Thursday, November 02, 2006

...On the dynamics of Egyptian living

Posted on 3arabawy

EGYPT: Urban poor turn to the street to make a living
31 Oct 2006 13:19:35 GMT
Source: IRIN

CAIRO, 31 October (IRIN) - The poor in Egypt's heaving capital city, Cairo, are increasingly turning to selling cheap products in the street as a means to survive despite its limitations, say specialists.

"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.

Severe limitations

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."



Basil Fawlty said...

Why don't they take their goods online? The virtual marketplace provides all the opportunities of a global market without the physical constraints of merchandising, overhead and labor.

Anonymous said...

there are too many bloggers talking about the dynamics and noone getting off their arse and doing something about it. you need to help your own people because noone else will.

Jester said...

And too many people with nothing to do with their time but leave hollow, rude, uninspiring and arrogant comments on bloggers' personal spaces. Anonoymous, you don't know me, and I can not fathom what gives you the right to tell me what to do. Thinking and critical analysis is the first step towards an informed consciousness which is what ultimately gives us choice. People of your mentality would have us brush aside the variegated nuances and diversity of our culture to march to the beat of some national agenda which they solely determine is "best". Shokran gazeelan, go preach your fascism somewhere else.

Deeeeeee said...

Do you have any idea whose fault this is? I mean, most of the people I know came into the world to find that that was the case... Do you think there's a possible solution to this hell hole? I know I don't really know what its like to live like those people mentioned in this entry, but when I'm at a traffic light and a man as old as my father comes up to me... begging and praying for me if I give him 50 piasters [around 8.5 cents], I wonder what can he possibly have gone through to accept living off begging and give up things like 'dignity', how can he go home at night to his kids and teach them morals, or are they too just a 'luxury', maybe that's what behind all the madness we see in the streets!

Jester said...

Dear Deeeeeee,

I just want to draw attention to the fact that the article is actually a peak into the culture of street peddlers in downtown Cairo, not beggars. I appreciate your honesty but I don't agree with your perspective. I don't think that a beggar necessarily chooses to forgo dignity, neither do I feel that begging necessarily implies a lack of dignity. True there are con artists who beg as a profession which is deplorable, more for its emotional blackmail than anything else, but given the drastic economic impoverishment of millions I can't judge anyone for begging. Some of these people don't have homes to go back to, and those who do and have children worry about what and how to feed them rather than what people like you and me might perceive them as.

I don't fully understand your reference to a hellhole, are you speaking of their situation as beggars or the city and the general break down of real human ties?

Deeeeeee said...

I was referring to beggars as an example to how messed up things have become (especially recently). I'm wondering about the causes... I do believe that begging implies lack of dignity, but I believe it has been triggered by lack of opportunity and need to survive, I mean the basics of life are food and shelter, they're not dignity and pride, and that same reason is why people have no time to bring up their children with morals and values, so they come into a world of lack of opportunity, with no morals... and voila! Chaos and incidents like those of Downtown last bairam! Like I said, I can only wonder what they go through that could make their lives that way!