Chez Morsi : palace petitioners and street entrepreneurs in post-Mubarak Egypt

As soon as Egypt’s first democratically-elected Islamist leader moved into the Presidential Palace, the surrounding streets became thronged by huge unruly crowds waving petitions addressed to the new ruler. Alongside them appeared an army of street vendors vigorously peddling their wares. Both forms of street action represent ways under the new political order for the disadvantaged to claim social and economic redress for past neglect and injustice.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
1 October 2012

The first public appearance of Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected President could not have been more different from what the populace had been used to. Il-Rais (President) Mubarak’s increasingly rare ‘appearances on earth’ were occasions for public annoyance and cynicism. Roads would be closed off hours, even days, in advance, causing huge traffic jams for miles around; police and plain-clothes security would flood the area, gazing menacingly through their reflecting sunshades; until at last the Presidential limousine would speed by, its occupant hidden behind darkened bullet-proof windows. By contrast, Egypt’s newly elected Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President appeared suddenly, and without any security preliminaries, on the stage in full and clear view of the vast, jubilantly uncontrolled crowds which had gathered in Tahrir Square, the cradle of the Egyptian revolution. Standing behind only a minimal security detail, Mohamed Morsi mocked the bullet-proof vests of the two uniformed soldiers who had escorted him onto the stage, pulling up his jacket to show that all he had under it was a plain, white open-collared shirt (see below). His words made clear that the contrast with the ancien regime was intended to be both stark and deliberate: this new Muslim Brotherhood President was going to tear down the barriers of power, both physical and symbolic, between his person and his people.

President Morsi surrounded by body guards, opening his jacket to show his shirt.

President Morsi in his first public appearance

Protestors into petitioners

Morsi also flexed his newly-won administrative muscle by announcing the immediate holding of a public diwan il mazalem at the official Presidential Residence, declaring his door open to anyone with an urgent appeal. (Often rendered simply as “Ombudsman’s Office”, the resonant phrase diwan il mazalem might more accurately be translated as “Public audience Hall of the Official Righter of Wrongs” – something which I discuss further below). The following day news media showed il-asr (‘the palace’, as Mubarak’s imposing, previously heavily guarded Presidential residence in Heliopolis was popularly known) rapidly becoming the focus for an eager crowd, their numbers swelling by the hour, and pouring through the elegant Presidential gates to present their petitions until these were firmly closed against them (see below).

People trying to push through large doors, resisted by guards

Crowds at the gates of the Presidential residence

Watching the scene from Groppi’s (a well-known café across the road), I could see at first-hand how the uncontrollable crowd was taking over the road and causing traffic chaos. Behind them could be seen squads of security hastily sent out to wash away the political graffiti covering the area’s walls, much of it anti-MB - and frequently expressed with Egypt’s characteristic political humour, as in the alliterative slogan “Morsi stole the korsi (chair ie Presidential seat)”.

The scale of public gathering was such that ’andi Morsi, as the Presidential Residence rapidly became known to the thronging crowds (a term best translated through the French term ‘chez Morsi’, with its attendant evocation of both domesticity and hospitality – in deliberate contrast to the archaic formalism of both il-’asr and diwan il mazalem), came to seem almost to be replacing Tahrir Square as the prime public space of the Revolution. Partly this was the result of a ‘push’ factor, as the newly legitimised MB moved to claim the Square exclusively for its own. But a strong ‘pull’ factor also appeared to be in operation, as many protestors who had previously shouted their demands in Tahrir Square rushed across the city to re-cast these as petitions submitted via the ‘official’ channels which had been declared open. Talking to some of the crowd I found out that their petitions spanned a broad spectrum of issues including demands for new public housing and infrastructure development; an end to corruption and despotic workplace practices; invigorated social welfare provision; and enhanced employment opportunities. Often these were couched in specific and individual terms with the immediate aim often being simply to obtain an official Government receipt that the petition had been lodged – so that even if, under the current economic crisis, the Government delays on its declared welfare obligations, at least they have written confirmation that their case has been lodged for future action.

The phenomenon of the newly mobilised mutazalim, a term which can be given a neutral, administrative rendering as ‘petitioner’ – but which has strong emotional connotations , and might more accurately be translated as ‘seeker of redress for injustice suffered’,  gave rise to considerable discussion in the Egyptian media. Much of this was explicitly framed against a general public unease over the direction in which the Revolution was heading, as the euphoria following Mubarak’s enforced departure changed into a growing awareness that the day-to-day experiences of ordinary Egyptians were becoming dominated by increasing economic hardship and social dislocation – and that the transitional process had failed to take any definitive form. Political discussions between representatives of MB factions, Salafist (extreme Islamic) groups, leftists and revolutionary secularists appeared to focus almost obsessively on internal power struggles, exemplified through the personalities appointed ‘from above’ in extensive reshuffles of political and administrative appointees.

Within this context, one thread of discussion highlighted the political effects of seeking to re-define the sowar (revolutionaries) who had voiced their protest in Tahrir Square as mutazalimin (aggrieved petitioners). The most immediate effect is to invalidate the tenacity, endurance and determination of the protestors – many of them young – who risked their lives against all odds. At the same time, the protestors’ demand that a shared sense of muwatana (national citizenship) should serve as the prime driver and the chief criterion for the meaningful inclusion of the marginalised and disadvantaged within a society characterised by collective benefits, is obscured and negated by re-labelling them as a collection of diverse fi-at (special interest groups), each with different matalib (claims). However the political effects of diwan il mazalim impact not only on the protestors, but also on the institutions of the State. From a defensive stance (in the face of the virulent protests directed against it), the State moves to a pro-active role as the self-declared ‘righter of past wrongs’. Some TV political analysts (such as Amr Hamzawy) pointed out that this particular model would risk undermining the genuine opportunity the revolution presented for the State to pull together a wide range of resources, including the expertise available within professional bodies, in defining the transformation of its own infrastructure – thereby encouraging better, and even more innovative solutions than those which the protestors had originally demanded. Other commentators highlighted an unspoken apprehension that the invocation of the mutazalim shows that the Islamists’ mind-set shares commonalities with the narcissistic, self-congratulatory tone of the Mubarak years (with one political satirist even inaugurating “HE President Mohamed Morsi Mubarak’s Official Page” on Facebook), which were designed to create an illusion of democracy while reinforcing the self-image of the State as an non-transparent organisation, which dispenses its charity on cases it alone defines as worthy.

Morsi's image and arabic text

'President Mohamed Morsi Mubarak’s' unofficial 'Official' Facebook page

Political discussion also focused on the quasi-religious nature of the language being used. Within the politics of Islamism, moves such as the adoption of diwan il mazalem can readily be seen to involve discursive stratagems which embody the elected President as the ‘just Islamic leader’. According to this analysis, the MB’s use of religious language is not random, but rather forms part of a wider strategy to produce an alternative narrative to the revolutionary script, one which engenders its own logic of cause and effect. Some analysts have suggested that the skilful use of semantic tactics are intended to ikhwanit il-dawla (a term which rapidly gained circulation, understood in the sense of “to ‘Brotherhood-ise’ the State”), and even to strengthen the legitimacy of political Islam in the region. I found this apprehension over the use of quasi-religious language echoed in conversations with friends, neighbours and ordinary citizens. Sitting one day waiting my turn in a hair-dressing salon patronised by women within the vicinity of il asr, I was struck to hear a female hairdresser expressing her anger in no uncertain terms:

We lament the fate of the country, our country. My mind is filled with grief when my thoughts turn to the youth killed in state-led massacres. They sacrificed their lives so that we might lead better lives. Last night, when I heard them announce on TV that anyone who so much as raises a finger in protest will be flogged in public, my blood boiled – and mind you, I suffer from high blood pressure! I found myself thinking: can this be true? What and where does Morsi think il-asr is on a map? Is it a church with an apparition of Mother Mary, or a mosque in which the Prophet set foot, but which we, the ignorant people, happen not to notice? I suspect the model of Iran is brewing in their cooking pots, along with other ingredients of which we know nothing. Do you know what this means? It means that we (ie as women) do not exist. This salon does not exist. It’s a demolition job. This is not what anyone wants – is it now?

Street vendors as protestors

No sooner had many from amongst the protesting sowar of Tahrir Square repositioned themselves as mutazalim besieging il-asr, than a new group materialised just as rapidly alongside them to claim their own space ’andi Morsi. From my vantage point in Groppi’s I could see how the army of street vendors and pedlars who had previously taken over the fringes of Tahrir Square (and, after that, many of the capital’s streets and public spaces), had now moved to Heliopolis to keep the crowd supplied with a steady supply of drinks, daily necessities (including paper fans, tissues and the like) and a delectable array of traditional Egyptian street food. Indeed, amongst local residents it soon became known that ’andi Morsi was the place to go for ahla batata (the best roasted sweet-potato).

Street stall with jewelry on display and a 'Tropicana' sign

I have previously written on the ‘entrepreneurs of the revolution’ – predominantly young, street-smart Egyptians from poor neighbourhoods who, faced with the post-revolutionary collapse of both social provision and effective policing, have increasingly spread into the streets and boulevards of the cities’ more affluent areas, making what living they can from peddling anything and everything from clothing and fashion accessories to a wide range of street-food. Talking to some of the street vendors ’andi Morsi, I was struck anew by how self-aware and assertive they are, not only in identifying their street commerce a la valise activity as a means of realising what they consider to be their promised (but previously unfulfilled) entitlement for self-advancement, but also in ‘standing up to authority’ (in ways in which their parents’ generation never would have) by claiming their right to occupy previously prohibited public spaces as ‘the property of il-shaab (the people, the masses)’. The latter impetus finds its most visible – and controversial – form in downtown Cairo, where the elegant belle époque facades of many Government buildings (including the Supreme Court of Justice) have been transformed into showcases for displays of racy lingerie and other goods being sold by itinerant pedlars in almost total defiance of existing state regulations. A conversation with Ahmed, who has formed a street-corner venture with three of his friends deep-frying doughnuts from 7pm to 2am, and is only too happy to talk about his view of life, illustrates many of these points:

The streets are a major creator of jobs. It is down to a fighting spirit born of adversity. Before the uprising, we felt no sense of belonging or connection with the state, because only the wealthy seemed to live decent lives. If you come even for a brief visit to our neighbourhood, you would not accept how the simple, mundane stuff of life- like running water, sewage, even paved roads - are daily struggles. It’s a personal insult thrown in your face every single day. Whatever else we were offered, such as free state education, was irrelevant in the face of this lack of daily necessities.

I respect my parents, but they are simple people who were naive enough to be lured into the Nasserist dream, where the route to social mobility was through accepting state handouts - on condition that they never protest. I do not want to repeat that mistake. I’m not aggrieved at the loss of the education I could have had, but I‘m damned if I’m going to see my own children going that same way. So I’ve made up my mind to fight back. How can you grudge me a corner in the street? What would you rather I do – steal? sell drugs? or try to build an honest business?”

The revival of interest in, and demand for, traditional Egyptian street-foods which has been brought about by the new army of street vendors is seen by some commentators as a ‘mark of authenticity’ in post-revolutionary Egyptian culture, swinging the pendulum back from the recent plethora of hamburger joints and fried chicken outlets. Others have taken the manner in which the consumption of street food is public and ‘shared with strangers’ (rather than taking place behind the closed doors of private spaces) as representing a return to ‘roots of community’ in a society previously atomised into individual units. Both viewpoints might be thought to find concrete expression in the nocturnal consumer culture which has, following the revolution, sprung up in many of Cairo’s poorly lit streets, where makeshift night markets are patronised by youth from poorer neighourhoods for whom the streets have come to represent leisure spaces.

The explosive growth in the number of street-food vendors has also impacted on more established restaurants and food outlets, many of which derive their customer base from amongst the more affluent who, in the current climate of political and security uncertainty, are less likely to venture out to join in street-life leisure activities. Some have responded to the inevitable fall in demand by downsizing their staff (including skilled chefs), and instead providing home-delivery services of everyday dishes. Others, in an attempt to make the business more sha’abi (populist), have taken an ‘if you can’t fight them, join them’ approach and set up tables and chairs on the pavements – and even in the roads - outside their establishments (thus adding further to Cairo’s notorious traffic congestion).

Night scene: cafe tables and chairs encroach into a Cairo street. Two men sit chatting.

The residents of the affluent areas which have been affected by the street vendors do not look kindly on their activities, or, indeed, their presence – and look back to pre-revolutionary times when the Mubarak regime’s security apparatus would keep the poor and disadvantaged pinned within their own slums. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution the almost complete breakdown in meaningful policing meant that the migrant street-vendors virtually had free run of the city’s richer quarters. Following the elections, the police appear to have made some attempt to resume their functions, and have erected simple kiosks on many street corners. Most, however, are manned by simple police constables, who not only lack authority and stature to deal with enforcement issues, but are also, almost invariably, drawn from the same disadvantaged classes as the vendors whom they are supposed to be policing. The result is an unmistakeable class alignment between groups that share a similar experience of the ‘downtrodden’, as the police offer the vendors (and their customers) protection in return for small gifts of free food or cash – until, by and large, the police themselves are drawn into the populist spirit of the street’s economic and social activities, and their kiosks become stations for broadcasting Om Kalthom songs and other popular music (or even, in some instances, display windows for the vendors’ goods, even when these are such intimate items as ladies’ underwear).

Claiming redress for past injustice

Although the mutazalimin (aggrieved petitioners) and the street vendors are clearly engaging in very different forms of street action, both share a common objective of gaining socio-economic security in increasingly uncertain and difficult times. Their demands seek to narrow the structural economic disadvantages of families that were abandoned in the neo-liberal economic shakeup that marked the Mubarak years, their needs and claims having been declared irrelevant to the ancien regime’s definition of ‘worthy national goals’. At the same time, both forms of street action embody a sense of individual and collective entitlement, articulated in an assertive voice demanding the redress of past injustice and neglect. The new President’s attempts to reassure the public that the transition is in the hands of an elected majority, operating according to Islamic principles, has done little as yet to assuage the demands being voiced. It appears that the streets ’andi Morsi may be crowded with petitioners and vendors for some time yet.


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