Problems on hold
Every so often we wake up to news of a crackdown led by Cairo security’s top officials and conducted by high ranking officers supported with all the equipment needed to purge Downtown Cairo of the illegal activity of street vendors and random microbus stops.
Infringements are swept off, illegally pedalled goods are confiscated, and the roads and sidewalks are freed of those who seized them. The blocked traffic flows back to normal, and law and order reign.
Yet time and again, the street vendors and microbus drivers have returned to claim their turf and impose their control over Cairo’s Downtown streets, only to be re-evicted and make a further comeback. The occupation-eviction episodes have recurred so frequently that they became the subject of general scorn. Many likened them to a futile Tom and Jerry chase; every time Tom terrorises Jerry off his territory, the nuisance of a mouse quietly returns once Tom calms down and sleeps. The Downtown Cairo rowdy scene of aggressive vendors, hordes of buyers, belligerent microbus drivers, crowds of passengers, and the bullies who control the microbus movement, has become all-too-familiar even to the traffic police who try in vain to inject some sense into the scene. That is, until a new security crackdown takes off and the media erupts into ecstasy over official efforts at imposing law and order.
Any frequenter of Downtown Cairo undoubtedly understands what I mean. The situation is tantamount to a time bomb set to blow at any minute. Yet no one appears to realise the scale of the catastrophe day in day out. The squares and streets brim with jumbled microbus traffic while the drivers of those vehicles that are waiting for passengers hysterically cry out advertising their routes; smooth, flowing traffic is an utter impossibility. Regular scuffles break out between the drivers and the bully controllers, the passengers, and the passers-by.
Navigating the sidewalks is a venture you take at your own peril. The day begins with the low, makeshift stalls that display the pedlars’ goods covered with thick cloth and tied around with ropes. These vulgar piles which occupy near-fixed spots on the sidewalks are wrapped up by their owners near dawn when the commercial activity ceases, and are unwrapped and spring back to life again near the following noon. Day by day they occupy increasingly wider swaths of the sidewalks, in many cases spilling over into the road itself where, as the afternoon sets in, stalls of hanging garments blot out any view of the ground and leave only one lane for vehicles to drive. This leaves pedestrians with one of two options: either to achieve painstaking manoeuvres on the sidewalks to get from one place to another, or to venture out on the road to avoid the bustle of the sidewalk while at the same time trying to elude the vehicles moving single-file. No one dares object or complain, simply because his or her voice would be lost amid the deafening clamour or, more seriously, because he or she are sure to be dealt a cruel hand by any of the vendors who normally see an objection as a threat to their livelihood. So the pedestrians keep their peace. And why shouldn’t they when the policemen around observe the scene quietly and do nothing?
It is a hard question how business at the fully licensed shops in the area runs, or how their belated owners manage vis-à-vis the barbaric invasion of unlawful trade activity which encroaches on their livelihoods at their very doorsteps. It is obvious they have been obliged to resign themselves to keeping their peace, only praying that no street fight erupts that would ruin their property in the process. When one such battle erupts, all hell breaks loose; gunshot is common and terror reigns.
This chaos is the product of the persistent security policy of the Tom and Jerry chase, which does not bother to work any follow-up once the streets are brought under orderly control. The inescapable truth is that the dilemma of Downtown Cairo can only be confronted through a thorough, sound plan. It is a fact that street vendors or microbus drivers or controllers are not out to violate the law, they are just after a livelihood. If they can be relocated in properly-equipped sites that enjoy vigorous pedestrian activity they would leave the Downtown sidewalks once and for all. Unless we face up to this, we will never be able to rid Downtown Cairo of the illegal occupants who turn it into a hotbed of chaos and crime.
11 May 2014