Cairo’s bustling Ramses Square, where street vendors hawk everything from screwdrivers to socks in the center of the city’s transportation system, is notorious for swirling traffic-jams. I recently visited the Metro station there (formerly “Mubarak,” now “Martyrs”), to see how Ramses Square’s street vendors are dealing with the “purge campaign” that was launched in April by the police with the cooperation of the army to get rid of “street vendors and thugs” in Cairo.
As soon as I arrived and started asking questions, street vendors surrounded me and started complaining of the ill-treatment and harassment they receive from the police.
Hamdy Mohamed Ahmed, 48, who sells sunglasses, recalls clashes between police and vendors on 23 August. The police treated the vendors violently, he says, kicking their products and throwing them in the garbage. Hamdy’s colleagues were beaten with sticks.
“Now they’re chasing us more than any other time. Is that the freedom and democracy that we should be living in?” asked Mahmoud, 28, a father of two with a degree in commercial arts, who sells clothes because he can’t find other work.
After the revolution, no one should accept this attitude from the police, Hamdy said. “There were some thugs throwing stones at the police,” Hamdy said, so the police made a sweeping arrest of people in the area, including seven innocent vendors.
Hamdy told me that the brother of Mohamed Ismail Mahmoud, 19, was arrested that day. I asked Mohamed how his brother, Emad, could be reached, and was informed that he is being held in the Daher Police Station. If I posed as a relative, Mohamed said, I could pay a visit.
Mohamed stopped a taxi and opened the door for me; he also insisted on paying the taxi driver when we arrived. We stopped at a super market near the police station. “We have to take them something with us so that the officers won’t think that you are a journalist,” Mohamed said.
Although I looked suspicious to the officer as I walked into the police station with Mohamed, I wasn’t questioned. The officers sat in an air-conditioned room with a glass door. Five meters away were the prison cells.
We met a grumpy officer a minute after we entered, in an empty hall just in front of the door that lead to the cells. I walked with Mohamed and the officer through a long narrow passage. The air was stuffy. We reached an iron door with a small window on one side of the passage. On the other was a pile of garbage. I had to breath into my shirt to avoid feeling sick. There was almost no ventilation.
The officer opened the cell and I met Emad and two of their friends, arrested at the same time. The men sat in their underwear to try to relieve themselves of the heat. Mohamed whispered in his brother’s ear, introducing me. Emad was very welcoming and glad to meet me, but I couldn’t ask him much; the officer was listening to every word.
The place was very noisy, like the basement of a steel factory. I wanted to take pictures but the officer wouldn’t give me a chance to even steal one on my cell phone. We left the station ten minutes later and took a cab back to Ramses Square. That was where I thanked Mohamed and told him that I’ll continue to Talaat Harb Street. Again, he insisted on paying the cab driver.
Emad and six other street vendors stayed in the Daher Police Station for 34 days, according to Mohamed. For six days, they were taken to Tora prison and tortured. And they are now being given military trials on charges of thuggery and assaulting of officials, Mohamed said.
After dropping Mohamed off in Ramses Square, I went to Talaat Harb to gather more information on a recent “Purge Campaign” operation there. On one side of Talaat Harb Square there was a Central Security Force (CSF) vehicle full of troops. On the pavement facing the vehicle, two police officers sat on plastic chairs drinking sodas.
I grabbed a chair and sat next to them and asked one of them, Mohamed Said, a colonel in the CSF, “Why are you sitting in Talaat Harb Street, and what are all of those soldiers doing?”
He stared for a second then drew a wide smile. I smiled back and introduced myself as a journalist.
He offered me a soda. “We’ll start our Purge Campaign on all law-breakers soon,” he said, before explaining that the police and the army are cooperating to get rid of the street vendors and thugs in order to return security to Egypt’s streets. “[We’ll] purge the streets so that the Egyptian citizen can live as securely as before,” he added.
I smiled and told him what some street vendors I met earlier told me about the “vicious campaign” against them.
“Colonel Mohamed,” I said, “a street vendor told me that they have been selling in Talaat Harb for years, and if the government wants them to leave then they should find them markets!”
I paused to see his reaction. Street vendors should have licenses, he explained, adding that many of their products could be radioactive and the absence of any safety could affect the customers’ health.
Unexpectedly, the other CSF officer, Anwar al-Said, interrupted: “There are several markets that street vendors could go to, such as the Rode al-Farag market and Al-Obour, but they want the easiest and fastest way to earn money. Everyone sees himself as a victim. There are many vacancies in the country, but people just don’t want to work,” Anwar explained.
The street vendors themselves complain that labeling them as thugs is unfair. “I don’t deny that there are some who are bad, but that is normal in any group, and you media people have bad people among you as well,” said Yaser Saad Mohamed, a 29-year-old T-shirt vendor.
However, Said Sadik, a professor of political sociology at AUC thinks that violence is a common phenomenon among the lower classes and illiterate people. “They only understand the language of force, although the police should start with diplomatic methods first. Explain and give several warnings before using force,” he said, reflecting the police mindset.
But even Sadek believes that one should have some sympathy with the vendors. “People who criticize street vendors don’t feel for their poor living circumstances, and if they put themselves in their shoes they wouldn’t criticize,” he said.
Colonel Mohamed told me: “It’s our job to protect you and everyone passing in the street and assure that no one will bother you.” The moment he finished his statement a passenger came rushing to both policemen and started thanking them for their efforts in returning security to the streets. The two exchanged a warm handshake, the passenger explaining how chaotic the streets had become, filled with thugs and prostitutes.
The officers felt vindicated.
There are between 100,000 and 800,000 street vendors in Egypt, Sadek estimates, comprising a big sector of the informal economy that employs about 60 percent of Egyptian workers.
“The street vendors’ problem needs to be solved by social and economic affairs committees. It’s not that simple to take a decision to harass street vendors and erase them,” Sadek said.
Officer Anwar says that street vendors affect shop owners, as they don’t pay any taxes or expenses, so they can sell their products at much cheaper prices.
Economists, however, say that mass arrests of street vendors do not solve the problem. “The police deals only with the visible features of the problem, instead of solving the real problem, and no matter how successful they were in solving the visible features, the problem will come back because the underlying issues haven’t been confronted,” says Galal Amin, an economist at the American University of Cairo.
“There is poverty and unemployment and there aren’t enough jobs. They want to live, so they will come back, no matter what is done to them,” Amin said.
The phenomenon of street vendors and people working in the informal sector had been increasing over the last 20 years, according to Amin.
In the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment was high, but it started decreasing as a result of increasing production, agricultural reforms and the building of the Aswan High Dam. But as the impact of those projects has faded, many Egyptians have moved into the informal economy, said Amin.
Mohamed, 26, is well aware of his dependence on the informal economy. He has been selling different products on the street for ten years. These days, it’s children’s clothes at Ramses Square. Like everyone else, he has suffered at the hands of the police. But there’s nothing else he can do, he says. “I sell anything that brings me money.”