Chased off the street
Harangued and hounded, street vendors are simply poor people, often with families, trying to make a living. They should be protected, not persecuted, writes Nawal Hassan*
The first time I felt the plight of street sellers occurred during a visit to the courtyard of the Qalaun Mosque, a jewel in l3th century Mameluk architecture that was sheltering 14 evicted families. These families, part of over 7,000 victims of speculators who were buying and demolishing beautiful buildings in historic Cairo during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, had been placed there by the Arab Socialist Union, prior to a massive construction programme to re- house them.
That day in 1979, I witnessed a police officer confiscate the identity card of an elderly man attempting to sell cucumbers on the street. The officer proceeded to confiscate the identity cards of all the vendors who were selling mehalabeyya, batata and other typical food of the poor. The vendors, who were simply trying to earn their daily livelihood, would have to pay heavy fines to retrieve their cards from the police station.
Later, I would witness more of the same; heart-rending sights, including trucks in front of the Cairo municipality loaded with the broken carts of mobile vendors, their merchandise thrown everywhere or destroyed. These itinerant vendors were often referred to the courts where fines of up to LE1200 could be imposed on them.
Women vendors are not exempt. Often divorced or widowed, the sole supporters of their families and living in makeshift shelters, these women are most in need of community and government support. Our organisation -- the Organisation for the Urban Development of Islamic Cairo -- paid the fine for a woman who was selling lemons on a street corner. She would have faced imprisonment for non-payment, leaving her five children destitute.
Some years ago, shortet al-marafek, a special police force, was created whose main task was to remove vendors and other "obstructions" from the street and to forcibly remove tenants from buildings whose owners have demolition permits. Among many cases documented by our organisation, one was in Doueka, where the government built temporary shelters to house families who had been evicted from their homes. Mr Assefa Bequele of the International Labour Organisation and I witnessed an officer shouting instructions to bulldoze a few wooden kiosks selling much needed vegetables and consumer goods in this desolate area. Mr Bequele and I rushed to help the vendors remove their goods that were being smashed by the relentless bulldozer. There was no justification for such drastic action, especially as there was no obstruction to the street that was entirely devoid of cars. One woman said: "It is as if there is a vendetta between the government and the poor."
Cairenes are used to seeing vendors of clothing and other goods on the streets of downtown Cairo dash into side streets as soon as they are alerted that the shortet al-marafek are coming. These are but unemployed youths -- some even university graduates -- trying to earn an honest living. A high official in the governorate, sitting at his desk with a huge poster of New York's skyscrapers behind him, actually told me that in "in London, Paris and New York" you do not see vendors on the street. It seems that he had driven around these cities in a limousine and never saw the various open-air markets or weekend pedestrian walkways where all kinds of goods are sold. Nor had he seen the young Egyptians selling hot dogs on mobile carts throughout New York City.
Another high governorate official summed up the official attitude when he said that street vendors were all "crooks, dope peddlers or criminals". Thus there is usually no support for this class of itinerant poor vendors, either from the governorate or other government agencies. Development banks are only willing to assist people in "productive" occupations and consider these vendors "parasitic". So what is being done to help these poor in informal sector occupations survive economically?
Studies show that in all the major cities of South America, Africa and Asia, between 40 to 60 per cent work in the informal sector, a large portion of whom are vendors. And government policies are often responsible for pushing productive workers into the category of "parasitic", non- productive occupations.
A case in point: When the evicted residents of Gamalia were moved to the new housing projects in Madinet Al-Salam, there was no plan to incorporate small workshops or shops for this low income community. Am Ismail, who was a shoemaker, had to put his tools away and resort to selling cigarettes since the contract of his flat stipulated he could not engage in production. Overnight all those self-employed in services became unemployed -- the ironers, grocers, tailors, shoe makers, fruit vendors, pastry makers, carpenters, hairdressers, haberdashers, stationary-cum-sweet shops for school children -- because no provision was made to create space for these activities. Most workers continued to commute to workshops in central Cairo at great transportation expense. They would bring home bread and other provisions with them since they could not buy them in their new community. Itinerant vendors were chased away with a vengeance as they were considered a blemish on this urban plan that, with its wide boulevards, was congenial for the visits of dignitaries in limousines but not for the poor residents living there.
Hassan Fathy, the late renowned architect, used to ask: "Are cities designed for human beings or for something else?" It appears, sometimes, that the governorate believes that streets are designed for cars only.
In sum, the right to work is a basic human right. Vendors should be legally protected.
* The writer is Director, Centre for Egyptian Civilisation Studies, Association for the Urban Development of Islamic Cairo.