A year after it claimed centre stage in the Arab Spring, Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a giant open-air market where capitalism is meeting the revolution.
Failed attempts by Egypt’s security officials to evict protesters still camped out at Tahrir have emboldened growing numbers of street vendors who converge on the square to hawk trinkets, footwear and even fruit emblazoned with subversive messages.
One fruit seller offers watermelons with the words “Down With Military Rule” carved into their skins. Vendors sell drinks with a revolutionary theme, such as “25th of January Tea” and “Tahrir Liquorice Juice”.
Others sell key chains that play chants denouncing the army generals who took power when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, or flip-flops imprinted with images of Mubarak so their wearers can walk all day on his face.
The trade helps feed poor families whose standard of living has worsened since the uprising on January 25 last year.
Ahlam Ibrahim, dressed in a long black dress and headscarf, sits through windy, dusty days in the square cooking brown beans behind a wooden cart.
“Business has frozen in other neighbourhoods,” she said. “I’m here to feed my kids and in the process I am helping poor people who come to protest.
“They can’t afford the fast-food outlets around the square,” she said, pointing to the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee’s restaurants nearby.
Making a living
A Big Mac hamburger at McDonald’s near Tahrir costs $2.36 but a brown bean sandwich from Ibrahim sells for $0.25.
A cluster of tents remains huddled in the muddy roundabout, decorated with political slogans and images of some of the victims of the uprising. Deflated dummies hang limply from lamp posts symbolising government officials “hung” by revolutionaries during mock trials in the square.
At least 846 people died in the demonstrations against Mubarak and dozens more protesters have died since as people frustrated at the pace of change turn on the army council now in charge.
The generals have overseen landmark elections and are promising to hand power to civilians in June but many of those who led the uprising do not believe the army will ever abandon its long-standing influence over the country of more than 80-million.
Wooden carts are loaded with tobacco, water and soft drinks for sale and the smell of cooking wafts through the air. Passing pedestrians are offered flags carrying Egypt’s national colours or the face of reggae singer Bob Marley.
Motorists stop to buy tea brewed in aluminium pots on squat tables laid on the pavement. Tea seller Nagwa Hassan said she came to Tahrir to try to eke out a living after leaving an abusive husband. She said she had nowhere else to go.
“I fled from my husband. I came here,” she said, as two of her children sat hand-in-hand nearby. “Where else can I sell my goods? I have five kids … How else can I feed them?”
Rampant poverty in what is officially a middle-income country drove much of the popular anger that ended Mubarak’s three-decade rule, and since then, an economic crisis and fast-rising prices have only deepened the suffering.
A burst of activity in the massive informal economy has taken some of the sting out of the downturn as authorities relaxed their grip on street trading and illegal construction.
In Tahrir, a steady flow of motorists, residents, tourists and demonstrators make it prime turf for the street traders and competition for passing business has sparked occasional fights.
In one of the worst incidents in late November, dozens were hurt in fights between stick-wielding vendors who were selling goods to protesters camped out there. Carts and stalls were destroyed as they fought with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails.
According to some reports, political protesters took part in the fighting, confiscating goods and attacking vendors who they accused of selling marijuana and bringing their campaign against army rule into disrepute.
Tea seller Hassan (40) said thugs had come to the square before and tried to steal her wares. She returned because she found nowhere else to set up business.
“Find me an alternative venue and I’ll go,” she said.
Turning a profit
The informal bazaar is too much for some Egyptians who want order restored after the succession of violent protests.
Some locals accuse the vendors of abusing the light-touch policing of the square to profit from the uprising.
“The only reason the vendors continue to roam around Tahrir is because the police aren’t around but this will eventually have to end. Tahrir is not a marketplace,” said Mohamed El Hosseiny, an engineer who lives close by.
But others celebrate the trade as just another expression of a new Egyptian spirit post-Arab Spring — this one entrepreneurial.
“The sarcasm and sad humour reflects a rejection of the past, the oppression, the injustice, the violence,” said sociologist Azza Korayem. “[The vendors] have immortalised the martyrs and made products inspired by the revolution.” — Reuters