Power to the People

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Learning a lesson from ‘Tunis’

Visiting Fayoum last week for the first time after the revolution, I was actually expecting to see the people there in a bubble or as i see many people in Cairo, opposing the revolution and blaming it for everything. I though I’d find them not really aware that there are protests still going on, especially that it was not one of the cities that were making the news during the revolution, except for the prison incident.

Although the trip was not to cover anything related to the revolution or politics, it was good to hear from people there how they feel about the revolution and the situation now in Egypt. We drove around Fayoum, but our main stop was in ‘Tunis’, a beautiful village overlooking the lake, famous for pottery, and most of the people living there are farmers, foreigners, or Egyptians who come rest there away from the bustling city life. Although the word ‘journalist’ sometimes freak out people especially these days, the people of the village were very helpful and took as around, until we got to meet one of the village’s famous contractors Hajj Sayed Abdel Sattar.

When asked about the revolution and politics, he said that people here are happy about the change, adding that it was right about time that things change. He also said that protests are still going on there because people will continue to fight for change. But for me, I expected him to say that people were first supporting the revolution and then turned against it when they felt things are still not getting better for them, as it is the case with many people i spoke to in Cairo, and when he didn’t mention then i asked him. His response was actually the lesson i learnt. He said that although the majority there understand that we are in a transition period and things will not get better at the moment, there were others who thought when the money of the former officials is returned, it will be re-distributed among the people. “It is the job of those who understand that this a common phase in every revolution and that it will take time until we see the real change, to explain to those who do not understand so that they don’t blame the revolution for everything we are seeing now,” says Abdel Sattar. He adds that we might be seeing worst conditions now, but people should understand that things will get better on the long-term.

Tunis might be a tiny village as compared to Fayoum, and even a dot on the map as compared to Cairo, but i totally believe that it is the duty of those who read and understand how revolutions work to reach out to people on the street and  help in spreading political awareness. I do not think it will be easy to continue with a successful revolution if we keep losing people on the way. Hussien Younis, a cab driver in his early thirties, was an employee at one of Zoheir Garrana’s travel agencies for over eight years. He used to make LE 1800/month, which were enough for him to support his wife and three kids. But after Garrana’s assets were frozen, Younis, like many other employees had to go find another job. Driving the cab, Younis says he barely makes LE 500 after the revolution. Being a devoted Tahrir protester and supporter of the revolution during the first 18 days, starting January 25th, Younis says he turned against it all when he found the prices going on, lost his job, and everything is going worse for him. The good thing that talking to people like him helps them understand that the situation will hopefully get better, but like he says, “me and many of the business owners in Downtown that i spoke to already would love to believe that this is just a transitional phase and things will get better,” explains Younis. “But it is much easier to believe that when you don’t have a family to support and nothing else to lose more than what you lost already.”

It is pretty simple.. many of us had the privilege of good education and if we do an extra effort of reading more and explaining to the people on the street, we might end up with more people willing to work, instead of having people who want to hijack the revolution. It is not only that people are not aware of the different levels or steps in a revolution, but also many of people on the street are not familiar with any of the terms they hear in statements, news or anywhere these days, like: the articles of the constitutional declaration and the condition to apply them only after the emergency law is over, the martial laws, the importance of voting and how to choose candidates, etc. It is important to pass whatever we learn to those who do not know, even just among people in your house or neighborhood.

Class Struggles

Academics discuss whether poverty-stricken residents could rise up in the future with a revolution of their own. By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, March 2011)


In the days that marked the birth of a revolution, Egyptians of all social classes could be seen standing side-by-side in Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers to demand reform. Similar reports came from Alexandria and other governorates where protests took place.

But what drove these protesters to the streets, particularly those living under the poverty line? Were they there to lend their support for political reasons or were there other factors unique to these communities at play? Furthermore, what drove some to loot and break the law? Academics are analyzing these questions and more as they reflect on the revolution and the people driving change in Egypt.

At least 20% of the population are living below the poverty line, according to a government report released in January. For years the government has struggled to improve the quality of life for those below the poverty line and even those who live in pauperization (with an income of less than LE 205 per month), but the fact remains that the gap between the rich and  poor continues to grow.

After January 28, reports flowed in from around Egypt that groups were taking advantage of the lack of police and looting. There were also reports of road blockages, vandalism and large numbers of people leaving slum areas. Some witnesses claim the looters were mostly thugs hired by the government to cause trouble, but others say poverty-stricken citizens were descending on vulnerable areas to make a quick buck.

Egyptian film director Khaled Youssef went on Al-Arabiya the night of January 28 saying people from the slums were looting banks, museums and several public buildings. Youssef called it the “revolution of hunger,” a topic he explored in two movies, Heena Maysara (When Things Get Better) and Dokkan Shehata (Shehata’s Shop).

Although Business Today could not substaniate his claims, the idea of hunger revolution, where poor people are the main drivers of a revolt to demand better lives, is not a new idea in Egypt.

“We always thought that the revolution would be sparked by people in the slum areas, but when we say ‘upper to middle class people started it,’ we thought that the hunger revolution that we always were warned of was not yet here,” says Madiha El Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Academics say that although middle and upper-middle class Egyptians were the spark, once others saw the government start making concessions, they realized that they too could affect change and began joining the protests.

“The nature of the people in Tahrir changed as the protests continued. Even if it started with a higher class, toward the middle or the end of the revolution many people there were jobless, who thought instead of just sitting at home […] they could join the people in Tahrir and finally get a chance to open their mouths and express themselves,” says Amirah El-Haddad, an economics professor at Cairo University. “But this was only the case during the revolution.”

She says the lawless nature of the first few days of the revolution left an opening that many without means saw as a once-in-alifetime opportunity to profit.

“From the moment, it was announced that the police had disappeared from all the streets, it gave the initiative for many poor people who were suffering [at the hands of] the government and from poverty for a long time to seize this opportunity, and say in the absence of the police, ‘I can do whatever I want’ and ‘This is my chance to get away with anything,’” says El-Haddad. “There is no doubt that the revolution made poor people become much stronger.”

Uphill battle

But the looting and rampaging didn’t end with Mubarak’s ousting. Empowered, people from poverty-stricken neighborhoods broke into one the Ahram City project’s gated-communities built by Orascom Developments on Al-Wahat Road near Sixth of October City. Their goal was simple: break into the compound and take the homes for themselves.

“All the different categories of people, the marginalized, those who graduated 10 years ago and still haven’t found a job and even those whose salaries are not enough to support their families, all found hope in this revolution and this was the way they rebelled,” says El-Haddad.

That being said, these cases hardly constitute a true hunger revolution. Nor have any of the problems the poor face been solved by deposing Mubarak, so could there be an uprising from this segment in the future?

According to Said Sadek, professor of sociology at AUC, things will have to get much worse before that happens. But this is a distinct possibility should the new government fail to come through with promises of greater freedoms for Egyptians.

“Until this moment, we still have reserves of food and raw materials to survive on, but if the government does not really respond quickly to people’s demands, we will start running out of our resources and in six months we will actually witness a hunger revolution that no one will be able to control,” says Sadek.

Professor El-Haddad says people are now divided into two camps: one that is willing to give the new government time to enforce new rules and policies and another that will settle for nothing less than immediate action.

Should these groups come to blows, Egypt’s political stability could be on the line, leaving the door open for chaos and the beginnings of a hunger revolution.

The only way to prevent this is for the government to make quick decisions that benefit Egyptians via expert advice from numerous sections of the population.

“Instead of slowing down the wheel of production, different groups should start thinking what they want to develop and what should be changed to make things better for everyone,” she says. “Another important question we have to ask now, generally in the coming period, is are we going to be a communist country and nationalize things […] or will we be a capitalist country?”

The movie Heena Maysara on Cairo Slums

Four stages of denial

Sadek says that any revolution goes through four stages: The first is the revolution itself; the second is the counterrevolution; the third is the formation of a new political system and the fourth is the consolidation of the system. At the moment, Egypt is still in between the second and the third stage. Many are taking advantage of the instability by airing their grievances via strikes, particularly in the government.

After Mubarak stepped down, several governmental departments went on strike, demanding their own reforms. Media reports show there were 163 strikes comprised of various public and private-sector workers across the country after Mubarak stepped down.

Sadek said that if you observe the strikes that began after the fall of the regime, they were mainly instigated by workers and employees of the government’s various sectors.

“These employees always had economic and administrative grievances because of the regime, and even corruption complaints were never heard. Today the revolution […] gave them a chance to talk,” says Sadek. “Many of these employees were working under temporary contracts for years and no one ever responded to their requests to have fixed contracts, and they thought this is the time for it.”

He says that when people called for a revolution, they were demanding the downfall of the regime, but after the revolution they realized that although Mubarak is gone, much of his legacy remains.

“This is really provoking people, and now they should change the Cabinet and start purging people who were working under Mubarak to be able to calm people down,” he says.

Sadek says that if you really want change, you have to make a dramatic change within the Cabinet.

“We will remain in this civil disobedience until a major change happens from the government,” he adds.bt

Getting Back to Business

Downtown shops and restaurants managed their businesses in coping with the post-revolution state of affairs. By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, April 2011)

On weekday mornings, Cairo’s streets are bustling with people going about their business, shopping or just hanging out. Cars are everywhere, and so are pedestrians crisscrossing the streets and ambling along sidewalks. Likeusual, the downtown area is buzzing with people just two months after the revolution that saw former President Hosni Mubarak step down. Although the streets might make one think things are back to normal after weeks of protests in Tahrir Square, it’s not business as usual for shops in the area and the square’s surrounding streets. Many outlets in Tahrir are still closed after being looted, burned, vandalized and taken over by protesters for almost a month, while others simply shut their doors because of the protests themselves. Several shops along streets nearby such as Mohamed Mahmoud, Bab El-Louq and Talaat Harb have also closed their doors — some for good.

But there are a few exceptions to the rule who stuck the revolution out and even benefited from remaining open during the turbulent times. With things still up in the air for some businesses, residents and shop owners wonder whether the downtown core will bounce back better than ever or fall into disrepair. Experts, however, say that businesses can help jump-start the process by taking advantage of the new sense of pride Egyptians are experiencing.

State your business

Walking on Bustan Street, right next to Talaat Harb Street, it’s hard to miss the huge pink building with the sign ‘Al Bustan.’ Some know the building as home to the famous electronics and computer mall. It is also one of the biggest garages in the area. It has nine levels of parking and has become a spot that residents, workers and shoppers park in every day, although it is also one of the most expensive lots in the area at LE 4 per hour.

Just months after Mubarak left, the parking lots were filled with vehicles, although some were covered, indicating that they may have been parked there for a long time. But the busy influx of vehicles constantly heading in and out of the garageshow business in the area seems to be returning to normal. That can’t be said for the computer mall itself, which is emptier than usual.

“We actually never closed down Bustan from ‘day one’ during the revolution and up until today,” says Hanan Ahmed, a security department employee in the mall’s administrative offices. “The parking [garage] was open, but we were given orders not to let people in the mall for security reasons, but anyway, there were almost no cars at all coming in the mall because the area around was closed and was not safe.”

While the parking lot wasn’t affected by looting or vandalism and was able to open its doors quickly, the owners of the computer shops were still worried about their businesses and many ended up staying closed long after the revolution ended on February 11.

“Two days after the revolution started, most of the owners came and moved all their goods away from the area, and those  who were unable to transfer their stuff early, decided to just come and sit here every day to guard their [businesses],” says Ahmed.

Other than malls and parking areas, almost every street around Tahrir Square dozens of clinical practice, from optometristsand dentists to surgeons. Most doctors here say they were unable to open their clinics to work for weeks, if not months, because even if they could get to their clinics during the revolution and subsequent protests, their patientswere unwilling to take the risk. Dr. Akram Azzam, an orthopedic doctor and professor at Qasr El-Aini Medical School, closed his clinic for almost a month. Azzam’s clinic is located on Bab El-Louq Street, walking distance from both Tahrir Square and the Ministry of Interior, both of which saw a great deal of activity during and after the revolution and subsequent protests.

“It was impossible for me to resume work for a really long time, as I actually work there at night and with the curfew neither would I be able to do this, nor would people be able to be there at night or even make it there with all the streets are closed,” says Azzam. “And even until now, months after […] the revolution, it is still not the same.”

And he is not alone. Many doctors agree, especially those with clinics on streets closest to Tahrir.

In charge of changing times

Decades ago, Downtown Cairo was one of the most popular and trendy areas in the city. People would visit to get the best that Cairo had to offer, from clothes to restaurants and much more. In recent years, although the area is still busy with people, most stores now cater to lower-income shoppers who flock to the area in droves for its cheap goods.

This has changed in the wake of the revolution. The shops are stringing banners and signs announcing discounts up to 70%, with others touting slogans like: “The people want to breakdown and destroy all prices.” Nonetheless, consumers have remained wary of spending in the wake of the revolution, leaving these stores virtually empty.

On Talaat Harb Street, the Nour El-Ain clothing shop is deserted and has only one employee working. A few of the stores next door are closed, others are deserted as well.

“Things never got back to normal for me or for any of the shops around the area, even if you see that the streets are busy outside,” says Sobhy Farouk, Nour El-Ain’s manager. “As you can see, we all have sales and still people are not really back and shopping.”

Groppi, one of the country’s oldest cafés and bakeries, used to be a favorite hangout for Cairenes and remains a symbol of Downtown Cairo’s glamorous past. Now, only two tables are occupied, a trend that the restaurant is seeing all too much.

“We closed down for more than 28 days, but we didn’t get customers back again,” says Gamal Azmy, the manager. “As you can see, there is almost no one here and I don’t think that things will be in better shape around the area anytime soon.”

From Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper

Businesses believe in booms

While the majority of businesses in the area closed down during the revolution, there were also some that enjoyed a boom, especially food stalls selling Egyptian classics like koshary and falafel. One of the most successful was the popular sandwich restaurant Felfela. The small shop always has a line of people in front of its Talaat Harb Street takeaway, waiting patiently for their sandwiches. The falafel and fuul sandwiches only sell for between LE 1–2, but with thousands and sometimes more than one million people in Tahrir, Felfela raked in the cash.

“Our takeaway outlet was doing a reat job,” says Madgy Farag, a Felfela employee. “You could see people lined in front of [our shop] to get their sandwiches during the revolution, while on the other hand, our restaurant, which is located on the neighboring Huda Shaarawi Street, was closed for a really long time, as we usually depend heavily on tourists.”

According to Tarek Selim, associate professor of economics at the American University in Cairo and faculty affiliate to Harvard Business School, the lower volume of sales most businesses near Tahrir are experiencing is normal after turmoil.

He predicts the situation will get better as the country becomes more stable.

“In every business, you have to study the short run versus the long run,” he says. “In the short run, which is about six months until the elections are over, there will be instability, uncertainty and losses as people are still concerned about the security [measures] there, especially with strikes. But in economics, we call this the ‘funk condition.’ This funk condition means that the future has to be brighter.”

Selim says businesses should start planning for the future and do their best to attract business back using Egypt’s newly rediscovered patriotism as a starting point.

“Clothes shops should focus more on [selling] pure Egyptian products, […] products related to the revolution and things that could be interesting for both the locals and the tourists,” says Selim. “And for restaurants, they should change their Western designs and add a local flavor. Maybe put up photos from the revolution as well as having more commercial Egyptian food.”

Thinking long term, could political stability ensure a new beginning for Downtown businesses?

“I would say that there will be a very high demand in these businesses in a year, and it will be a touristic area,” says Selim”When the revolution collects its fruits, things will definitely change in Downtown, and it will become popular again.”

But until then, businesses in the vicinity of Tahrir Square will just have to patiently wait, a difficult choice considering they must continue to pay salaries and rent. bt