The Irreparable Loss of Cairo's Street Café District
In the last four years, the Cairo café district known as el-Borsa has been raided by the police for its role in fostering a revolution, as well as its reputation for attracting drug dealers, sex workers, and gay men. In March, it was shut down for good.
In the early hours of Friday, March 13, Egyptian authorities marched with unprecedented civility into el-Borsa—an emblematic café district in downtown Cairo—to shut it down. The owners of 36 cafés, 21 businesses, and a few odd kiosks stood helplessly as the authorities dismantled their livelihoods, all before the city could wake up to bear witness. Hundreds of bright plastic chairs—occupied the night before by a hodgepodge of customers, including football fans, unemployed youth, discreet couples, artists, men in suits, and women in hijabs—are now piled up and gathering dust. From above, women ululated from their balconies.
The aftermath of el-Borsa's sudden closure has important economic implications for both the downtown community and the nature of Cairo's city centre. The move comes as part of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's decision to "clean" downtown of the morass of informal businesses that grew out of the 2011 revolution. However, the disappearance of street cafés is not only a step toward law enforcement, as officially stated, but a sign of the regime retaking lost territory and asserting control over the city's public spaces: street cafés.
It has been more than two months since Khaled, 28, stopped earning an income. A young man from Asyut—the town in Upper Egypt that begat the beloved Gamal Abdel Nasser—Khaled is one of the three dozen café owners affected by the closure of el-Borsa. Inside the somber establishment, now infested with cockroaches and looming shadows, Khaled tried to make sense of the eventualities that led to the downfall of Cairo's biggest street café.
Khaled opened his café in 2002, flirting dangerously with the law until he got his permit in 2009. "This time is serious," he said as he smoothed out the license that failed to protect him. In recent years, Egypt's ailing economy has been characterized by a period of slow growth, increasing budget deficit, declining foreign currency reserves, and rising unemployment. As a result, people turn to the informal economy, the source of an estimated 10 million jobs in Egypt, or 85 percent of small and medium enterprises.
"The government stopped issuing shisha [water pipe] licenses in the 90s," said Am Mohamed, a middle-aged café owner in downtown Cairo. The only prerequisite for a sidewalk to turn into an ahua (street café) is the presence of plastic chairs. But operating Egypt's most popular and egalitarian meeting points is part of an obscure system in which shisha requires its own license—as do drinks and food—and owners learn to walk through minefields.
"It's just an idea that came to the government," said Am Mohamed, referring to the café licensing. To an extent, most street cafés in Cairo operate illegally, making el-Borsa café owners skeptical of the government's official rationale to shut it down. "All downtown was affected," he added, " but they give us no way to become legal," he argued. "What are we supposed to do?"
After the 2011 uprising, el-Borsa became a hub for the youth—and due to its proximity to Tahrir Square, the revolutionary youth in particular. The patches of chairs placed on the streets delineate the public sphere in Cairo. Planning a revolution, or staying out of it, took place along games of backgammon, shisha, and tea with mint. In the last four years, el-Borsa has been raided by the police for its role in fostering a revolution, as well as its reputation for attracting drug dealers, sex workers, and gay men. "Bos [look],"said Khaled. "Revolutionaries stopped coming here after the first arrests. They say, 'We are revolutionaries.' They say, 'We are ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood]. They could even say, 'We are dead.'"
"I am dead," Khaled said emphatically, "and I don't care."
The café culture in Cairo mirrors the reality of contemporary Egypt. "Each café in downtown has its own culture," said Ahmed S., an avid rock fan and a known presence in many of downtown cafés. While some downtown cafés such as Souq El Hamaliya, Nadwa, Takaiba, and Boraka are distinctly known for the crowds they attract—the artists, the dancers, the activists, the expats—the pedestrian streets of el-Borsa made the cafés diverse and inclusive.
Café culture in Egypt is male-dominated. Men spend hours sitting in cafés, before and after work, employed or unemployed, every day. But el-Borsa was a place that invited women to sit with their friends and smoke shisha, an act that still possesses a certain defiance. El-Borsa's size, location, and ambiance offered young Egyptians a respite from the stern status quo.
The range of emotions felt by the café owners ranged from indifference and fear to outrage the closer they were to el-Borsa. For Khaled, "akl aish"—business is business. "People think that the new revolution may come out of el-Borsa," he explained as a possible basis for the sudden closure.
Across from el-Borsa, Ahmed—a towering man with a lisp and a few missing teeth—told me his side of the story. ¨The police have threatened to close me down if I put even one chair outside," he said. Like every café in the vicinity, Ahmed has been hard hit and now eyes his young clientele warily. "The problem is young guys," he said. "The cafés in el-Borsa were stupid for letting customers do what they wanted."
"El-Borsa has been [at the center of] the government's four-year administrative and legal effort to close them down," said Tarek Atia, the publisher of Mantiqti, a local newspaper in the district. El-Borsa encompassed a mix of residential buildings and an ill-conceived financial district. In the years following the 2011 uprising, the authorities lost control of the cafés, and they began to eat up the pedestrian streets, disrupting the lives of residents and businesses. "The cafés wanted everything," continued Atia, who was involved in efforts to establish regulations and compromises between residents, cafés, and the local government. Petitions were signed in an attempt to involve the community and reach consensus, but failed to materialize.
"The core of the problem is poor planning on the part of the authorities," Atia continued from inside Mantiqti's headquarters. The lack of transparency and democratic participation for the community characterizes the government's decision-making process. Now that el-Borsa's vibrant café culture has been lost to make room for a parking lot, Atia condemns decisions made by "a few people behind closed doors."
Still, the closure of the cafés in el-Borsa did not come as a surprise. Yahya Wagdy, the editor-in-chief at Mantiqti, has been following el-Borsa's demise since January. Due to the illegal status of most of the cafés in el-Borsa, café owners sided with state security during the regime's crackdown. "After Borsa lost its main clientele, el-Borsa attracted a crowd that was entertained with blasting music and football games," said Wagdy. With time, friction between residents, café owners, and baffled government officials led to the latter's ironclad decision to close the cafés rather than to regulate them. El-Borsa's major stakeholders were unable to reach a consensus, and now the government has closed down the cafés that made more money than the borsa itself—the stock exchange that gave the district its name.
Even though café owners refuse to talk about politics, the government's harsh implementation of the law has left café owners like Am Mohamed asking why. "Why would you close them down now if some have been working for 18 years?" he asked. While the decision is a curse for some and a blessing for others, el-Borsa is now a ghost town and a tragic example of a zero-sum approach to community building. "The president is a good man, but the government is bad," said Khaled—a statement that exemplifies the dilemma of Egyptians coming to terms with their government's decisions.
Whether or not el-Borsa will reemerge as a meeting point for a large segment of the Egyptian population is yet to be seen. "Install order," urged Am Mohmed, "but don't close the cafés."