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At Issue

Cairo and the Quest for Freedom and Social Justice
by Timothy Gachanga

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"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world" (Abraham Lincoln, 1848). Lincoln's famous quote resonates across North Africa and the Middle East today. Indeed, one and a half centuries later, Egypt did "rise up and shake off the existing government". Workers and peasants jammed the streets of Cairo to demand freedom and social justice. They wanted a say about where they live and work. They wanted to be free from the corruption that stole the value of their resources. Women wanted to be free from sexual harassment when on the streets of Cairo. Young people wanted jobs so that they could start their own families. They also wanted to use the internet to communicate near and far with their peers and friends. They wanted a government that would listen to them and serve them well. What was lacking, however, was a catalyst for revolution. The uprising in Tunisia provided the model they needed to advance their quest for justice. 

They wanted a government that would listen to them and serve them well ... The uprising in Tunisia provided the model.

Cairo is an ancient city full of paradoxes. It is a place filled with joy and sadness, love and hate, good and bad, rich and poor. Globally, it is considered one of the safest cities in the world. According to the UN Habitat State of African Cities Report 2010, it is the largest city in Africa and the largest in Middle East. It has a population of 20 million people and a population increase of 30 people per hour.  Street life has a patent charm to it. Late model cars compete with cabs, donkey-carts and livestock transportation for space. It also consists of a little joking and haggling with neighbors and street vendors. However, beneath this veneer lies a "collective narrative" of poverty, social injustice, desperation and hopelessness.


Life in Cairo is full of hardships. Rising inflation, rising food prices and unemployment have made life unbearable, especially to the poor already prone to malnutrition, water-borne diseases and respiratory infections. In order to cope, the poor are forced to stretch their resources by selling their personal property, working long hours, sometimes in harsh conditions, begging, engaging in prostitution and even selling body organs. According to Mullins (2009), poverty has become so harsh that organ selling is viewed as a means to survive. He describes an incident where one woman sold a kidney for $2,185 in order to pay off debts and feed her family. Elsewhere, a young couple in Cairo was forced to sell a kidney each after selling nearly everything else they had. The two were later dumped semi-conscious into a taxi with the payment for the kidneys tucked into their clothes. A year later, their health had deteriorated so much that they spent much of the day in bed in a dark room (Keysen, 2009).

To cope with the increasing food prices, the poor are forced to buy poor quality food. As a result, obesity has now become an epidemic in Cairo.  Obesity among adults, particularly women, has reached very high proportions while malnutrition rates in pre-school children remain stubbornly high. Sably (2009) observes that in 1998, around 70 percent of women and 48 percent of men were overweight or obese. This figure has shot up due to high inflation that has made the cost of food unaffordable to average Egyptians. In May 2010, for instance, Cairo restaurants were forced to withdraw red meat in their menus due to high costs. On average, a kilo of beef sells for $10 to $12. This is not affordable to the vast majority of ordinary Egyptians who earn less than $2 per day (Jensen, 2010). The only commodity that has not gone up is the subsidized baladi bread. This has led to an increase in demand for the commodity. Egypt started subsidizing staples like bread, sugar and tea around World War II, and has done so ever since. When it tried to stop subsidizing bread in 1977 there were serious riots.

Bread is the staple food in Egypt. Every day people line up 3 to 4 times a day to buy the subsidized bread. This however is a fierce affair.  People spend an average of between two and three hours daily just to get their daily bread supplies. This has led to violence, mainly in Cairo's impoverished neighborhoods. In 2008, for instance, at least 11 people died in bread queues from exhaustion, and two were stabbed when fights broke out between customers vying for places in the queue. A woman was hit by a car while standing in a queue that stretched into the street. Elsewhere, an argument between two boys over their place in line escalated to a brawl in which four people were hurt. Schoolchildren are also forced to miss school while queuing (Jonstone, 2008).

Injustice against women

The situation for women in Cairo is no better than for poor people in general. To be a woman in Cairo is to accept sexual harassment on a daily basis. In Cairo, pursuit of justice for women is fraught with images of despair and hopelessness. This is clearly highlighted in a film, Cairo 678, which tells the story of three fictional women from different backgrounds in search for justice from daily sexual harassment. One of them is separated from her husband and sexually harassed by a group of men after a football match, another insists on taking her harasser to court despite pressure to drop her case and the third responds by stabbing harassers in the groin with the pin from her head scarf. Widespread sexual injustice also caught international attention on February 11, 2011, when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten on the final night of the 18-day revolt (Rothe, 2011).

To be a woman in Cairo is to accept sexual harassment ... 80 percent of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment on a daily basis and 62 percent of men admit harassing women sexually.

According to a report released in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), 80 percent of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment on a daily basis and 62 percent of men admit harassing women sexually. Sexual harassment is regarded as a private matter in Cairo. Women often are afraid to report sexual assault or harassment for fear that they and their families will be stigmatized. In a bid to stop this, a new internet site called Harassmap was launched in October 2010 to provide Egypt's women with a new voice and a renewed sense of empowerment. The site allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment via text message or Twitter. Each report is then pinpointed on a digital map of Cairo, in order to determine particularly dangerous areas of the city. Users who submit the reports remain anonymous and the collected data is shared among activists, media and police. Women who send text alerts also receive safety suggestions, support, and instructions on filing police reports.

Unfortunately, however, this doesn't seem to have done much. On March 8, 2011, a demonstration to commemorate International Women's Day turned violent when more than 200 men charged on the women – forcing some to the ground, dragging others out of the crowd, groping and sexually harassing them as police and military figures stood by and failed to act. The female demonstrators were protesting against Egypt's chronic sexual harassment problem, against the many barriers women face in public life, and against the pervasive conservatism that curtails the freedom of women in society at large. The women chanted slogans that had been used in the revolution itself, calling for freedom, justice and equality. But their demonstration quickly attracted a counter-protest. When the women argued back, many were dragged away individually by small groups of men who attacked them. The police continued to direct traffic around the square as the incident was taking place (Younis, 2011).


In terms of mobility, poor people do not own private means of transport. There are two main transport options for the poor: the tuk-tuk or the mini-trucks. Tuk-tuks operate in a grey zone of unlicensed, unregistered business. The transport authority does not consider them to be regular vehicles and hence has neither registered nor licensed them. These three-wheeled Indian imports, however, are too expensive for most poor people (Nassr, 2007). The other possibility is the use of the mini-trucks. The trucks are cheaper than the tuk-tuks in that they cost 50p per journey and have set routes. According to Sabry (2009), children usually jump on the truck while it is moving and then pay the driver. The mini-trucks are all unlicensed and usually very old. They cannot leave the informal settlements as they would not be granted a license in their state to drive around the city. A lot of the mini-trucks are driven by unlicensed under-age teenage boys who have dropped out of school. While they serve the purpose of moving people from the edge of the informal settlements into the depths of the different areas, they are quite dangerous.  An estimated 8,000 people die in car accidents annually in Egypt (Hasrawi, 2010). The US Embassy in Cairo strongly recommends that its personnel not use mini-buses in Cairo. In 2010, there were several accidents involving these trucks and international tourist buses. In the spring of 2010, a lorry with malfunctioning brakes slammed into stalled rush-hour traffic resulting in a forty vehicle pileup and nineteen deaths (OSAC, 2011).

Poor people do not own private means of transport ... The mini-trucks are all unlicensed and usually very old ... (and) quite dangerous.


In terms of housing, the poor have quietly claimed state or public lands and cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Bayat (1996) observes that there are more than 111 ashwa'iyyat (spontaneous communities) in greater Cairo and together they house over six million people. The City of the Dead, a cemetery, is a good example. It is currently inhabited by almost 800,000 people who occupy funeral chapels and other places where the dead are buried, making them their permanent homes. However, life here is characterized by deprivation, neglect, insecurity and the constant threat of forcible eviction. In November 2009, Amnesty International accused the Cairo government for condemning Cairo's poor to living conditions that place their lives in peril. The rights group said the government was failing to prevent rock-slides in areas around informal settlements that house millions of Cairo's poor. In September 2008, at least 107 people were killed and 58 were injured when a rock-slide hit the overcrowded, eastern Cairo slum of Manshiyet Nasser (Manchanda, 2009).

Vending and unemployment

Selling personal property and cheap products in the street has become a common way of augmenting family income in Cairo. With an unemployment rate of around 12 percent and significant bureaucratic obstacles to setting up small businesses, many families and individuals simply step onto the street and start trading. The problem is exacerbated by a youth bulge that has become a common characteristic of many African cities. A review of the literature reveals that youths constitute a third of Cairo's population. Assaad and Barsoum (2007:5) observe that 83 percent of the unemployed are in the 15-29 year-old age group, and 47 percent are between the ages of 20-24. Youths with a secondary education or above constituted 95 percent of the unemployed. Clearly the educational system is poorly attuned to the needs of the labour market.

The (unemployment) problem is exacerbated by a youth bulge that has become a common characteristic of many African cities ... 83 percent of the unemployed are in the 15-29 year-old age group.

The poor have quietly taken over public main roads to conduct their businesses. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 vendors in Cairo. As a result, street vendors have become a major part of Egypt's large "informal sector" which makes up around 30 percent of the national economy. This, however, has severe limitations. Informal vending is fraught with frustrations and uncertainties. The law requires vendors to pay a fee of 50-100 Egyptian pounds (US$9-18) for a street trading license. The vast majority of vendors cannot afford this. For those who can afford it, the licenses are hardly ever granted or take too long to be granted. As a result, a constant cat-and-mouse game ensues between illegal vendors and the municipal police – known as the baladiyya . To escape the municipal dragnet, the vendors are forced to pay regular bribes to the police to ensure their continued tolerance. Those who cannot afford the bribes are often arrested and harassed by police and their wares confiscated. This leads to stress, a missing inventory of goods and continued suffering in many families. 

In a parallel situation, this is what triggered the uprising in Tunisia. Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, was a vegetable vendor in a small town outside Tunis. Protestors described him as a generous man who would give free fruit and vegetables to very poor families. He became the sole bread winner of his family when he was 10 years old. As in Cairo, police would confiscate his scales and his produce, or fine him for running a stall without a permit. Six months before his attempted suicide, police sent Bouazizi a fine for 400 dinars (US$280) – the equivalent of two months of earnings. The harassment finally became too much for the young man. On the morning of December 17, it became physical. A policewoman confronted him on the way to market. She returned to take his scales from him, but Bouazizi refused to hand them over. They swore at each other, the policewoman slapped him and, with the help of her colleagues, forced him to the ground. The officers took away his produce and his scale. Publically humiliated, Bouazizi tried to seek recourse. He went to the local municipality building and demanded to meet with an official. With no official willing to hear his grievances, the young man obtained paint fuel, returned to the street outside the building, and set himself on fire (Yasmine, 2011).

The future of Cairo

It took 18 days to get rid of President Mubarak; it is going to take more than 18 days to build institutions that can guarantee freedom and social justice. To do this, Egyptians must have an impartial, accountable judiciary to promote equity, social justice and human dignity. They must have a strong civil society that is built on respect for freedom of expression, freedom to organize and freedom to assemble. There must be freedom for people to express diverse views and develop unconventional and unique ideas, and members of society must have the confidence to engage and interact with each other, and to build mutual trust while acknowledging their differences. Likewise, they've got to rebuild the economy. A new constitution has to be written that guarantees these important components of the rule of law and enshrines democracy. In addition, the government and civil society must build a strong partnership for creating horizontal connections among divided groups as well as vertical connections between the state and its citizens.  The long-suffering, brave people of Cairo will benefit from such change and only then be able to move forward to address the serious daily life problems encountered in their city – endemic problems that have been accumulating for decades.

Timothy Gachanga teaches Peace Education and Conflict Resolution and Transformation at Tangaza College, Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). He is also the Coordinator of the Community Peace Museums Foundation (CPMF) and an advisory board member of the International Network of Museums of Peace (INMP).

Bibliography & Links

Asef, Bayat (1996). Cairo's Poor: Dilemmas of Survival and Solidarity. Available online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3013030.

Assaad, R., and Barsoum, G. (2007). Youth Exclusion in Egypt: In search of "Second Chances". Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper.

Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR), August 2008. Available online at http://www.preventgbvafrica.org/content/ecwr%E2%80%99s-august-2008-updates-campaigns-and-analysis-issues-effect-sexual-harassment-economy.

Hasrawi, Salah, "8 Americans tourists killed in Egypt bus crash", CBS News, December 26, 2010. Available online at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/12/26/world/main7185668.shtml.

Jensen, John, "Priced out of Cairo meat market," Global Post , May 24, 2010. Available online at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/egypt/100518/meat-cairo-egypt-inflation-economy.

Johnstone, Cynthia, "In Egypt, long queues for bread that is almost free." Reuters, April 6, 2008. Available online at http://ca.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idCAL0404033220080406.

Keysen, Jason, "Organs for Sale: Egypt comes under pressure to end thriving underground organ trade." Associated Press. March 17, 2009. Available online at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2008874285_egyptorgansforsale.html?syndication=rss.

Lincoln, Abraham (1989). Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832 – 1858. Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York, Library of America.

Manchanda, Sukhpreet, "Amnesty: Egypt's housing plans failing Cairo's poor." TopNews.in. Available online at http://www.topnews.in/amnesty-egypts-housing-plans-failing-cairos-poor-2236922.

Mullins, K.J. "Egypt's poor selling organs to survive." Digital Journal , December 28, 2009. Available online at http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/284611.

Nassr, Nahed, "Tuk-tuk Talk," Al-Ahram Weekly, 8-14 November, 2007.  Available online at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/870/fe1.htm.

Rothe, Nina, "Life Imitating Art: How Cairo 678 forecasted the Lora Logan Incident," Huffpost Entertainment , May 16, 2011. Available online at http://www.huffingpost.com/e-mina-rothe/life-imitating-art-ca_b_8623332.html.

Ryan, Yasmine, "The tragic end of a street vendor." Aljazeera News , 20 January 2011.   Available online at http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/01/201111684242518839.html.

Sabry, S. (2009). Poverty in Greater Cairo: Underestimating and misrepresenting poverty . International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), UK.

 "Egypt 2011 Crime and Safety Report," United States Department of State (OSAC), 21st April 2011. Available online at https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportPDF.aspx?cid=10882.

Younis, Jumanah, "Egypt's Revolution means nothing if its women are not free." The Guardian , March 9, 2011. Available online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/09/egypt-revolution-women.

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