How’s business? Tear gas economy flourishes in Tahrir Square

Clashes between riot police and protesters, Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 19,2011. Violent clashes erupted when riot forces despersed Tahrir sit-in violently, which left one death, and hundreds of injuries.

I went on a shopping spree today, but not my normal kind, for food or clothes. On Tuesday I bought tear gas protective gear: a hard hat, goggles, a plastic filter mask, and a surgical mask.

They were purchased from vendors in Tahrir Square, where clashes between police and protestors continue for a fourth day in the surrounding streets. About 30 people have died so far, according to official tallies.

Karim positioned his stall strategically at the start of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where much of the fiercest fighting is taking place. He sold goggles for LE5 and a plastic filter mask for LE15, both made in China.

He was too busy selling gear to answer my questions, but said that prior to this he sold T-shirts on Talaat Harb Street. He thinks on his feet.

Hamdi Alam was standing nearby. He sold surgical masks that he bought from a pharmacy. “Anything to protect the people,” he told me. At LE1, these are the cheapest protective gear you can get, but they are much less effective than their plastic counterparts. Still, they are popular – Alam sold about 200 masks on Monday, he said.

Before Saturday, the first day of clashes and when Alam began working in the square, he sold flags on side streets. He is one of many vendors who have become part of Tahrir’s scene, which also includes makeshift field hospitals, as well as tea and food stands.

Not everyone is happy about the vendors, though. Some see them as opportunistic, rather than serving a greater good: the protection of protestors against tear gas fired by security services.

“They are just taking advantage of the revolution, and not helping anyone,” Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, a security worker, said.

But as tear gas continued to fill the air in Tahrir and its side streets for a fourth straight day, reaching as far as Qasr al-Ainy near the cabinet building, the sight of hard hats, goggles and filter masks became more familiar.

“You still get affected by the tear gas, even with all the plastic gear, but it is bearable and much better than the surgical masks,” said Ibrahim Abed, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement who was wearing a hard hat, goggles, a plastic filter mask, and gloves.

Abed bought his gear from the Gomhouriya area where many shops and stalls sell industrial security goods. Traders in Gomhouriya said they had witnessed a large number of people coming to buy protective gear last night with the explicit aim of using it in Tahrir Square.

“Shops in Gomhouriya must have sold around 10,000 items yesterday from the demand coming from the square,” Walid Ali Abbas, a trader, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Ahmed Magdy, another trader, said he must have had about 50 customers last night, with the fastest-selling items being filters for LE15. His usual customers are companies, who buy the gear to protect their workers.

But Abbas is not happy about this phenomenon, nor were many other traders. They say that the Tahrir vendors are opportunistic middlemen who buy goods from Gomhouriya or elsewhere and then sell them for a profit in the square.

“The revolution’s thieves,” Abbas said of the vendors.

The price of protective gear did not appear to differ much, though, between Gomhouriya and the square. But it does vary depending on where it is made.

Abbas sells Egyptian-made hard-hats for LE6.5, Chinese hats for LE10, Spanish for LE15, British for LE23 and US-made 3M hats for LE125.

The hats are being used by protestors to protect themselves from rubber bullets and birdshot cartridges.

The most prominent weapon, however, is tear gas, which affects not just protestors and police but ordinary citizens going about their daily lives.

The sight of blood-shot eyes, red faces, and people covering their nose and mouth has become common over the last few days, as have white-stained faces – protestors have a milk-based solution poured on them to counter the effect of tear gas.

“We have seen a lot of suffocating, skin irritation, conjunctivitis, and from Monday evening, hypotension, due to the tear gas,” Mohamed al-Zouiry, a doctor at the Tahrir field hospital, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. To date, no one is known to have died from the tear gas.

The hospital had to move its location from behind the restaurant Hardees near Mohamed Mahmoud, after it was hit on Sunday morning at about 4 am with tear gas bombs hitting near both its two entrances, Zouiry said. It is now based in an outdoor space at the intersection of Talaat Harb Street and Bab al-Louq.

By midday, Karim also had to move his stall to Talaat Harb Street as crowds grew at Mohamed Mahmoud.

As I left the square, doctors at the many field hospitals continued treating injured protestors and passersby. And vendors continued selling.

“Protect yourself for one Egyptian pound only,” was the last thing I heard.

( / 22.11.2011)

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