When a country’s economy goes through upheaval, the smallest businesses – those of sole traders and partnerships – are often the first to fold. This can be catastrophic for the families that depend on them for their daily bread. In this photo essay, Hend Ismail and I talk with nine Cairenes from a variety of different small (and, in some cases, ‘micro’) business occupations: a butcher, a baker, a carpet trader, an hotelier, a tyre repairer, a florist, a ceramic products seller, a taxi driver and the owner of the car driven by the taxi driver. We ask them about their experiences before and after the revolution, and find that on the whole, although they may be going through tough times in line with the Egyptian economy as a whole, they feel that the sacrifices are worth it and expect that conditions will gradually improve. Their sentiments seem to echo those of Karim Helal, group CEO of CI Capital Holding, who said last week that “the damage suffered by the economy is acceptable and it is the price of freedom”.
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All the images below, along with others from the same series, may be purchased as beautiful colour prints, licensed for download or shared via social media platforms. To view them, just click directly on any of the images or on the ‘Buy | Share’ link at the end of any of the captions, which will take you to the gallery entitled ‘Conversations With Cairo’s Small Businessmen’ in my Image Archive.
Hassan (left) and Haj Nafea (right) work together as butchers in a village on Dahab Island, situated in the middle of the River Nile. In a previous photo essay, I featured several of this island’s children, and mentioned that this is a place that feels like rural Egypt, even though it is technically not far from Central Cairo. Here, meat is hung from the eaves outside a village home, rather than being sold from a self-contained shop. We spend quite a long time with Hassan in particular, who clearly defies the popular stereotype that villagers are uneducated and consequently know little about governance. He feels that the Egyptian revolution has brought freedom. He sees that his country people have “woken up”, and predicts progress now that the old regime’s corrupt administrators have lost their positions. “Egyptians have the least requirements for life. We can live by eating very simple food: beans or lentils”, he tells us. “We just want to meet our life requirements: to eat, receive medication, educate our children and have safety and stability”. All he is asking for from those who govern is that they pay attention to citizens’ needs, rather than lining their own pockets. Though he does not know who will be running for office yet, he’s already decided who he will choose: “I will not give my vote to anyone except he who has done something for Egypt. Someone who’s trustworthy, has ethics and believes in what he’s doing. Someone who really puts what he says into practice and who achieves what he promises to. … Our president or prime minister … should be someone we really know. … Someone from the people. Someone who can solve our problems and understand our needs”. Hassan also has ideas about the type of political system Egypt needs: “authority should be divided … so that there’s space for differences of opinion and there can be discussion”, he explains, “rather than the country being run by someone purely to serve his own benefit”. Buy | Share
Amr helps run a family bakery business in Nasr City. We pass by his shop to pick up some biscuits, which, alongside traditional Egyptian bread, are baked on site. While he packs up our order, we ask him about the revolution. He himself was not among the hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) who packed Tahrir Square, but he emphasises how those times affected everyone. “I was helping by producing products to sell in the shop more than ever before”, he recalls. “Many people were buying bread, as they were afraid that they’d soon be unable to find food and there was a fear that flour and oil stocks would run out”. On the other side of that period, Egypt’s constitutional referendum was the first occasion on which Amr voted. “I’m planning to take this positive step again and participate in the presidential election”, he insists. “The lower classes … have the right to eat like the rest of us. … Our new president should feel these poor people, and know their needs. He shouldn’t be arrogant or selfish”. He adds, “he should fear God”. Does he think this is likely? “Insha’Allah (God willing), he will be a good man … who can take care of Egypt and purge the country of injustices”, he replies. Buy | Share
“The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker”, goes the English nursery rhyme. But next up is actually a carpet trader named Hossam, who runs a shop in the tourist-oriented souk (or bazaar) of Khan el-Khalili. As he sits back and relaxes in a chair at the back of his store, he recalls how things used to be before the revolution. “Whenever someone used to speak against the regime, they used to get taken away by State Security”, he tells us. “To avoid getting arrested or being placed under investigation, people would steer clear discussing such topics”. Like Hassan the butcher, he feels that what Egypt has now is ‘freedom’. “Now, people are not as afraid as they used to be to speak up”. Thinking for a moment about what he wants for his own field of work, he says that “I would like the new government to pay more attention to trade by encouraging exhibitions and businesspeople to travel and show what they can do outside Egypt”. Under Mubarak, getting to showcase one’s work outside the country was apparently impossible without paying bribes. “I hope that the incoming president will be loyal to this country”, Hossam stresses. “He should remember that God’s watching, and that one day He will ask him about what he did for the country”. Buy | Share
Not long after I first arrived in Cairo, I moved into a room in Sun Hotel, situated on the ninth floor of an apartment block that overlooks iconic Tahrir Square. If I’d wanted to be a photojournalist, this would have been the perfect place to be based during the revolution. In fact, some of the photos in my album entitled ‘Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution’ were shot from my balcony there. I was keen to involve Mahmoud in this project because he has been an hotelier right at the heart of the revolution. “Tourism has been gravely affected”, he tells us. Looking out on protesters who have once again gathered in the Square below, he says that “people should … give the army a chance to work and rebuild the country, and to secure a good transition period”. It is not that he disagrees with the changes Egypt is experiencing, he just feels that they will take time and hence patience is necessary. “I participated in the referendum”, he goes on. “It was the first time for me to participate in a vote, and I did so because I felt that my voice would be heard and my vote could help change the country. I feel that it’s my right to participate in helping to change and rebuild the country”. Revealing his patriotic colours, like so many who proudly fly the Egyptian tricolour these days, he adds that “I wish to see Egypt better than anywhere else, because it’s like the mother of nations. … I will live and die on this land”. Buy | Share
After moving out of Sun Hotel, I shifted to the suburb of Maadi. Khaled has a small tyre repairing business not five minutes’ walk from the apartment I moved into. Unlike the experience of the hotel industry, business doesn’t seem to have slackened for him – tyres keep on getting punctures! So we talk with him while he continues to work. “People changed after the revolution”, he observes, pointing out some small but significant differences. “People started to respect each other, and the way they deal with each other has changed. Before, they used to pass by without ever saying Salamu Alaykum (“peace be upon you“, the most common way to greet someone). Now they say this when they come”. This change in people’s ways feeds into the overall process of change in the country in a hugely important way, Khaled feels. “I wish for us all to achieve self-development, so that people treat each other well. It should be a priority to build our own selves first, before building the country, because we are the ones who must build this country”. Buy | Share
Not far from Khaled’s workshop, Mohamed runs a small florist’s shop. He too recognises the need for personal development that Khaled mentioned, and speaks of the tremendous sense of empowerment that the revolution bestowed upon him. “My own life is in my hands”, he insists, confidently, before telling us of his intentions for the future. “I’ve been working in this shop for eight years and I love the business. I’m passionate about flowers! … I will start to read and research more in the field of flower arrangement, and come up with better designs. I want my shop to be special, so I need to come up with new ideas so that I’ll be unique in my field”. This sense of empowerment extends to politics, too. “It’s now in our hands to choose the right person to lead us”, Mohamed says. “We should not choose whoever is not keen enough on getting Egypt’s future right”. And he adds, “if the person who wins the election doesn’t turn out for the best, we have the right to change him”. Buy | Share
Mahmoud’s business makes and sells garden ceramic products. It operates by the roadside in New Fostat, where he lays out his merchandise in the hope that passing drivers will notice something they like and stop. He tells us that since the revolution, it has become considerably easier to do an honest day’s work. “Before, to be able to do whatever you wanted to do, you had to make payouts. … People’s consciences have awakened”. His biggest problem used to be the regular disturbances to his business meted out by corrupt authorities. “It’s been four years since we’ve working here … and this land is legally ours”, he assures us. “We bought it and have the papers to prove it. So when we display our products on our land, there shouldn’t be any problem. Yet for the local council, it was an issue. They used to come with the Central Security cars and destroy or take our products, and they would never return them”. Since the revolution, life has been completely different. “On the second day of the revolution, all the workers came here to work, and we displayed our products outside. We didn’t fear anything anymore”. Based on this experience, Mahmoud feels more confident as he looks to the future. “The most important thing now is to refresh our economy”, he says, adding that at a more personal level, he has many hopes and dreams. In particular, he tells us that “I wish for my son to be able to enjoy a better standard of living”. Buy | Share
Sayed (left) is a taxi driver, and Ibrahim (right) owns the car he drives. We catch up with them in their home locality of Imbaba, a district that recently became notorious for sectarian clashes between conservative Salafi Muslims and Coptic Christians that threatened to undermine the revolution (see my photo essay entitled ‘Visions of Unity’ and my audio slideshow ‘One Man’s March for Unity’ for more). In the light of this, we ask them how they feel about the ongoing political changes. “I definitely feel those changes”, replies Sayed. “God creates things that are good. … I wish more good to spread in the country; I want the situation … to become stable”. For him, this need to achieve fuller stability is Egypt’s biggest challenge at present. “We, as drivers, earn our wages on a daily basis, so we are affected when the country is not active”, he explains. “There shouldn’t be demonstrations every day”. He assures us that “the revolution was a miracle”, but stresses that “we are asking God to let the people calm down … so that we can earn our livings and raise our children”. To this, Ibrahim adds that “safety is one of life’s rights, and we are asking for it now. We wish to let our girls go out freely without fear or worry”. He remembers how State Security officers used to torture and abuse people under the old regime, and is thankful that this situation has changed. Now, he says, “we want our youth to assist the government and work with them hand in hand” to consolidate what has been achieved. In reference to the sectarian violence Imbaba suffered, he assures us that what the majority want is simply “to love each other” and get on with their lives. Buy | Share