Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2011
Issue No. 1074
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Strictly business

Nesmahar Sayed finds how Tahrir is still generating a new wave of businesses and clashes

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Until last Tuesday, Tahrir Square was the safe haven for street vendors, yet it remains unclear whether they will be able to settle in once again after fighting with the protesters

During all times of crises, there are casualties and there are beneficiaries. Being the centre of action in the past nine months, all eyes were on Tahrir, and with each million Friday protest, more people from all backgrounds flocked to the square.

As street vendors found their way to the square after the first months of the revolution, the lack of police in the square has allowed them a safe haven in the area. Yet last Tuesday, a new wave of violence hit Tahrir square, this time between the protesters and the street vendors.

According to one of the female protesters they have had it with the proliferation of the street vendors in the square. "We have been trying to kick them out peacefully for the past four days," she said. The 40-year-old protester explained that their presence has been giving the square a bad image. "They sell drugs, and there have even been female prostitutes among them, which is degrading to the dignity of the square," she added.

The fight that erupted last Tuesday night, on the second day of the elections, left more than 80 injured. Chaos erupted in the streets surrounding the square and cars moved in the wrong direction in Abdel-Moneim Riad Square.

Nabil El-Qot, a psychiatrist, who has taken part in protests, and has been an eye witness to the events in the square due to the location of his clinic as well, told Al-Ahram Weekly: "I got stuck in our building with a family during the clashes and we couldn't get out. It has been intolerable these past few days, because we have been witnessing many conflicts between the street vendors. They have their own tents and many sell drugs. They have turned the square from a platform for demanding rights into a marketplace."

During the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution, Koshari and Macaroni were the main plates sold at that time because demonstrators used to stay days and this was a good opportunity for street vendors and merchants to sell their goods. "My father decided that we should keep the restaurant open so as to offer food for the workers whose daily wage was affected by the disturbance in the district. Later we found that the protesters became our main customers. It was a good chance but we did not increase the prices," the son of owner of the most famous downtown Koshari shop told the Weekly.

It has been evident that the increasing number of protestors has been serving the street vendors' interests. Last Sunday, as Osama Anwar was driving his car in Al-Nil Street, he passed by a grilled sweet potato vendor running towards Tahrir Square. "After I bought the sweet potatoes, he left me quickly because the demonstrations were heating up," he said.

Last Sunday was announced to be a demonstration for a million protesters. A big mass of clients and lots of profits were expected, which is what business is all about. Even with tough economic conditions, selling food and beverages has been a lucrative business in Tahrir.

But nine months after the Revolution, street vendors have become a burden for many. Be it socks, flags, scarves, t-shirts, Tahrir attracts street vendors of all colours hoping for quick cash. Their presence has led to many fights between the shop owners in the nearby districts and the vendors. "Theirs is not a business at all. We pay taxes, salaries and we have official papers. It is not accepted at all to let them invade the streets and feel pity for them. Many of them are thugs and drug dealers and they have been the cause of fights that took place inside the Square, either with us as shop owners or among themselves," a shop owner in Tahrir Square told the Weekly.

Some call it, "dirty business" that acts to violate our right to walk the streets safely. On the contrary, 40 year-old Salma Adel takes their side. "Why don't we leave them to work in the streets? Why are people attacking them all the time? They are human beings and they have the right to work and gain money too. As long as they do not steal from us," she said. Adel argued that most of those who are socially labeled middle class and high class don't find it wrong to park illegally to enter a mall or go to the hairdresser but on the contrary everybody accuses the street vendors of violating the law. The only solution for this problem according to Adel is to legalise their businesses.

Up till last week, the violence that marred Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, generated a new form of business. The price of a mask and protective glasses reached LE20 and it was a must for all protestors to buy. According to 42-year-old Hani Mohamed, the vendors satisfy our needs for food and beverage, "but now it is not becoming safe by any means. The vendors fight a lot with each others and disturb the peaceful mood among the protestors," Mohamed said. According to Mohamed, some disgruntled protestors attempted to kick the street vendors off the square to regain the purpose of the square.

Another business that appeared with the Revolution is the daily rent for the apartments viewing Tahrir Square to the satellite channels. As Omar Shoeb, the producer of Baladna Bel Masry programme on ONTV, told the Weekly, "The average daily rent for an apartment is LE3000-6000 per day, depending on the view of the apartment and on which floor it is."

A downtown resident who prefers to keep his name anonymous explains how things are no longer the same downtown. He loved that sense of freedom in the square, yet despises all the new infringements on it, as he is deeply worried by the wall on Mohamed Mahmoud streets that separates the police and the protestors. He said that he remembers how he saw one of the street vendors selling pictures of political figures Nasser and Che Guevara along with pictures of Farouk, Sadat, Hassan Al-Bana and Bin Laden. "It was so weird. He was a very democratic vendor who didn't care much about the political affiliation of the buyers as long as they were willing to pay the price he demanded."

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