Since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution, many businesses have been severely harmed by the lack of security — and surprisingly, it seems that the case wasn’t all that different for street vendors in Tahrir Square.
People naturally assumed the street vendors have been the biggest beneficiaries of the protests, selling flags, bumper stickers and revolutionary T-shirts to the thousands residing or protesting there. But it isn’t as rosy as it sounds: Those whose businesses are in or around Tahrir Square say they suffer a daily basis from harassment and a lack of security, and it only gets worse when violence erupts. From having to relocate repeatedly to avoid clashes, to having their stands or carts attacked and even destroyed, street vendors tell their tales to Egypt Today.
Shaky Business in the Square
At Cairo’s bustling Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the January 25 Revolution, many street merchants work here full-time, hawking everything from sunglasses to T-shirts, koshari, tea, popcorn and sweet potatoes. But while business might be vibrant during peaceful celebrations, these vendors risk losing business, not to mention their products and livelihood, when the situation gets a bit less stable in the square — as it has many times since January 25.
Street merchant Fatma Mahmoud, who sells feminine garments, school bags and socks, describes the state of her business after the revolution as “unfortunate.
“I’ve been working here in Tahrir for 10 years now, but the shaky security conditions have forced me to close down several times and lose customers as a result,” Mahmoud says. A mother of four children, Mahmoud believes that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) should start taking drastic measures to secure the businesses of street vendors everywhere in Cairo.
However, their situation is complicated because most street vendors have no license and so the state considers their activity is considered illegal.
Mahmoud, who witnessed the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes between protesters and Central Security Forces (CSF) on November 19, as well as the Cabinet of Minister clashes on December 16, says that SCAF has been using “force” with Egyptian protesters to “force them out of the square,” and in the process costing the vendors business and money.
“I still remember when four army soldiers attacked two of my customers and destroyed one of my stands on March 9,” she says. “It’s circumstances like these where I lose money, give up and go home.”
For those who set up shop in the square intermittently, such as those who only go on Fridays to capitalize on the crowd, the situation is better. Mohamed Atta, a 43-year-old sweet potato seller who has been working in Giza since his youth, says that his business has been actually thriving after the revolution.
“I actually went to Tahrir to reach more customers, but it was dangerous to be there in the presence of the army, especially that some of my friends had their property damaged or taken away,” says Atta. “I didn't want to take the risk and stay, so I went back to Giza.”
Atta, who has been working for 20 years now, hopes the new government could do something to help improve the working conditions of street vendors. He says the reason his business has remained successful after the revolution was because that he is based in Giza, where there's minimal security and military presence. He also feels safer to be far away from Tahrir Square where any possible act of violence can occur.
Similarly, Gamal El-Khodeiry, a koshari seller normally based in Zamalek, moved his cart to Tahrir Square early last July when he heard about the sit-in on July 8. El-Khodeiry has leapt at the opportunity to earn extra money ever since, and the weekly Friday protests motivated him to remain in the square — but he does know how to retreat to remain safe.
“Of course it's risky to be here, but I applied to dozens of jobs in the public sector to feel safe and secure working in a building and no one hired me. So what else can I do except this job?” he says.
During the revolution, El-Khodeiry, like many others, was out of business. This January 25, he is moving his cart from the square to avoid possible violence during the expected protests. “I can't afford to lose my cart or food again,” El-Khodeiry says. “I’ll try to stay on the safe side for a few days until I make sure that the protests are peaceful and that my business won't be in jeopardy.”
A ‘Legitimate’ Crackdown
Authorities say no force is being used against street vendors, and only minimal force is used in capturing thugs.
Mohamed Gomaa, an army soldier patrolling Tahrir Square, says that the army has the “right” and “obligation” to protect civilians and public property from what he says dangerous people. “Many street vendors here in Tahrir are originally thugs, and they come from different places like El-Moski and Attaba,”Gomaa says, “endangering the lives of innocent Egyptians in the square.”
Similarly, Ahmed El-Sherif, another army soldier, says that the level of threat in Tahrir Square since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak has kept many working people and businesses from operating normally. “We don't beat anyone whether they're in Tahrir or elsewhere,” he says. “The thugs we catch are not beaten but are captured very peacefully and sent to the police.”
However, Hussein Abdel Fattah, a 51-year-old street vendor who used to sell tea and beverages in front of the Cabinet of Ministers, says he was severely beaten on December 16 when a group of about 40 men in military uniforms showed up in an attempt to disperse protesters. Abdel Fattah has had three surgeries on his left arm at El-Kasr El-Aini Hospital as a result of the beating.
Abdel Fattah says that he is facing severe financial difficulties because he spent a considerable sum of money on his surgeries and rehabilitation. “I am currently trying to recover from what happened to me, and how the military has put my business at a big risk,” he says. “So I sometimes roam around to earn extra cash if my health allows me to.”
The secret to dealing with the shaky situation that is Tahrir Square, vendors say, is knowing exactly when to be out and about and when to keep a low profile. They’ll keep at it, though, accepting the fact that for them, Tahrir remains a place for opportunities, clashes, losses and crackdowns.