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Stability Sandwiches: the control of street entrepreneurs in Sisi’s Cairo

The post-Sisi drive to restore and sanitize public space in Cairo is as much about keeping disadvantaged and vulnerable groups ‘in their place’ within the social order as about restoring stability.

Immediately after the removal in 2013 of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Government, one of the newly re-instituted military regime’s first moves was a tat’hir (purification) programme to purge Cairo’s streets and public spaces of all traces of fawda wi sawra (revolutionary chaos). This involved not only sweeping up the litter and debris from all former protest sites, and painting over the plethora of posters and revolutionary graffiti covering many of the city’s “Walls of Freedom”. It also included clearing away the revolution’s ‘human detritus’ - the protestors, squatters, and the large numbers of predominantly young and aspiring Egyptians who, faced with the collapse of the economy in the post-Mubarak turmoil, had taken advantage of the disappearance from the streets of most of the police to move into street-trading - hawking anything from cheap plastic jewelry and modish sunshades to snacks and nibbles..

Street art of the Egyptian revolution. Egyptian Chronicles. All rights reserved.

These upstart “Entrepreneurs of the Revolution” had established their vigorous commerce a la valise presence as a new post-revolutionary reality in the everyday life of many of Cairo’s commercial and more affluent residential districts.

On my first post-Arab Spring return trip to my family home in Egypt in 2011, I had discovered one such entrepreneur colonising the pavement along the railings to my back garden, conducting a flourishing street café business selling ful (stewed fava beans – Egypt’s most popular dish).

Imam, as he soon introduced himself to me, found that the popularity andsuccess of his street business gave him an undisputed ism (‘name’ and commercial reputation) in the neighbourhood. For this reason, his abrupt disappearance in the summer of 2015 was as surprising as his appearance had been 4 years previously. On this visit, as I flung my window and shutters open on my first morning back in my childhood flat, I was greeted by the unusual tranquillity of an almost bygone era. All traces of Imam’s business had gone: not only the milling crowds of customers, but also all the clutter and paraphernalia of his street café, along with the broken down bus and four battered cars which he had ‘parked’ to permanently reserve his roadside slot.

At first I assumed that he must have been among the many street traders whom the military authorities had offered the stark choice of either ceasing business altogether, or else moving en masse into an approved government location in a former sports stadium selected primarily for its ease of policing and control. However it did not take long for me to find out from local shop workers that Imam had instead chosen to bring his life as a street-vendor to an end by regularising his business within a rented mahal (shop). He was now, as one of the locals put it to me with a broad grin, selling sandwichat il Istiqrar (“Stability Sandwiches”) – a satirical reference to Imam’s having ‘gone straight’ by invoking the Sisi’s regime favourite propaganda theme of “Stability”.

Imam’s choice of new location is in a nearby souq (shopping area), strategically located at the junction of one of Cairo’s arterial tramlines. It is home to many of the neighbourhood’s established food suppliers including Heliopolis’ oldest baladi bread bakery, a fish stall, a local dairy and cheese shop, a coffee shop famous for seducing the entire street with its powerful aroma of roasted beans, as well as shops selling Egyptian biscuits, nuts, dried fruits and boiled sweets. Other than a huge new red banner emblazoned Imam El Fayoumi (Imam from Fayoum – an oasis town some 100 km from Cairo), very little else appears to have changed between Imam’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ incarnations. It is as if the progression has necessitated taking all his colourful and somewhat tatty street paraphernalia –his cart, pots and pans, rickety tables and chairs, and even the faded shaabi (common, lower class) beach umbrellas - and setting them up all over again on the pavement outside his new mahal, providing a colourful contrast to the dilapidated shop fronts along the arcade. Within the one room which completes his new establishment, the walls have been painted a deep, dark crimson, giving the interior a somewhat makeshift atmosphere.

Imam is instantly recognizable by his grubby apron and the central position he commands at his ful cart on the pavement. Taking breakfast orders on his mobile phone with one hand, with his other he is vigorously ladling beans into individual enamel dishes and polythene takeaway bags, mashing them up and spooning on oil, and other dressings – all with the theatrical gestures typical of his craft. The customers in and around his new mahal seem to me to be sparser than the crowds who thronged his former pavement café. But he nevertheless seems to have increased his staff. Gone is the pair of skinny, relentlessly over-worked child labourers of his former street days, and in their place is a new team of strapping teenagers brought in from Fayoum, dressed in uniforms in the colours of the Barcelona football team, their swagger completed with sporting baseball caps worn stylishly back to front.

Imam greets me with a huge smile and a warm handshake, insisting I return at the end of the shift for a catch-up. His initial comments reflect pride in his new establishment:

“I started min mafish (from nothing), leaving my home town in Fayoum at the age of seven – to find myself in the world as a ragil bita’ ful (ful man). Ful became my san’a (trade). Now I’m thirty-three, so its taken me a good twenty-six years to acquire these four walls.”

Yet almost immediately, Imam expounds on some of the complications involved in the progression from his former precarious street existence to his more established current position. He describes how although the saving grace of his new premises is the safe storage provided for his equipment during the night, the hard grind of akl eish (‘eating bread’ ie making a living) is forcing him to work hours just as long, if not, longer than during his street days. Harakit il souq (the dynamic of the market) remains sluggish, and Egypt’s economic recovery continues to be slow, so he has been forced to divide a long working day into two shifts offering different services: from 4am – 4pm his establishment operates as a traditional ful shop, but from 5pm – 12pm the tables and chairs are moved inside (and the dark walls suddenly make sense) as it is transformed into a Cairo ahwa (café), complete with communal shisha (hubblebubble) smoking facilities and satellite TV, where football matches provide the main draw and attraction for social gatherings of local and passing male customers.

He describes how his cost base has risen sharply. Official charges for the commercial rents and rates he now has to pay (in contrast to the ‘free’ accommodation and water he used to benefit from when operating from the pavement at the end of my garden) constitute new burdens. Commercial rents in the relatively upmarket souq to which he has relocated are reputed to vary between 7,000 to 15,000 Egyptian Pounds (equivalent to £700-1,500) a month – compared to the going rate of 4 Egyptian pounds for a bowl of ful, or an evening shisha. Water and electricity bills, as well as business taxes, add other significant (and rising) costs before he can turn any kind of profit. Less visible is the pressure to deploy shatara (streetsmart guile and cunning) over credit – an imperative for any successful business in the souq. This involves not only obtaining credit from suppliers and extending it to regular customers, but also more subtle, sometimes dubious, stratagems, such as striking back-door deals with the local supermarkets and traffic wardens, to cover potential fines for their customers who park illegally in the street when shopping, so that they can be attracted to his ful cart on their way out. Even darker and more hidden costs include the backhanders he needs to continue to pay to the extensive and complex network of officials and security men who previously assisted him to secure his illegal position in the public space of the street, and continue to demand sabuba (payoffs), despite his regularised location. Imam tries to take a laidback approach to these demands:

 “Let’s not talk about the usual political stuff – we can just say that, as the youth of this country, our thought is that we want our situation to be kwayissa (good), and our country a kwayissa place to live. It’s why I made a point of paying the exorbitant rents to become multazim (legitimate). When I was on the street my entire livelihood was solidly dependent on keeping the muwazafin (civil servants, officials) mitzabatin (sweet). But all of us are affected these days when the economy is frozen and nobody is keeping proper working hours. The same forces make a habit of creeping up again - and that translates into trouble (implying blackmail). As a law-abiding trader, I expect the municipality to give me some space. So their just turning up to help themselves constitutes a breach of justice. Anyway, my personal policy is to get over these hassles without getting into fights, so I just pay them off.” 

As well as drastically increased costs, Imam also finds himself having to deal with significant shifts in his client base brought about by his new location and business model. His aim remains, as it was on the street, to attract customers (both phone-in and walk-in) from kul il mustawayyat (“all walks of life ”, underlining the diversity and inclusive spirit of his client base), so that the resulting business buzz gave him a high degree of visibility and a strong ism presence in the market. But both his visibility and his ism (name and reputation) have clearly dipped since his move, for two distinct albeit related, reasons. The first reflects the community’s hostility towards Imam’s Fayoumi teenage waiters. He may have brought them in from a town only 100km away from Cairo, but to the locals (market traders and customers alike) they remain migrant ‘rustics from the sticks’ - while the child labourers he previously employed had at least been local urchins. The second reason relates to perceived changes in the class and gendered features of his enterprise. By also operating as an evening café, his business is seen as a distinctly more ‘masculine’ space than the comparatively gender-neutral environment of his former street operation. This has deterred his female customers from coming to his new premises, all the more so since many of his new male customers are seen as labbat (yobs, good for nothings) who give his establishment an insalubrious air by hanging around smoking and laughing noisily late into the night. 

Compounding his problems with increased costs and a dwindling customer base, Imam also finds himself having to face significantly increased competition. The most immediate threat comes from the waves of Syrian refugees who have moved into many Cairene neighbourhoods to escape the turmoil of their country’s civil war – sometimes in concentrations sufficient for whole streets in affluent areas to be informally renamed as El Sharei El Suri (Streets of the Syrians). And whereas even a year ago official and government-supporting TV stations characterised Syrian refugees as a menace, more recently political capital has been sought by recasting them as the vanguard of the hordes of ‘foreign investors’ promised to arrive to take advantage of Egypt’s restored istiqrar (stability) and purportedly revived economy. 

As well as drawing strength from their tight familial and clan networks within the diaspora, the new Syrian food shops have been astute in their marketing, emphasising through their packaging and displays that the food both sold and produced on their own premises is nidif (clean). This is important not only in view of current public health scares about contaminants in foodstuffs from Egyptian factories, but also as an astute verbal echo of Sisi Government propaganda lauding the post-coup tat’hir programme. Thus, in contrast to the cheerful and chaotic clutter of Cairene grocery or food outlets, Syrian shops typically display neat rows of clean, shiny new jars piled with olives, pure virgin olive oil, and pickles. Traditional cooked foods are meticulously wrapped in transparent polythene containers, all referred to as prepared heik fil beit (‘back at home’) produce. This distinctively Levantine Arabic colloquialism evokes wholesome domestic female labour undertaken by the womenfolk of the shop owners’ families. The owners in turn maintain a prominent, conservatively dressed presence on the premises as they closely supervise the smartly groomed and polite young bachelors from their families who directly serve the customers. The visible and reassuring male presence combines with the complete absence from the premises of any of their womenfolk to reinforce the self-perceptions and aspirations of the souq and its female customers (local housewives and working shop girls alike) as to what married life and an enterprising working life should be like.

The Syrian shops have thus rapidly developed their own ism for being not only nudaf (clean) but also muhtaramin (respectable, in the conservative sense of being ‘proper’ and ‘morally correct’). And these upmarket attributes are, of course, the precise opposite of the class, gendered and moral associations attached to Imam’s new establishment. The marketing payoff was clearly evident in the higher prices which the Syrian merchants were successfully charging, as well as in their higher volumes of trade.

Aside from higher costs, new competitors and his customers’ perceptions of his new establishment which seem to be working against him, Imam is also having to fight a subtle, but nevertheless immediately palpable, sense of discrimination from the more long-established traders and businessmen of the ahl el souq (‘family’ of the souq). The traders comprising the ahl are astute social classifiers, constructing and operating an intricate internal hierarchy which governs the day-to-day social distinctions and commercial operations of their souq. Traditionally it had been conservative social criteria such as ‘origin’ and ‘family’ which had valorised the rank and hierarchy of a particular establishment’s ism within the ahl el souq. More recently, in line with the neoliberal trends of late Mubarak-biznis (business) Egypt, it is the power of hard cash which moves a community of traders to reach consensus on their internal hierarchical order, and in particular on designating the ‘family elders’ who keep the peace. Thus currently at the top of the pile is a successful butcher who has diversified into a range of subsidiary commercial enterprises including a thriving real estate agency, and who personally holds the leases to an entire street of shops – supported by a tier of craftsmen whose networks and knowledge of the market enable them to extend effortlessly from one business stream and location to another, steadily drumming up increased profits from new sources.

 As the latest entrant, Imam is at the bottom of the pecking order according to both the traditional and the newer criteria. His origins are provincial, as his shop banner “Imam el Fayoumi” explicitly declares – and he is equally upfront about how he started life min mafish (from nothing). He is also still at the early stages of building his new business, struggling to meet his increased costs and reduced customer demand. And he is finding that, by moving into a mahal, many of the souq’s deeply rooted social prejudices and inequalities – which were kept somewhat at bay during his more liminal, yet also more prosperous, street trading days - have resurfaced and intensified in the ahl el souq’s discriminatory calibration of his new ism:

“The traders around here see me as a weaker opponent, an outsider moving into their space. Many of them, including the new faces, are nas teqila (‘heavies’) with hard cash. Their shops are pathways to circulate their cash in the system, so even if they don’t see a customer for a week, it doesn’t make any difference. They have other resources on which to survive. But ehna mish wilad hadd (we are sons of nobodies), with no diyya (support, backup). Inequality runs deep here, and it’s considered outrageous that with my background I nevertheless make something of my life.”

 Imam’s lack of any diyya is exacerbated by his solitary position as the only former street trader in his new location. Unlike the street traders who moved into the government-sponsored sports stadium, he has no support network on which to draw when it comes to getting a ‘voice in the system’, or resisting undue pressure. This has left him vulnerable when dealing with the forces (social, commercial and official) stacked against him in his chosen souq

It thus seems clear that, despite the trappings of commercial progress in Imam’s business trajectory, the transition is far from complete – and his economic position remains just as precarious, perhaps even more so, than when he was running his street café. This leads me to reflect on his motivation for moving in the first place. From enquiries among local neighbours and shopkeepers I soon get a sense of how ‘pull’ factors were heavily outweighed by some heavy ‘pushes’. I was told, often with undisguised glee, how local residents had inundated the municipality with fierce letters of complaint that his folkloree (the English word taken into Arabic as a rather affected urban colloquialism) street café was disfiguring their comparatively affluent neighbourhood. A juicier twist was added when, at the reported ‘top level’ intervention of a retired Chief of Police whose flat overlooked Imam’s street business, the post-coup manager in charge of running the municipality was said to have received urgent orders min fuq (‘from above’) to yinadaf il sharei’ (‘cleanse the streets’). Another account had it that Imam had been evicted four times, before finally being threatened with five years in prison if he continued to squat in the street. 

As these conflicting accounts accumulated, I came to see Imam’s ‘expulsion’ from the neighbourhood as providing a prime example of how the post-coup regime’s drive to restore and sanitise the streets and public spaces of the city is not simply about restoring istiqrar (stability). It is as much about keeping disadvantaged and vulnerable groups not only ‘in their place’ within the social order, but also pushing them back into ‘their spaces’ within the city landscape, so that the relatively affluent no longer have to rub shoulders with them. Underlying all this seems to run an even deeper current of ‘punishing’ the Entrepreneurs of the Revolution for their temerity in ever having challenged the status quo in the first place. 

About the author

Leila Zaki Chakravarti is a Visiting Research Fellow in Anthropology at Goldsmiths, London University. Her recently published monograph exploring constructs of class, gender and religion within an export-orientated garment manufacturing factory in Port Said, Egypt was one of the three 2017 finalists in the BBC’s annual “Thinking Allowed” Ethnography Award competition. Her current research interests focus on constructs of masculinity within the workspaces of professional and amateur football, and the continuing compilation of ‘ethnographic snapshots’ of daily life in post-Arab Spring Egypt.

 


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