asks.

Not only are the vendors isolated but, according to a vendor named Bassem, they have been unable to address their complaints to the government or receive any reassurance that they will be able to continue to make a living. “I have been here from the beginning and I haven’t made even LE1. I want the prime minister to come here today so I can talk to him. It is important that everything is clear to us, that is the law,” he says.

Meanwhile, many shopkeepers in Downtown Cairo seem happy with the change. Rasab Abd Ali, the owner of a small grocery shop on Noubar Street, says that it was good that the vendors were moved because they blocked the roads Downtown and caused traffic. He also states that some of them were thugs and behaved badly with customers and passers by.

The absence of street vendors in Downtown Cairo today is maintained by a strong security presence. In Ali’s street, police in APCs are stationed at each end, and the entrances to the street are blocked off by metal barriers. Ali was happy about this, saying “It is good that the police are here, it’s better. It is better in terms of traffic, it is better for the security of ordinary people, it is better for citizens.”

The police presence is also an attempt to circumvent a possible comeback by the vendors, who had been removed in the past and still come managed to come back to the streets of Downtown Cairo.

The police tanks that are there to prevent the return of vendors and the traffic congestion they cause are also deemed by some to be the cause of traffic themselves.

For Shahir George, a researcher the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who has worked on the street vendors issue, the security presence is another opportunity for the state to remind people of its robust existence in the streets of Cairo. “They just want to show that the security apparatus is back and can enforce its rules,” he says.

But more importantly, the police presence in Downtown Cairo is an index of how unresolved the question is. “The fact that the streets have been occupied by tanks and policemen shows how unsustainable this solution is. Either you have tanks and policemen all over Cairo or you have a solution that gets approval and legitimacy,” George says.

Part of a sustainable solution, in the view of George and others, is giving some agency to the vendors. Despite the fact that the vendors have used Downtown’s public areas for years, they were not given a chance to negotiate with the municipality or with Downtown’s other residents before they were removed.

In fact, Bassem emphasizes that the vendors just wanted someone to listen to them. “How are people supposed to make money? The government has not done anything, it has all been words.”

The problem is associated with the class of street vendors and the larger umbrella of the informal economy, which represents about 75 percent of the labor force in the private sector, according to a recent report from the Economic Interest Forum. The Street Vendors Syndicate claims there are around 40,000 vendors working in Cairo, and there may be more since many of them are clearly undocumented.

According to George, the reason there are so many street vendors is because of rampant unemployment in Egypt, which leads many to create work for themselves. In fact, George says, the vendors “have been helping the state decrease unemployment in one way or another.”

The law that concerns street vendors has not been changed for over 50 years and, according to George, it falls short of protecting their rights or recognizing their labor. He believes that the law should be reformed and the government should engage with the street vendors through legitimate organizations, like unions.

But with no mechanism in place for the vendors or the residents to voice their concerns, the municipal authority ends up making unilateral decisions that serve different sets of interests.

“The problem is that there are many stakeholders who use and share public space. You have pedestrians that are going from one place to another, the people who actually live Downtown, the street vendors and the local municipalities. All of these are stakeholders. And what we have seen in the last few years is one stakeholder, the municipal authority, getting more or less what they want at the expense of one stakeholder or another, which, in this case, is the vendors,” says Yahia Shawkat, an architect and Housing and Land Rights researcher at the EIPR.

Shawkat sees a bigger picture behind the clearing of Downtown Cairo, namely a multi-party strategy to begin gentrifying Downtown Cairo, rendering the area exclusive to certain people.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb stated, following the clearing of many of the street vendors, that the government wishes to reclaim Downtown as a historical heritage site, one of the most important ones in the Middle East. Indeed, the state has taken on some conservation initiatives for Downtown Cairo, such as the National Urban Harmony Organization’s quest to restore various downtown buildings, which has been criticized for being too far removed from people’s needs.

Similarly, the Cairo 2050 plan was crafted during the Hosni Mubarak era to initiate some urban transformations for Cairo along Gulf city models like Dubai, only to be interrupted by the 2011 revolution. However, according to the Cairo Observer, many of the Cairo 2050 projects “are back on track.” The plan has been criticized for selling off large parts of the city to private investors in order to create luxury enclaves, while at the same time displacing large communities of low-income residents.

The state is not alone in pushing their unilateral agendas for Downtown Cairo, which occurs in the private sector as well.

Al-Ismaelia Consortium has kicked off an urban regeneration project in Downtown Cairo, acquiring some of the buildings there, especially those where incumbent tenants pay negligible rents, renovating them and offering them for rent to residents and businesses or making them into spaces for artists. According to Karim Shafei, the chief executive officer of Al-Ismaelia Consortium, “Our plan is based on a vision we’ve had that Downtown on an architectural level should be restored. On an urban fabric level, Downtown should be a place which mixes all segments of society.”

Shafei believes that, currently, Downtown has almost no place for affluent or middle-income people. According to him, part of Al-Ismaelia’s vision is to create a space for those people, while at the same time supporting art projects that can be accessed by people of all income brackets and backgrounds.

Shafei is happy about the street vendors’ removal. “They were taking up the side walks, eventually they were taking up two lanes, and there was some harassment. Everyone agrees on what the negative impact of having street sellers is.”

However, Shafei does have sympathy for vendors and states that, ideally, they would be able to sell their goods legally in flea markets or organized markets. But he adds that “the way that it’s done is really damaging a lot of the businesses around them, it’s damaging the traffic and a lot of the normal use of Downtown.” He believes that the dispersal of the vendors is positive and will lead to more law and order Downtown.  

Shafei is also critical of charges of gentrification as it “it has a lot of bad connotations to it when in fact it is like a knife, it cuts both ways. It has benefits and disadvantages. Over the past 50 years, there has been gentrification in Downtown in the bad sense of the term, it has deteriorated and has pushed away large segments of society.”

Yet, Shawkat believes that while people who live in Downtown may be happy to see the street vendors go right now, if the gentrification process continues many of the poorer residents of Downtown will be the next people to be moved. “If it’s a matter of gentrification, then we are going to see another sort of eviction where property prices and real estate prices and rent prices are going up and other people who have lived there and worked there are going to move out because it’s more expensive,” he says.


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