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Ordering the Disorderly? Street Vendors and the Developmentalist State

[Gasmasks vendor near Tahrir Square. 23 November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim] [Gasmasks vendor near Tahrir Square. 23 November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim]

When President Mohamed Morsi issued his highly controversial extra-constitutional decree on 20 November, which he later partially annulled under mass public protest, he promised to use the extraordinary legislative powers it afforded him only within very limited boundaries. When he actually used these powers, he did so very quickly to pass law 105/2012 in the midst of what could be described, without too much exaggeration, as one of the most critical moments in Egypt’s modern history. Even the most seasoned political analyst could have been forgiven for naively assuming that this law must concern the imminent referendum on the highly controversial draft constitution which had polarized the country, or the role of the army in the economy. Interestingly enough, however, law 105/2012 was designed to increase punitive measures against street vendors. It raised penalties for violations enacted in law 33/1957, which to date has regulated the work of Egypt’s estimated five million street vendors, to three instead of one month prison sentence and a fine of five thousand instead of one thousand Egyptian pounds. Was this yet another one of Morsi’s seemingly endless blunders in recent weeks reflecting his total lack of engagement with political realities? Or is there more to be read into such a decision in terms of the nature of state-society relations, the economy and public space in the current revolutionary phase?

The 25 January mass uprising, the tumultuous eighteen days in Tahrir Square and the ensuing marches, mass protests, and occupations that have not ceased to grip the country ever since have done more than simply bring about the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and pose a challenge to those who have succeeded him. The new political culture that emerged in the wake of this revolution has, first and foremost, heightened the sense of an individual and collective quest for freedom and, consequently, has altered practices and perceptions about public space. The traditional policing of Egypt’s urban spaces—backed by the infamous emergency law, a huge police presence on the street and the sprawling high walls of gated communities and shopping malls—has long intimidated citizens and defined the limits of their entitlement to public space. Whether they were activists mobilizing against the regime, lovers seeking brief moments of intimacy, or the poor hoping for moments of respite from their grinding daily misery, Egyptians were physically barred from accessing public spaces. The sense of empowerment gained through taking to the streets over the last two years has not managed to negate the policing regime altogether but it has most certainly led to what many have since called the (re-)appropriation of public space. The millions who experienced the freedom of coming out onto the streets to protest, debate, and exchange ideas with fellow citizens whom they never had the opportunity to meet openly before could no longer be restrained by the same oppressive regime, at least not completely.

Naturally, however, the discovery of new opportunities and resources soon leads to battles over ownership and entitlement. Thus, the ability to (re)claim public spaces soon created heated debates over who should have access to which spaces, whom needs to be excluded and what the rules of engagement between fellow citizens should be. The warring political factions have exemplified this new battle in their bid to claim certain venues, not least of which the iconic Tahrir Square, as theirs. A cartoon that widely circulated on facebook in the aftermath of confrontations between forces for and against Morsi’s presidential decree over using Tahrir as the epicenter of their popular campaigns of mobilization pertinently reflected this conflict. The cartoon suggests a set of rules for a “Tahrir Timetable” where Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays are reserved for Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters while Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for “revolutionaries.” Finally, Friday is designated as a day for cleaning up, maintenance and the exchange of prisoners of “war.” However, since 25 January 2011, battles over ownership of and entitlement to public spaces have gone beyond the conflicts between warring political factions. The new possibilities of claiming public space have renewed deep-seated societal anxieties and lines of tension between different social and political groups. One pertinent example for such tensions was the question of women’s presence in public spaces and the routine harassment they suffered during and after the uprising. Other cases that exacerbated long-running anxieties concerned the place of other marginalized groups such as street children and street vendors.


[Top: “Tahrir Square schedule: Saturday, Monday, Wednesday—Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood; Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Revolutionaries; Friday—Maintenance, watering plants, collecting bird pellet bullets and teargas grenades, and exchange of prisoners. Bottom: “People’s “rise” is Saturday and Sunday, but our “rise” [renaissance] is unprecedented. Photo from “Motadayaat Ashaab Cool” Facebook Page]


From the early days of the uprising, street vendors flocked to Tahrir Square, where they created a thriving local economy that provided the millions of protestors who have subsequently descended on the square with affordable snacks and beverages. Whether families and groups of friends who came to join protests or to enjoy the sense of freedom and optimism exuding from the square, or die-hard fighters who made Tahrir their home, they all relied on street vendors instead of the unaffordable cafes and restaurants of downtown Cairo. With time, they were joined by more vendors selling all sort of merchandise, and they all soon spilled onto the pavements and streets of the whole downtown area.

Immediately following the fall of Mubarak, the military and successive governments have engaged in a campaign to evict Tahrir Square, not only of protestors but also of vendors. These attempts are meant to restore public order to the streets and more importantly to regain the image of a powerful state and of the “respectability” of Egyptian society, which, the logic goes, was being threatened by occupation of public spaces. The forcible removals invariably have resulted in violent clashes in which vendors and “thugs” (the two are often conflated/used interchangeably) are always blamed for the violence. The state authorities’ efforts to evict vendors from Tahrir and the surrounding streets have been only a part of an overall, long-term, nationwide campaign to crack-down on a phenomenon, to which people attribute a host of evils including street chaos, traffic congestion, lawlessness and above all the “tarnishing” of Egypt’s “civilized image” (mazhar hadary). Shop owners and middle class city residents have supported such efforts. For shop owners, street vendors are evidently a source of threat because they sell affordable merchandise, literally at their doorstep. While residents of middle-class neighborhoods in the city see street vendors as a menace because they impede the flow of traffic and clog the pavements making it impossible for pedestrians to move about easily, there is also another, almost “moral,” dimension to their sense of anxiety which is evoked by the poverty and disorder embodied by the street vendors. Needless to say, the real reasons for Cairo’s horrific traffic and street chaos cannot be blamed on street vendors. They are to be found in the absence of an effective system of affordable public transportation, in poor road networks, in major blunders in urban planning and in a system of crony capitalism. However, residents of Egypt’s privileged communities are intent on eradicating the “uncivilized” and morally threatening presence of street vendors using any justification. In this, they repeatedly call on the police, which they see as their natural ally in their fervor against lawlessness and disorder, to crack down on vendors operating in their neighborhoods.   

Morsi’s bewildering law has come as a desperate step in a long battle to eliminate street vendors. For example, in March 2011 military and civilian police forces violently evicted street vendors in Ramses Square arresting many vendors, some of whom were later tried and sentenced under military courts. More recently, in October 2012, a twenty-two year old fruit vendor died in violent clashes during a raid by the police in an attempt to clear Giza square of all vendors. This led to a protest by his fellow vendors in front of the Public Prosecutor’s office demanding retribution.

This ongoing battle is neither new nor unique to Egypt. It has very much been an integral part of the building and functioning of the developmentalist state since the 1950s and 60s in most developing countries. The developmentalist state in newly independent nations, and the economic order which backed it in the second half of the twentieth century, promoted a modernization project based on rationality, efficiency, Western technology and methods of management, and above all, order. As such, it regarded the informal economy and street vendors at its heart as antithetical to the state’s project and existence. Street vendors epitomized everything that modernization was not: inefficient, chaotic, parasitical and disorderly. The image of modern, well-planned, Western style cities was threatened by the association of poverty, lawlessness and chaos engendered by traditionally-clad and traditionally-operating vendors. Vendors wandered the streets, had no fixed trading places and followed no rules, which a modern, civilized society ordained.

Zygmunt Bauman captured the essence of modernity by describing it as “order as obsession.” Order has served, above all, an essential function in reproducing the prevailing economic system. In a modern, capitalist system, the large corporation working on the principles of economics of scale, the firm and even small (yet organized) entrepreneurs are recognized as partners and agents of modernization because they fit a model that is based on centralization of production and distribution. Street vendors, on the other hand, do not pay taxes, keep no records and are impossible to factor into general economic indices such as GDP and, hence, are detrimental to national economic planning. More importantly, firms and large corporations also enshrine the regulatory role of the state in managing relations of production. The state as an “ideal collective capitalist” provides the political preconditions for a “healthy” process of accumulation by controlling labor-capital relations in favor of capital interests.

However, despite the efforts of states of newly-independent nations to incorporate the informal economy into an ordered system and to eradicate street vending, both have continued to thrive independently of the state across developing countries. The failure of central planning, the underdeveloped private sector and other economic realities of these countries has meant that more traditional sectors have had to offer solutions and satisfy the needs of millions excluded from the project of modernization—needs that the same developmentalist state has failed to meet. This is true now in the twenty-first century as it was in the early decades of independence. For one thing, the informal sector continues to provide jobs for those entering the labor market every year and who have no chance of finding employment in the formal sector.

Over the decades, the meaning of development, its definitions and the approaches employed to realize it by national governments have all dramatically changed. The transformation in the meaning of development has always gone in step with the growing needs of the global economic order. Accordingly, many national governments in the global south have had to alter many of their earlier assumptions about development and the policies towards achieving it on the basis of developments in the global economy. The paradox now is that the recent needs of the global capitalist system have led to instituting processes of informality. Changes in the configuration of systems in the manufacturing and other sectors have given rise to new logics of production. The “global assembly line,” for instance, relies on networks of outsourcing, subcontracting and labor market flexibilization. This system, however, invariably creates more labor exploitation, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and more job insecurity.

The subsequent critique of this development and its impact on the lives of millions of poor people worldwide have led major financial institutions to devise policies which actually promote more forms of informality in order to improve the lot of those working within it with the assistance of state intervention. Neoliberal policies promoted by the Washington Consensus and obediently endorsed by governments in the global south, including Egypt, now ironically promote small entrepreneurship through microcredit and other borrowing and training schemes as the cornerstone for propping up the economy. As a result, policies emanating from economic institutions towards the informal economy, for sometime now, have been aimed at “organizing” the sector but in order to promote and not to eradicate it.

In the context of Egypt, “organization” has always assumed a different meaning depending on who is talking. While unionizing labor is a great weapon against exploitation, the way Egyptian officials understand “organizing” is very different to that of workers. For a truly corporatist state like Egypt, organizing labor has never been about harnessing the collective bargaining power of workers, but rather about ordering them into manageable bodies. In the case of street vendors, it has meant ordering a messy, yet unavoidable, phenomenon. Street vendors in this perception are tolerated as long as they occupy a fixed place, and thus can be located, isolated and controlled. Recently, the Syndicate of Commercial Professions, along with both the Ministry of Finance and the infamous, corrupt Egyptian Trade Union Federation, (ETUF) has started a nationwide survey of street vendors in a bid to organize them. In recent weeks, the Federation for Egyptian Chambers of Commerce has called on the government to allocate a fixed weekly market day in a specific location in order to “incorporate them into the official state entity”

Successive governments, including those of the Mubarak era, have repeatedly attempted to relocate street vendors from the center of Cairo to satellite cities on its fringe such as ‘Obour, Sixth of October, Sheiykh Zayed, and Salam. With poor public transportation networks out to these peripheral conurbations (a spectacular example of urban planning failure), relocation is a death sentence that all vendors are determined to avoid.

On the other hand, street vendors have been eager to unionize, not least to collectively organize against state harassment, police corruption and protection rackets. A Cairo-based street vendor has taken the initiative to lobby for an independent trade union. His initiative was able to collect four thousand signatures from vendors in several governorates. However, the process to launch an independent union has reportedly been complicated by the Ministry of Labor. This comes as part of a systematic strategy by post-Mubarak governments to arrest the development of hundreds of new independent unions, which have flourished in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall.

Like most national governments in the global south, Egyptian officials have had to work with the dictates of global financial institutions whose policies are devised to support the interests of a global capitalist system. However, state bureaucracies are less flexible than global capital and state officials find it difficult to learn new tricks and give up old habits. This is why the Egyptian state is still committed at heart to eradicating street vendors who exemplify threats to its maintenance of order, while at the same time its declared official policies are to engage them as partners in development. Needles to say, none of the state’s approaches to dealing with the “problem” of street vendors is going to work. The criminalization of a sector so crucial to the labor market as well as to official government economic policies, without offering alternatives, will be neither effective nor prove to be wise. Similarly, the containment and ordering of street vendors by removing them from the heart of the cities and relocating them to the urban margins in the hope of rendering them invisible works against what makes the informal sector the success it has always been: its flexibility, its informality and its physical mobility. The modernizing, (still?) developmentalist state in Egypt, and elsewhere, has tried hard to fit social reality into an imagined framework—one that has systematically excluded and marginalized its citizens. It has not worked in the past and it is not going to work now either.




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