Young, middle-class Egyptians compete with street vendors

There are about 6 million street vendors in Egypt, with women representing 30% and children 15%.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Out of need. An Egyptian street vendor sells traditional hats in Old Cairo. (Reuters)
Out of need. An Egyptian street vendor sells traditional hats in Old Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Rising poverty and unemployment in Egypt have turned street vendors from random social and economic phenomena to fixtures selling products hard to find in traditional stores.

A good portion of the population has come to depend on street vendors and their low prices that match consumers’ low incomes.

Street vendors are everywhere. A new generation of young, middle-class people seeking a source of income is giving them competition. Not long ago, society, especially middle-class university graduates, frowned on the occupation of street vendors. Now they don’t feel above working as street vendors themselves.

For social analysts, this trend is likely to carry wider societal consequences as university graduates turn to becoming survivalists instead of pursuing career ambitions or playing the usual role of the country’s elites as agents of social and cultural change.

Estimates by of the Federation for Economic Development Associations, state there are about 6 million street vendors in Egypt, with women representing 30% and children 15%.

About 10% of university graduates were pushed to work on the street for lack of employment opportunities in white-collar jobs. This upset in the social order has created an unusual atmosphere of tough competition for street space. The tensions between the new and old vendors reek of class struggle and social discord.

The Egyptian government has tried to control the situation. Acting on promises by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the government provided university graduates willing to set up their own street operations with special vehicles, wooden stalls, financial aid and bank loans.

Ahmad Samir, a street vendor for 30 years, said the government is biased in favour of vendors from the middle class. He wondered aloud: “The rich have always treated us as parasites. So why are they taking our sidewalks?” The class-conflict overtones are clear.

With the beginning of the summer vacation, students and graduates started swelling the number of vendors in the streets. They insist on equal access to public space.

Mohamad Mustapha is one of them. Every day after sunset, he drives his car equipped with a cappuccino machine to a market place in Nasr City, east of Cairo. He said of the other vendors: “They’re constantly making up quarrels with me. I graduated from the Faculty of Commerce two years ago and I couldn’t find a job so I came to this area and one of the vendors took me to the boss.”

The street boss is an individual who claims control of the sidewalks of some streets and rents them to vendors for $15 a month. Mustapha was clearly angry when he said he had refused to pay because the sidewalk belonged to everyone.

Parliamentarian Mohamad Abdul Ghani commented on the vital importance of street vendors to the poor classes, especially during times of rising inflation and poverty. He said they provide goods adequately priced to match the modest means of large sections of the population.

Aya Maher, professor of human resources at the German University in Cairo, said dealing with the phenomenon of street vendors does not require new measures or laws as much as studies of the new social realities, especially now that middle-class people have started joining this category.

Maher said the government’s approach to helping street vendors was too traditional and inefficient. As usual, the government spent millions of dollars on new market buildings that the vendors have shunned. Many of the solutions proposed were from people who do not represent the vendors, so the vendors do not abide by them.

Experts proposed that authorities should help vendors organise and create their own representation structures. These structures can negotiate with the government, organise the profession and guarantee everybody’s compliance with the official solutions and measures because they will be the fruit of a participatory planning and development process.