Struggling with increasing unemployment, an estimated 5 million Egyptians have long resorted to becoming self-employed street vendors, and make up a significant portion of the country’s vast informal business sector.
Unable to create enough jobs for the hundreds of thousands entering the job market annually, the state has failed to properly regulate, monitor or leverage the informal sector, which makes up an estimated 40 percent of the gross domestic product.
Economists think the informal economy makes up between 25–60 percent of the GDP — about US$218 billion, according to the World Bank — although most estimates are around 30–40 percent.
Millions of street vendors, left to fend for themselves, are constantly confronted by the state in nationwide crackdowns attempting to abolish their work. Thousands of vendors are now organizing a trade union to protect their rights and interests.
Whether they will be allowed to formalize their work is unclear. The government has not reacted favorably to vendors’ presence in Cairo.
Ousted President Hosni Mubarak, as well as his successor, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the transition Cabinet of former Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, all unsuccessfully sought to limit the spread of street vendors.
Breaking the law
State officials have openly and repeatedly highlighted the perceived problems associated with street vending, from causing traffic congestion to tarnishing “the civilized image” of streets and squares, ruining public sanitation, damaging tourism, and incurring losses in state revenue as a result of untaxed and unregulated trades.
The trade has become more visible, particularly in Cairo after the 25 January uprising, with street vendors increasingly stationing themselves in and around the epicenter of the protests, Tahrir Square, to capitalize on the presence of hundreds of thousands in one place, as well as to cater to their needs.
In the past few months, the Trade, Interior and Justice ministries, along with governorates and the Chambers of Commerce, have coordinated crackdowns and “cleanup operations” — as state media refers to them — against street vendors in Cairo, Giza, Daqahlia, Mansoura and Alexandria.
During his term, Ganzouri had produced a draft law criminalizing this unlicensed profession with a prison sentence of up to three months and a fine of up to LE1,000. Since last month, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky has reportedly been working on a more severe draft law that would stipulate maximum imprisonment of six months and fines of up to LE5,000 for unlicensed street vendors.
But criminalizing street vending goes back a long way.
The law concerning crimes of street vendors, Law 33/1957, identifies a street vendor as an unlicensed trader who does not work in a fixed location or shop. This law allows such vendors to obtain licenses, yet stipulates regulations including the prohibition of licensing to convicted con artists and vendors with contagious diseases.
Furthermore, the law prohibits the sale of counterfeit products, along with food and beverages, as they would not be protected from contamination.
Law 33 also prohibits vendors from peddling to customers on public transport, from displaying merchandise outside shops and stores, and from disturbing the peace in the neighborhoods where they operate.
If licensed, vendors are legally entitled to establish their stalls within souqs or designated markets and zones for such small businesses.
But the absence of designated markets in Cairo has resulted in an increasing number of street vendors being scattered across the city’s sidewalks and spilling onto the streets.
Under President Mohamed Morsy, the government has proposed a relocation of these vendors from the center of Cairo to satellite cities, including 6th of October, 15th of May, Obour and Sheikh Zayed.
But these far-flung cities are not the target market, and are difficult to reach since they are not connected to the city’s public transportation system. It is simply, vendors argue, a way of isolating them.
“We won’t accept being exiled from Cairo. We are not thugs, nor do we seek to tarnish Egypt’s reputation or image,” Ramadan al-Sawy, an elderly street vendor who works on downtown Cairo’s bustling Qasr al-Nil Street, says.
Meanwhile, and in the absence of solutions, the state’s sole resort seems to be confiscation of merchandise.
Juice vendor Wael Ashour says every street vendor has lived through the experience of having their merchandise confiscated by local authorities.
“You have to chase after the police and municipal authorities to reclaim your confiscated goods. If you’re lucky and are able to find them, then you must pay a fine between LE70 and LE250. Even after paying, you often find that many of your goods have gone missing,” he says.
Ashour’s brother, Bondoq, laments the old days. “Although there was a lot of corruption during the days of Hosni [Mubarak] and just as many crackdowns, we made more money because customers had more money to spend.
“Under Morsy, we’re still subjected to crackdowns, but there’s not as much money going around. Living expenses keep rising, and conditions are getting worse for us.”
Organizing and unionizing
Sawy is attempting to organize his fellow vendors into an independent trade union.
“We now have nearly 4,000 signatures of notarization from vendors, in Cairo and other governorates,” Sawy says. “However, the [manpower] minister is resisting the recognition of our union, and is refusing to recognize any new unions.”
But regardless, they have started renting a space on Sherif Street in downtown Cairo to use as their headquarters.
While they have yet to meet, Sawy says the independent street vendors’ union seeks to protect their rights and interests, to organize vendors into zones, and provide health and social insurance for members.
If they have a union — thus, in a way, formalizing their trade — vendors would be willing to pay taxes and cleaning fees in exchange for the right to work in peace without being harassed by security, Sawy says.
“This will directly benefit us and the government, instead of our having to pay off police with bribes,” he says.
Sawy’s effort is not the first of its kind. In May 2010, under the auspices of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the General Union of Commerce Workers announced an initiative to unionize street vendors nationwide.
The commerce workers’ union claimed it had established seven regional vendors’ unions in Cairo, Ismailia, 6th of October City, Luxor and Banha. This general union had also claimed a membership of about 10,000 street vendors.
But Sawy says the general union’s initiative did not establish union committees — only loose leagues.
“As street vendors, we weren’t informed of its objectives or functions. This initiative has fizzled out,” he says.
This time around, he argues, “we’re organizing genuinely representative trade union committees, entities that are entirely independent from the state.”
The initiative was launched just over a month ago, with the assistance of lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sawy is collecting more notarized signatures and drafting the union’s bylaws with other members.
Union organizer and EIPR lawyer Ahmed Hossam says vendors from downtown Cairo, Helwan, Giza, Suez, Alexandria and Assiut are interested in joining.
However, Manpower Minister Khaled al-Azhary, a Muslim Brotherhood member, “is resisting the official recognition of new unions, be they independent or even state-controlled,” Hossam says.
“Very few vendors were ever interested in joining the state-controlled union back in 2010. These so-called vendors’ unions were paper-based, not street-based unions,” he explains.
The independent union’s objectives, Sawy says, are organizing street vendors, collective bargaining with the state, and designating and establishing markets for vendors.
“We seek to organize ourselves and stand up against the law that is being drafted against us. We won’t accept the imposition of LE5,000 fines, or the imprisonment of vendors for half a year,” Hossam says.
Moreover, the union will seek to set standards, and address and limit violations.
Integrating the trade
Instead of outlawing the trade, vendors argue the government should tax them, and are willing to cooperate as long as they have designated spaces to work freely.
Selling bags and luggage on the busy streets of Attaba in Cairo, Hassan Atef expresses such willingness.
“I am willing to pay rent, taxes and utilities if they [the government] would only provide me with a marketplace where I can make a living without being chased and harassed by police,” Atef says.
On Azbakiya Street nearby, Gamal Awad, a used clothes vendor, echoes that sentiment.
“Just give me a reasonably priced and strategic spot that I can rent, even if it is only one square meter. Then I will happily pay rent and taxes, and would also like to pay insurance for both me and my shop,” he says.
He thinks the government could reap billions annually if it would help establish such areas. But instead, Awad says, vendors pay thugs protection money for “the so-called ‘rent of their street.’”
Many have not managed to find another job, and for them, this is the only way to earn an honest living.
“Other than being a street vendor, what other employment opportunities do I have? Nothing,” cigarette vendor Mohamed al-Ruby says. “What am I to become — a pickpocket or a swindler? I don’t have what it takes to become a criminal, nor would I like to.”