Egypt's grey economy swells in post-Mubarak turmoil

Wed Oct 19, 2011 10:03am EDT
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By Tamim Elyan

CAIRO (Reuters) - There was little certainty to Fouad Abdel Aziz's existence except for the fact that as a member of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party, he had some protection from rivals trying to muscle in on his business selling sunglasses in a Cairo market.

The complex network of patronage that stretched from Egypt's former president to the vendors of Attaba street market was largely swept away with Mubarak's overthrow in February, and 63-year-old Abdel Aziz is nervous about the future.

He earns 10 to 15 Egyptian pounds ($1.65 to $2.50) a day -- enough for a meal of beans or lentils.

"I have five kids and I really wanted to educate them but I couldn't afford it and they are on drugs now," said Abdel Aziz, who quit school before he was 10. "I dream of a night when I can sleep without having to worry."

One fifth of Egypt's 80 million people live in poverty, according to official figures, and in the short term, the overthrow of Mubarak in February has made life harder for many of them -- political unrest and uncertainty have hit the economy hard, deterring investment and disrupting trade and tourism.

With the economy floundering and formal jobs scarce, more Egyptians are trying to make ends meet in the massive grey economy, which operates outside the tax system and most government regulation.

Many begin by acquiring cheap Chinese-made goods such as toys, women's underwear, shoes or kitchen appliances, and hawking them from carts or tarpaulins spread out on pavements or hung from walls.

Attaba and other markets across Cairo may appear chaotic at first glance, but under Mubarak there was a pecking order that the police would help protect, often in exchange for bribes, traders say. As the number of street vendors has mushroomed since Mubarak's ouster, the police, rebuked by the newcomers, have abandoned their attempts to stem the tide.   Continued...

<p>A man walks past a currency exchange office in Cairo September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany</p>