Parking for a living

With unemployment likely to increase, Cairo's street economy flourishes.

    Some unemployed Egyptians have turned to parking vehicles for money [GALLO/GETTY]

    Amid Cairo's bustling neighbourhoods, where cars and people battle for space on congested roads, two brothers are keenly watching a new BMW slow down at an intersection a few metres away.

    The driver, a young woman, appears distressed as surrounding cars come very close to hitting her.

    Hisham nudges his brother, Sayed, who quickly runs toward the BMW and asks the woman for the keys. She hesitates before handing him the keys and walking away from the car.

    In any other metropolis this may appear to be the scene of a car-jacking, but in Cairo it is an example of a street economy that has become increasingly popular during periods of financial crisis.

    Sayed is known among Cairo residents - also called Cairenes - as a sayes, or parking attendant that roams the city streets looking for drivers in need of his valet services.
    Each service has its cost, of course. If he were to find a place for the car, the driver pays from five to ten Egyptian pounds ($0.80 to $1.80).

    Sign of the times

    The job of the sayes is a fairly new socio-economic trade. It was a rarity in the 1960s and 70s, but gained a foothold in the 1980s as migration from rural to urban centres increased Cairo's population from 10 to 18 million people.

    With the migration of many farmers to the heart of the city, urban developers felt the need to demolish thousands of villas and raise buildings which would house several families.

    On average, Cairo's buildings have five floors, each with at least two apartments. With two cars to a family, every building requires enough adjacent space to park 20 cars.

    In 1980, several Cairo municipalities started to require that parking attendants apply for a license to park cars.

    "With the increasing numbers of cars in the streets, the municipality urged people to register," said Saber Abdel Aal, an official at the Mohamed Mahmoud street municipality.

    "Each registered Sayes is required to wear a city-certified metal name tag at all times."

    Harsh economic realities

    The growth of modern accommodations increased the need for more parking spaces [GALLO/GETTY] 
    However, the global banking crisis in 2008 and its effect on Egypt's once-thriving real estate market put strains on the economy and the already devalued local currency.

    Brokerage firms in Egypt predict that the US financial downturn could reduce growth in foreign investment in the country by as much as 35 per cent.

    Tariq Hussein, a Dubai-based financial analyst, says emerging markets, such as Egypt, are forced to bear the repercussions of the US financial downturn.

    "There is no doubt that over the past five months, foreign investors have been aggressively fleeing our regions' equity markets," he told Al Jazeera.

    Egypt's central bank expects economic growth at 6 per cent, down from 7.2 per cent in 2007.

    Egyptian investment firms have also pointed out that foreign direct investment (FDI) figures are also expected to fall in the face of the global financial turmoil.

    Some financial experts believe the unemployment rate will surge past the officially reported statistic of 8.3 per cent.

    Egyptian police authorities say they anticipate a number of unemployed men will turn to the street for work. 

    Khaled Abd El Rahman, an official with the Cairo traffic police department, said the authorities are no longer enforcing the licensing rule on parking attendants.

    "If we closed all [the] doors of opportunity to them, you will find that they will soon resort to theft," he told Al Jazeera.

    "The demand for the sayes is really growing - sometimes drivers have no other option but to leave their cars with a sayes to park. Who has time to park a car on a busy day?"

    Garage days

    Sayed, who is an unlicensed parking attendant, has been driving around Ali Mahmud Street in Heliopolis, a suburb in northeast Cairo, for 15 minutes hoping to find a parking space for the BMW.

    He tells Al Jazeera that the BMW's owner is not one of his regular customers, but he figured he could use the extra money.

    "My brother and I are responsible for 100 vehicles; we are able to park 10 of them in the garage of a nearby building, but the other 90 we drive around the neighbourhood until we find a parking spot," he said.

    Last year, the brothers were living in al-Mahala, a town in the al-Gharbya province north of Cairo where they both had jobs. They moved to Cairo once the opportunities for work became scarce.

    "Parking cars all day is a tiring job, but it is worth the money paid," Hisham said.

    Sayed and his brother pay the garage owner the equivalent of $18 a month for each car. They then charge the car owners about $26 a month and pocket the difference.

    For each car parked in the street, the brothers charge about $7 a month, half of which goes to the garage owner. Together they earn about $385 a month, nearly three times the average salary of a government employee.

    "But we usually depend on tips," Hisham said, grinning.

    "During Ramadan and the Eid our customers tip rather generously."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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