Entrepreneurs of the revolution: jockeying for livelihood and security in post-Arab Spring Cairo

In the context of lax policing in the aftermath of the Arab spring, Cairo’s affluent neighbourhoods have seen the incursion of new ‘street entrepreneurs ’ from the city’s poorer areas and outskirts. Educated, business-savvy and fleet of foot, they articulate a new sense of entitlement that blends Tahrir Square’s calls for change with the ‘moral economy’ rhetoric of Nasser’s original revolution

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
31 May 2012

Flinging open the window on my first morning back in Cairo after some months away, I stand for a few seconds in a state of utter incomprehension. On every previous visit this has always been a special ‘coming home’ moment for me, as I breathe in once again the scene, well-loved from my childhood, of the quiet garden of our ground-floor flat in a faux-Moorish Heliopolis block.

Flinging open the window on my first morning back in Cairo after some months away, I stand for a few seconds in a state of utter incomprehension. On every previous visit this has always been a special ‘coming home’ moment for me, as I breathe in once again the scene, well-loved from my childhood, of the quiet garden of our ground-floor flat in a faux-Moorish Heliopolis block. This time, however, my field of vision is overwhelmed by a new food venture that seems to have taken over the entire pavement outside. Large beach umbrellas draw the eye to a brightly coloured cart, gaily festooned with bright rows of oil, vinegar and pickle jars, and hung with vivid green buckets of spring onions. Beneath them aish baladi (flatbread) is piled high alongside the biggest ful (stewed fava beans – Egypt’s most popular dish) pot I have ever seen

Vendors underneath umbrellas

The cast-iron railings of my rickety garden fence have been turned into hoardings for placards advertising the street cafe to be open for business, the crumbling concrete base lined with well-worn cushions on which rows of customers – mainly workers on the way to their daily labour – now sit to eat their breakfast. Business is evidently humming, and in the middle of all the bustle stands the commanding figure of the café owner, vigorously ladling ful into bowls which his two child-workers ferry to the eager customers – until one of them wriggles his skinny frame through the railings and runs to my garden tap, which I now see spouts an unauthorised hose to replenish the street café’s two large water barrels. Coming to my senses, I yell at the boy to get out of my garden and stop stealing my water – he gazes at me in astonishment, before scampering back to tell his master of the new arrival on the scene.

Before long my front doorbell rings, and Imam, the owner-manager of the new facility, comes to introduce himself. I am instantly struck by how different he looks from the street peddlers who have worked Cairo’s teeming roads for as long as I can remember. Instead of the poor working-man’s ‘galabeya and stubble’ look, traditionally adopted by the city’s numerous cart-pushers and tray-carriers, Imam is clean-shaven and neatly attired in an office worker’s shirt and slacks (with the addition of a white apron to guard again splashes and stains). He is courteous and non-threatening, explaining that his café is only there from 6am to 1pm (though he doesn’t mention that he takes the liberty of taking my water and storing his kit in my garden overnight!), and telling me that if it wasn’t for this business he would have no way of feeding his family back in Fayoum (an oasis town some 100km from Cairo). Evidently educated, and by his own account forced by economic adversity to take to street vending, he immediately puts me in mind of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street-vendor whose self-immolation was the spark which first lit the flame of revolution for the Arab Spring. We decide to talk further in the coming days.

Hardly has Imam left to return to his ‘workplace’ than the doorbell rings again – it is my upstairs neighbour Mai, come to welcome me back, but more urgently to impress upon me the need to do something about this unwelcome addition to the neighbourhood. “I can’t understand what’s got into people,” she says, rolling her eyeballs in frustration. “You need to find a way to put a stop to this vandalism. My nephew Khaled says he knows the precise words you have to use when filing a police report – that’s the only way of getting those lazy officials to take action!”

Later that evening, going out to get provisions from the grocer whom I have known since childhood, I see that it is not only my fence that been commandeered. Around the corner, the railings of another street-front property have been taken over to support a ‘night market’ style jewellery stall, complete with its own generator, bright lights and candy-floss machine, stylishly branded (in English) as ‘Tropicana’.

Brightly-lit jewelry stand

The owner turns out to be Hassan, who is also young, neatly dressed, clean-shaven and evidently well educated. He tells me that every evening he puts up his stall, often against a different fence, to catch what passing trade he can from Heliopolis’ affluent residents out for their evening stroll. Further down the road my eye is drawn to a brightly polished blue car which seems to have been deliberately parked at right-angles to all the others crowding the pavement-edge, on which are displayed for sale a range of stylish sunshades (male styles on the bonnet, female on the roof), all under the watchful eye of Ali who once again looks (young, clean-shaven), dresses (jeans and neatly pressed shirt), and talks (educated) more like his intended customers than any traditional street peddler. Ali tells me that he drives his car out every evening, parking in a different spot in one of Cairo’s more affluent districts. He is unabashed in explaining to me that these days it is only through this form of itinerant street-selling that he can find a way of trying to make ends meet, and cheerfully agrees when I ask if I might take his photograph.

Ali sitting on hit car bonnet

Over the coming days, as I take taxis to visit friends in other areas of town, I am struck by the sheer number of similar street ventures that appear to have sprung up in the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods such as Zamalek and Maadi, the residential and commercial districts representative of Egypt’s professional classes and well-connected families. There seem to be hundreds along 26th July street (one of Cairo’s major thoroughfares) alone. A gendered aspect also comes to light as I notice the number of women, many of them anonymised - perhaps deliberately? -  in full niqab (Islamic face and body covering) outfits, who weave through the endless traffic jams hawking boxes of paper tissues. This phenomenon, far removed from the set-piece political rallies of Tahrir Square, is not something which seems to have been noticed by the press and other commentators. Informal street commerce has, of course, always been one way for the poor of Cairo to make ends meet. Yet the appearance in affluent neighbourhoods of this new class of hard-up but educated, mobile, business-savvy street-entrepreneurs – and the better-off local residents’ reactions to them – seems to me to provide a vivid illustration of how livelihoods and security have become primary and urgent battlegrounds in Egypt’s transition to an uncertain post-Arab Spring future.

The causes behind their appearance are readily apparent. On the one hand, the economic slowdown which followed the upheavals of January 2011 shows no sign of abating, and, if anything, seems steadily headed towards more general economic collapse (with tourism, commerce and investment all heavily affected). Increasing numbers of Egyptians accordingly find themselves having to turn to informal trading simply to bring in some money for daily essentials, which themselves seem to be in increasingly erratic supply. On the other hand, the very public ‘withdrawal from the streets' of the police has opened up space, in the literal sense, for denizens of the city’s poorer quarters, as well poorer migrants from outside the city, to move into the previously well-protected areas of affluence where buyers have more money, and can more easily be persuaded to part with it.

For the better-off residents of these previously-insulated areas, as exemplified by my neighbour Mai, the arrival in their midst of ‘outsiders’ from ‘poverty-stricken communities’ is seen as a distinct threat, and a symptom of both a general absence of public order and a profound lack of any sense of national direction. Rather than bringing to mind the economic factors which inspired the call for change in the first place, the new street entrepreneurs are typically characterised as baltagayya (thugs or hoodlums – the very same word used by the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square for the armed gangs who set upon them, often with savage violence, in the run-up to the overthrow of Mubarak), who are taking advantage of fawda wa’ sawra (chaos and revolution – the two words harmonize in Arabic) to turn any passing opportunity to their own advantage. A term commonly used for this, in a derogatory way, is fazlaqa – implying a way of unscrupulously taking advantage of circumstances and of playing the system. And their presence on the scene is taken to provide all the evidence one might need to confirm that the revolution has degenerated into sawrit il ash’waiyaat - ‘a revolution of the slums’.

But talking to Imam, Hassan, Ali, and a small number other street-sellers like them with whom I was able to engage during my journeys around the city, I was left in no doubt that, unsurprisingly, the new class of street-entrepreneurs have a radically different self-image. Their justification - and indeed vindication - of their unlicensed activities appears to rely on three distinct through related discourses. The first is evident in the manner in which, when speaking of themselves, they often seem consciously to echo the mould-breaking discourse of the young, educated protestors who first lit the spark of rebellion in Tahrir Square: the sense of Egypt’s educated youth seizing the moment to break free of suffocating paternalist dominance, of find their own voice, and of daring to take matters into their own hands for the realisation of their aspirations for a better future. The second is indicated by the ways in which they mirror the ‘stand on your own two feet, pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ models of self-starting, self-reliant economic behaviour lauded during the neo-liberal Mubarak era: in this context, fazlaqa becomes a positive not a negative posture, a street-savvy knack for ‘seizing the main chance’ to hustle, make some money, and to better oneself in the face of an uncaring world. And yet underpinning this, and in many ways restoring the balance, is the way in which they refer to their actions in terms of opening new channels to provide hard-pressed ordinary people with their daily needs at affordable prices – echoing the yakul we yi’akelni (‘feed oneself by feeding others’) ‘moral economy’ principles of the early years of Nasser’s socialist revolution.

As the days pass my acquaintance with Imam and his team deepens. The two boys are affectionately known as Bilya (‘marbles’) and Ota (‘cat’). Though neither can be more than 10 years old, they run, fetch, carry and wash dishes all morning long, discharging their duties with energy and cheerful self-assurance – the latter best evident, perhaps, in the way in which they repeatedly readjust the angle of the baseball caps which they wear, jauntily reversed, all through the working day. The only time available for them to be children seems to be first thing in the morning, when freshly delivered sacks of aish baladi are used for impromptu bouts of pillow-fight horseplay. At the end of the long shift, when Imam sits them down for their daily meal, their skinny legs, feet dangling in torn slippers, barely reach the ground – a vivid reminder of quite how young they are, and of the many facets to the ‘moral economy’ which Imam is developing. All of which deepens within me a growing moral dilemma of my own. On the one hand, the last thing I want to do is to knock this latter-day ‘Bouazizi’ off his feet, to deprive his team (however under-age) of the livelihood they are working so hard - and smartly - to achieve, or to disrupt their working class customers’ newfound access to affordable staple food. On the other, I need to maintain harmony with my neighbours, who have been growing increasingly pressing in their demands that, in the face of ever-growing uncertainty and social instability, I should reclaim an established sense of public order by making an official complaint to the police.

A visit to the local police station, accompanied by my lawyer, does not do much to help me resolve this dilemma. The place appears the usual bastion of indifferent bureaucracy. When my lawyer seeks confirmation of the correct format for isbat hala (a well-known official phrase, ‘establishing the case’), the uniformed officer behind the desk dismissively indicates that we can use whatever words we like – it will be his prerogative to record our words in the formal language of the State. His indifference confirms something which I have begun to suspect from the number of uniformed customers whom Imam, on a daily basis, seems to treat to free ful breakfasts – namely that one of the ways in which he keeps his business going (by securing access to a prime retail location) is through a network of petty bribery and tazbibat (alliances). It is only when, as advised by Mai’s nephew,  I bring out my British passport and invoke my dual nationality, that the officer seems moved to take any meaningful action, telling my lawyer how bringing Western forces to bear witness to the daily fawda is bad for the reputation of Egypt. When I ask him how he envisages the rule of law and order re-materialising, he replies, with a wave of the hand, that all measures to restore order will only be enacted, at one go, once hebit ildawla - the legitimacy of the State - is restored.

The serious prospect of any such restoration of public order is, however, viewed by my friends and neighbours with deep cynicism. They describe the hotly contested race for the korsi (Presidential seat) as having descended into nothing but film action, i.e. a movie with lots of set-piece fight scenes, but no serious plot or meaning, as personal bickering between the candidates grows ever more strident, and new gossip and revelations emerge daily about their personal lives and conduct. The daily film action political shenanigans are seen as badly out of step with ordinary people’s concerns that prioritise the need for the restoration of public order and viable livelihoods. Indeed, the entire political process is widely interpreted as a conspiracy by the forces of the ancient regime to undermine the objectives of the revolution. Much of this criticism is voiced in the form of a daily stream of freshly minted satirical jokes in keeping with Egypt’s inimitable political humour or angry graffiti which mocks and turns back on itself the Supreme Military Council’s dark muttering that the daily fawda (chaos) is caused not by their own ineffectiveness, but by ‘sinister hands’ and ‘third parties’ from outside  e.g. the “Real Hidden Hand” anti-military graffito below.

Grafitti stencil of a sinister face with Arabic script below

Eventually it is the serving boys at my grocer’s who help me find a way of resolving my dilemma. Explicitly quoting the Nasserist moral economy principle of akl eish - livelihood and the meeting ordinary people’s basic needs -  they ask why I don’t simply have the fencing reinforced, so that Imam can continue to conduct his business on the public street, and my neighbours can feel reassured that the block of flats has been protected. A civil contractor devises an elegant engineering solution for me, designing panels of light chain-link mesh which, when painted dark green and welded to the inside of the cast-iron railings, provide a raised, though transparently unobtrusive, boundary between the street and the garden, between the commercial and the residential, between the public and the private. Local residents emerging from the nearby mosque after Friday prayers stop to look at the new addition to the street landscape, and express their approval of the win-win solution that has been found.

As I pack for my return to London I again look out of my window, and through the new fencing see Imam’s street enterprise thriving just as vigorously, if not more so than, the first morning when I was so taken aback. After getting back I hear through phone calls with the neighbours and other friends that, with profits soaring to several thousand Egyptian pounds a day, Imam has even found contacts in his ever-expanding customer base who want to help him take over an established ful restaurant which has grown notorious for serving its customers ayy kalam (rubbish) ful. It seems that the next chapter may be about to open for this ‘entrepreneur of the revolution’.


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData