“We have a ‘street society’ in Egypt. So when families need extra money to survive, street selling is one of the easiest ways to get it,”said Dr Sarah Loza, a sociologist who runs SPAAC, a social policy NGO in Cairo.
Street vendors have become a major part of Egypt’s large ‘informal sector’ – unregistered employment without taxes or benefits – which some experts say makes up around 30 per cent of the national economy.
“If you can own your own farsha, you are better off. Maybe in 15 or 20 years you can get your own shop,” said Galal Ibrahim, a 19-year-old unlicensed street vendor in Cairo’s crowded Ataba district.”
‘Farsha’ is street seller parlance for their merchandise, which can range from food to shoe-shine products. Street sellers usually lay out there wares on a wooden table on the pavement.
Ibrahim works for someone else who has the capital to buy the men’s socks and underwear that are his farsha. His boss pays him 20 Egyptian pounds [about US $3.50] a day to hawk these clothes on the streets.
Ibrahim’s hopes to save the 200 Egyptian pounds [$35] or so that he needs in order to buy his own farsha and start making money for himself. On top of that, he says he will need some money to cover all the bribes and fines that are a normal part of a street seller’s outgoings.
Dr Alia el-Mahdi, a professor of economics at Cairo University and a specialist on the informal economy, says there are around 300,000 street vendors trying to make a living on Cairo’s choked and polluted streets. “The numbers of poor street vendors are not getting smaller, at best they are staying the same,” she said.
However, street vending has severe limitations, according to those who have been plying their trade on the pavements for years. Education, healthcare, and even basic personal security are often out of their reach.
Ibrahim is one of many thousands of young Egyptians from the poorer southern region who left school for low-paid informal jobs. Many feel that even if they could afford to continue their education, there would be no well-paid jobs for them in the end.
“I dropped out of school in Luxor to come here. The ‘work-hard-in-school-and-you’ll-succeed’ thing doesn’t work there,” Ibrahim said. “I’ve been here [on Cairo’s streets] five years, and it is better than working for 50 Egyptian pounds [about US $8.50] a week in some factory near home, if I could even get that kind of job.”
While Ibrahim has aspirations for further commercial success, others count on street trading as a job for life.
Umm Magdy, 72, has been selling her farsha on downtown Cairo’s al-Bustan Street since her husband died 15 years ago. She makes ends meet by selling batteries, insoles, plumbing tape and various other accessories that passers-by might stop for on their way home.
“I rent a shack [to live in] for 100 Egyptian pounds [$17.50] a month,” she said. “I have three sons to provide for; the first is mentally ill, the second is in jail, and the third is unemployed. I get 65 Egyptian pounds [$11] a month from my husband’s pension. Apart from that I have no healthcare or pension, and I have to make everything else from what I can sell. It’s hardly ever enough.”
According to most analysts, Egypt’s recent economic growth, which has averaged 5 per cent annually over the past five years, is not benefiting these informal workers.
“Economic growth doesn’t mean equality or equal distribution. There is still no mechanism for transmission to these parts of society,” said professor el-Mahdi.
With an unemployment rate of around 12 per cent, and significant bureaucratic obstacles to setting up a small business, when extra cash is needed many families and individuals simply step onto the street and start trading.
However, street vendors in Egypt are often arrested and harassed by police and security services. The law nominally requires vendors to pay a fee of 50-100 Egyptian pounds [$9-18]for a street trading licence. The licenses are hardly ever granted, however, for fear of inviting a new influx of vendors from the countryside.
Instead, a constant cat-and-mouse game ensues between illegal vendors and the municipal police – known as the ‘baladiyya’. Vendors say they pay regular bribes to the police to ensure their continued tolerance.
“When the normal police come round, we have to give them money,” Ibrahim said. “If we don’t give it, they send for the baladiyya. If the baladiyya come, they take all your farsha and you have to pay a fine of 110 Egyptian pounds [$19]. You don’t get the farsha back.”