CAIRO — As Egyptians head to the polls to begin the process of choosing the first freely elected president in their country's history, the square where Egypt's revolution was born is abuzz. Campaign workers glue posters of their favorite candidate to street lamps, traffic signs and every inch of uncovered wall space, and man tables overflowing with campaign literature, urging pedestrians in the square to vote. Clusters of protesters continue rallying for their own particular causes: higher wages, lower bread prices, freedom of speech.
Yet among the busiest Egyptians in the square these days are Adel Sobhi, Ali Makri and Mohammed Agman. They are not campaign workers or political activists. They're street vendors, and they all, to varying degrees, have turned their country's revolution into commercial opportunity. Politics and nostalgia are big sellers in Egypt these days. Everyone who visits Tahrir Square seems to want a reminder of those heady weeks — only 16 months ago — when more than a million people thronged the streets to end the rule of Egypt's seemingly eternal modern-day pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak. And business has been booming.
Eighty piasters (less than 15 cents) will get you one of Sobhi's Egyptian flag pins. Ten pounds ($1.60) will buy a polyester top hat in Egypt's national colors — red, white and black. Baseball caps that urge their wearers in Arabic to "Hold your head up: You're Egyptian!" have sold well. But so too have handmade green flags adorned with the Muslim Brotherhood slogan. And Sobhi said he can hardly stock enough pins featuring the face of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military officer who led what Egyptians call their first revolution in 1952 — in fact not a revolution at all, but a military coup.
Even in Tahrir Square — which is synonymous with the revolution and the liberal youth movement that launched it — Islamist trinkets are selling well. Egypt's young secular activists still hotly debate how the army wound up naming and controlling Egypt's interim Cabinet. They are depressed that Egyptians gave roughly two-thirds of their parliamentary votes to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme Salafists. Most of the candidates favored by the April 6 youth movement are not likely to make the cut to the second round of presidential voting in June. But many of them remain adamantly opposed to any candidate associated with the previous regime. Sobhi told me he doesn't even stock any buttons or pins featuring Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and Arab League chief president, or Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force chief and current army favorite. They were both feloul, he said with disdain — an Egyptian-Arabic word meaning "remnants" or "leftovers" (i.e, from the now-discredited Mubarak regime).
In addition to political tchotchkes, Ali Makri, at 24 the youngest of the vendors, sells rubber batons. They came in handy, he recalled, when the street protests turned violent last year. So, too, did the cotton handkerchiefs he sells, which served as impromptu gas masks.
Mohammed Agman, 37, does not sell revolutionary paraphernalia at all. The field was too crowded, he explained. His tables instead offer rubber cockroaches made in China (16 cents a bug) and plastic spiders that spring from a plywood box when opened — a steal, he insisted, for a mere 5 Egyptian pounds, less than 90 cents. Such items, he said, appealed mostly to fellaheen from Upper Egypt and the delta — fellaheen being the Arabic word for "farmers," a term which suggests "country bumpkins" to sophisticated Cairenes.
Agman wasn't always a street vendor. Before the revolution, he had practiced law in Embaba, he told me, pulling out his Egyptian Bar Association identity card lest I doubt his word. Though being a street vendor isn't as prestigious as his former job, he said quietly, he is now making more money than he ever made representing his fellow Egyptians. The revolution dramatically changed Sobhi's life too, though not for the better. Before hawking trinkets, he had sold flowers in a shop called Flower Power at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel down the street along the Nile. He had lost his job when tourists stopped coming to Cairo and the shop cut its employees wages in half. He was now making about half of what he once made there — about 2,500 Egyptian pounds ($415) a month. But at least street vendors don't pay taxes, Sobhi laughed.
Much of the fierce debate over Egypt's future has centered on political questions. But these three men embody the nation's most serious challenge: the economy. Forty percent of Egypt's 85 million people earn less than $2 a day. Twelve percent of Egyptians are now unemployed; unemployment among the young is estimated at more than 25 percent. True, such numbers are often guesstimates; Egypt's skyrocketing debt, by contrast, is all too concrete. The country's next president faces a projected financing gap of $11 billion over the coming 18 months. Foreign investment here has plunged from $13 billion in 2008 to $200 million last year. Energy subsidies alone account now for 6 percent of the GDP. The government employs (and grossly underpays) more than 6 million public servants. Diplomats say the military owns or controls between 15 and 40 percent of the economy. Tourism, a major income earner, is off by a third.
All of which means Egypt will need more than trinkets for foreigners and revolutionary dreams for its own people, whose hopes have soared even as the value of its currency has plummeted.