In Cairo, A Free Market Experiment Is Underway

CAIRO – Near the middle of Tahrir Square a sign nestled among the tents proclaims to pedestrians that they stand in “The Free Republic of Tahrir.” While protesters seek political reform, Tahrir’s entrepreneurs have continued to evolve with Egypt’s political situation and continue to meet the needs of new customers. As the struggle between Egypt’s die-hard protesters and Egypt’s new, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has become bitter, vendors have continued to operate on the square through various protests, clashes and occupations since January 25, 2011. Tahrir Square has both become a center for protests and a bold free-market experiment in a country where many industries are still dominated by military interests or socialist institutions or socialist institutions created after Egypt’s 1952 revolution.

Tahrir Square, despite being on the edge of recent clashes, offers Egyptian entrepreneurs a level of formalization often not available elsewhere.  Entrepreneurs face significant barriers to entry into the market, as the Egyptian economy has long been dominated by official trade associations and a bureaucracy which ensures political and economic power flows through Cairo. The government of newly-elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has continued the harassment of those working in the informal economy.

In the past few months, as the clashes have grown more bitter, Tahrir Square entrepreneurs have been focusing on new products: Surgical masks  — the kind most commonly scene on the face of your local dentist — are a hot seller on Tahrir. These Chinese-made strips of gauze are used as impromptu gas masks.

One such vendor is Samer, a young man who has recently been selling gas masks on the edge of clashes. “I know each year there will be clashes on January 25th,” Samer tells Doublethink. His price is determined by demand.  “If you can smell the gas as you exit the metro, I charge a guinea and a half; otherwise, it’s a guinea, “ Samer  explains.

He isn’t the only one trying to profit off of Egypt’s continued revolutionary struggle. Masks are also increasingly popular as protesters are keen to avoid identification by police. On blankets near the Arab League, one can purchase either a black Baclava or the white Guy Fawkes mask popularized in the 2005 film V for Vendetta, for a dollar. Moustafa, a protester on Tahrir Square who claims to have participated in several clashes with the police, dislikes the Guy Fawkes style makes.

“Those for V for Vendetta masks look cool but, that’s it — you can’t see around you,” Moustafa observed in an interview. “If you see someone wearing one you can be sure they probably weren’t throwing stones at the police very long. It just looks good on Facebook.”

Such goods often enter Egypt illegally. Egypt’s tariff regimes restrict the importation of everything from automobiles to gold-fish. (To avoid high import taxes during the Mubarak era, one businessman claimed to have cut cars in half, only to reassemble them once they arrived in Egypt.)

Protesters on Tahrir aren’t just hungry for political change, but for scrumptious meals. To meet their needs, vendors armed with carts sell pretzels, bags of seeds, grilled yams, and sweet couscous to the masses. Some vendors have been successful enough to upgrade from pushcarts to motorcycles, which serve as food trucks.  Others vendors enter the square with chilled carbonated beverages stacked high in plastic buckets.  On a recent January afternoon, no less than eight informal cafes were in operation –some of which were nothing more than a few lawn chairs and a camp stove.

Tahrir’s protesters have not always taken a sympathetic view of these entrepreneurs. In the summer of 2011, a young man was discovered entering the square with a knife.  The event was used as an excuse to ban vendors from Tahrir for several days. Famously, during the bitter “Mohammed Mahmoud” clashes of November 2011, a vendor became famous for braving the snipers, rubber bullets, and tear gas canister to carry cotton candy to potential customers. Instead of earning accolades, many protesters assumed he was a state security agent.

The continued success of the vendors on Tahrir Square to find new products and adapt to conditions on the square speaks to the resilience of Egyptian entrepreneurship.  Clearly, Egyptian small business owners are willing to take great risks. While women are often traditionally under-represented in the formal sector of the Egyptian economy, women make up a large number of Egypt’s informal workers both on and off Tahrir Square.  Thus, while Tahrir Square continues to be a center for political protest in Egypt, it should also be a lingering reminder of the need to formalize Egypt’s large informal economy.

Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Featured photo of street vendor near Tahrir Square courtesy of Joseph Hammond.

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