Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The vendors of Torguman

Government plans to relocate Cairo’s street vendors have been met with criticisms focusing on the vendors’ plight, writes Walaa Gebba

focus
focus
Al-Ahram Weekly

All is quiet in the Torguman market in Cairo, and street vendors hang around in small groups waiting for customers, as they do every day. But no customers are in sight.

“We have a lot of merchandise, but no one to sell it to. I am now selling tea to other vendors and make LE7 ($1) or LE15 ($2) maximum a day. This is the money I am supposed to feed my four children with,” said one female vendor in the market who refused to give her name.

“There are many vendors here who have stopped sending their children to school to save money. Others have abandoned their families because they cannot support them. They have just left home and gone away,” she said, adding that one of the vendors had even tried to kill himself.

According to Abdel-Rahman Mohamed, secretary-general of the Vendors Syndicate, the life of many street vendors in Egypt has become unbearable. “Some have sold their furniture just to be able to eat. Others have sold their wives’ jewellery,” he said.

When the street vendors began asserting their presence in the streets of the capital in the areas near Ramses Street, the Isaaf intersection and 26 July Street, the public reacted with indignation to the resulting obstruction of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The government took action to remove the vendors from the streets, designating several areas for their business that did not prove satisfactory.

One such area was the Torguman market, a section of town tucked away from view to the east of Ramses Street not far from the Isaaf intersection. The decision to move the street vendors to Torguman was taken in September 2011. It did not please the vendors, who held meetings and organised marches to protest against it, pointing out — correctly — that the new venue was too far from the paths of their usual customers.

The Cairo governorate, in charge of relocating the vendors, tried to contain the situation and made various promises to keep them away from busy streets. But the vendors would disappear for a few days and then go back to their usual locations, once again disrupting traffic and blocking pavements.

For the last two years the government has been trying to think up ways of eliminating the overwhelming presence of vendors in the streets of the capital. However, the problem is not confined to Cairo.

A report in Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper citing the Ministry of Urban Development and Informal Areas (MUDIA) has noted that there are 1,099 informal markets nationwide, in which a total of 305,000 vendors operate. They include 126 commercial markets, seven handicraft markets, 637 food markets and 329 mixed markets. None of these is properly organised or has a regular refuse-disposal system.

Rifaat Abdel-Baset, a sociology professor at Helwan University, said the prevalence of street vendors was due to the spread of unemployment among the young, many of whom have college or equivalent degrees. Migration from rural to urban areas has also added fuel to the phenomenon, and a lack of respect for public space has allowed it to get out of hand.

According to Abdel-Baset, efforts to solve the problem should be made by civil society organisations, NGOs and the country’s chambers of commerce. These organisations should organise training courses to help young people find alternative employment, he said.

The local authorities should also offer “alternative venues for vendors” to keep them from blocking traffic in the city centre, Abdel-Baset said. “The vendors are entitled to a proper place of work and licences to facilitate their work,” he added.

Greater economic opportunities may offer longer-term solutions. “When there is complete stability and the projects announced in the Egypt Economic Development Conference get underway, there will be more jobs in the Suez Canal cities, the new cities, and the cities of the Delta,” he stated.

 

Broken promises: In March 2015, the Cairo governorate came up with a plan to shunt the street vendors from the main streets of the capital to alternative markets in the Ahmed Helmi, Al-Matariya, Ain Shams and Al-Zawya Al-Hamra areas. It also promised to renew older markets in Al-Basatin, Al-Ashraf, Suq Al-Mawardi in Sayeda Zeinab, the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.

The female vendor spoken to by Al-Ahram Weekly said government officials had promised to transfer the street vendors to a more suitable location in Al-Zawya Al-Hamra in the Al-Wayli part of Cairo. However, she had little faith in such promises.

“They are just words,” she said. The government had also promised to develop a market for street vendors in the nearby area of Wabur Al-Talg, close to Isaaf, she added. “But if we protest against the broken promises, they will accuse us of being Muslim Brotherhood members,” she said.

Government officials had advised the street vendors to be patient, she said. “Patient for what?” she responded. “One can be patient for one month, two months, even three months. But we’ve been here for nine months, and no one has sold anything since we came here,” she said.

Abdel-Rahman Mohamed is also sceptical about the government’s intentions. “The government hasn’t implemented anything it has promised. The prime minister even laid a foundation stone in Wabur Al-Talg, promising to give us a five-storey mall in six months, but nothing has happened. It’s been ten months now,” he pointed out.

There are some 3,000 peddlers in downtown Cairo, and they deserve a more permanent solution, he added. “When the government tried to move microbus drivers to the Torguman area, most of them refused as they knew their clients weren’t ready to go there,” Mohammad said.

The government has promised to create a garage for microbuses in the same mall it has promised for the street vendors in Isaaf, but construction work still hasn’t started.

“How can one believe the government when it is not delivering on its promises?” Mohamed asked. The street vendors are even willing to contribute part of the cost of building the mall, he said, adding, “We are willing to pay in instalments.”

Cairo Governor Galal Mustafa Sayed told Al-Youm Al-Sabei that the Ministry of Investment was building the Wabur Al-Talg mall, not the Cairo governorate, which will be given several floors of the mall and will lease them to street vendors. The construction would not take more than eight months, but preliminary technical work would need to be done first, he stated.

Cairo Deputy Governor Mohamed Ayman Abdel-Tawab also said that “LE30 million have been earmarked for building the mall in Wabur Al-Talg in a timeframe of three months.”
 

Penalising the vendors: Government efforts to control street vendors started a long time ago, and Law 33 of 1957 contains the main framework for regulating the profession.

In 1981, the above-mentioned law was superseded with the passage of Law 174, which states in Article 2 that all street vendors must obtain permits from the local authorities or face penalties, a measure which many considered to be unfair.

Law 105 of 2012, passed by ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, increased the penalties on unlicenced vendors.

“The penalty [for street vending without a licence] is three months in prison and a fine of LE1,000. Repeated violators will face six months in prison and a fine of up to LE5,000 and their merchandise will be confiscated,” it says.

To protest against this law, which remains in force to this day, vendors organised marches in the Ramses, Isaaf and Ataba areas and even picketed Cairo governorate offices.

In 2013, the newspaper Al-Shorouk reported that vendors in Suez had demonstrated in front of the governorate building, demanding more sympathetic laws, social security, medical care and an end to police harassment.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO, is opposed to Law 105 of 2012 on the grounds that it is unfair to vendors. It has said the president has used extraordinary measures to “criminalise economic activities for the poor” at a time when the country’s economy has been particularly shaken.

“Confining the matter of handling vendors to the police is a continuation of the age-old practice of marginalising the poor and criminalising their economic activities,” said Amr Adli, head of the EIPR’s economic justice section.

“We recognise the need to regulate the activities of vendors so as not to block the flow of traffic in the streets,” he said.

“But this regulation must not lead to criminalisation or to police harassment, let alone to imprisonment and the confiscation of merchandise.”

The EIPR called on the government to abolish Law 105 of 2012 and form a committee to examine the conditions of street vendors and open a dialogue with them and with other relevant parties. Street vendors should be registered and reassured about their livelihood, the group said, as part of a general policy of combatting poverty and joblessness.

“I am a woman raising four children, three boys and a girl,” the female vendor told the Weekly. “If we leave the market to sell our goods outside, we will be arrested. The police will charge us with theft, soliciting and impeding traffic,” she added.

It is as if the government is “sending the merchants a message saying that it is better for them to sell narcotics than to block the traffic,” she said with despair in her voice.

“We are under temporary arrest. We come here every day to sit and do nothing. We are not allowed to go outside to work. At the end of the day we go home again without a penny. I am thinking of taking my eldest daughter out of school to cut costs,” she added.

“I am abiding by the law in coming here. But there must be the same law for everyone,” a grey-haired merchant said, refusing to give his name.

In a country with high levels of unemployment and poverty, such as Egypt, many young people find themselves obliged to take up jobs that are poorly paid and regulated, including street vending.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) estimated the percentage of poor people in Egypt to be 26.3 per cent of the population in 2013-2014, up by 1.1 per cent from the previous fiscal year. Unemployment is close to 12.8 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, an international group, says that the percentage of people making less than $2 a day in Egypt is now 15.4 per cent.

Many of the vendors are well educated, said Abdel-Rahman Mohamed. “Seventy per cent of the vendors the government is chasing in the streets have college or equivalent degrees,” he remarked. “The government has failed to create jobs for them and is now chasing them instead.”

In order to prevent the vendors from going back to the streets, the government is also enforcing working hours. “In the Torguman or Ahmed Helmi areas anyone who doesn’t show up for three days running automatically loses his permit,” Mohamed said. “The merchants are told to report to the market every day from 8 am to 5 pm, longer than the working hours of government employees,” he added.

 

A concert in Torguman: In order to encourage street vendors to work in Torguman, the government at first operated six microbus lines to the area. It also laid on special buses transporting government employees from their workplaces to the market to stimulate trade, reported Al-Youm Al-Sabei.

In September 2014, the governorate also organised a concert with pop singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim in the Torguman market as part of a bid to raise the commercial profile of the area. However, none of these measures helped. As the merchants say, the Torguman market is simply the wrong place for the street vendors.

The older vendor who spoke to the Weekly is nevertheless willing to give the market the benefit of the doubt. “I cannot say whether the Torguman market is a success or a failure before certain matters have been sorted out,” he said.

“First of all, the same rules must apply to all. We will not see results until all the vendors working in the downtown area come to Torguman. Then customers will have to come here as well, as this will be their only alternative,” he added.

“If I try to sell my merchandise outside the market, I will be arrested. But the law is not being applied equally to everyone,”

he said. “The market lacks amenities and services, especially transportation. And it needs more publicity and better organisation.” The vendors’ patience was running out, he added.

“We may decide to get our act together and demonstrate,” he said. “Should someone try to stop us, we will kill ourselves … We have obeyed the law, but to no avail.”

Abdel-Rahman Mohamed is displeased at the performance of both the Torguman and the Ahmed Helmi markets. “The government has wasted millions” with few results, he said.

“We are in the middle of a famine,” the female vendor said. To supplement her income, she goes twice a week to the Sayyeda Eisha market, where she has to show up at 3 am to get a good spot and be able to sell some clothes to make up for her losses in Torguman.

Over the past three years or so clashes have also erupted frequently between the vendors and the police in downtown Cairo, raising questions about the future of their profession.

According to Mohamed Lotfi, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an NGO, the government should support, rather than suppress, the informal markets in which the vendors operate.

“From the economic point of view, the vendors are part of the informal economy,” he said. “They are not part of a company or a regulated operation. But we must keep in mind that a large part of the Egyptian economy is informal. We must regard their work as productive as it brings an income to many families in Egypt.”

For Lotfi, there are ways to protect the public from the disruption caused by the vendors’ activities, while allowing them to keep on working. “From the legal point of view, roads are communal spaces that have to be used by everyone. Therefore, there is a need to set aside certain areas for the vendors to operate without encroaching on the rights of others,” he said.

There are also many underlying reasons for the presence of the vendors in the streets. “Even if we were to remove some vendors from the streets, others would replace them,” he said.


Common interests: Some have claimed that the street vendors are really informants working for the Ministry of the Interior, which is using them to confront political activists, a claim denied by Abdel-Rahman Mohamed.

“This is totally untrue. There is no agreement between the vendors and the ministry,” he said. However, he admits that the vendors do not like politics to interfere with business.

“When a dispute erupts between a vendor and another individual, we interfere fast to end the problem before it escalates and the police are called,” he said. “The same thing goes for demonstrators, whose presence can get us into trouble. This is why some activists have accused us of working for the police.”

“The vendors consider the streets to be a source of income, so they don’t allow protestors to cut off roads,” the older vendor explained. “We don’t really care who’s in power, as no one helps us anyway,” he concluded.

“The vendors are the ones most harmed by political or security disturbances in the streets, explaining why they sometimes fight with demonstrators,” Lotfi said. However, he did not rule out the idea that some street vendors might be working for the police.

“Some of them may have been hired to assault demonstrators, but some may be acting for personal reasons as well,” he stated.

“There is a common interest between the vendors and the security personnel. No vendor will be able to work in the streets unless arrangements are made, in some cases including the payment of bribes. So there can be a common interest between the police and the vendors,” Lotfi added.

For his part, Cairo Deputy Governor Abdel-Tawwab said the removal of the vendors from the streets was part of a bid to “restore law and order” to Egypt’s streets. Egypt is not the only country that has faced this problem, and Turkey, India, China and Malaysia have all experienced similar issues.

Abdallah Al-Iryan, a professor of city planning at Cairo University, admires the way Malaysia has dealt with the problem of street vendors. “Malaysia created special areas for the vendors and turned these into architectural marvels. It integrated the vendors’ areas into plans for new cities, turning a problem into a source of income,” he said.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the problem is so complex that it requires a “radical solution.” “The removal of the street vendors to Torguman was a harsh measure. In the future, we must regulate the conditions of the vendors and create spaces for them in new urban developments,” he added.

Egypt must create work places for small and micro-businesses, such as street vendors, Lotfi said.

“Citizens who have productive capabilities should be allowed to work in a legal framework and not be treated as a burden on society,” he said. At present, and in the absence of allotted workspaces, vendors have little choice but to break the law by occupying sites that hamper pedestrian and automobile traffic, he concluded.

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