Cairo’s small business owners hope for stability, skilled workforce and clear-out of bureaucracy in 2015

Emir Nader
17 Min Read

Special Year End 2014 Feature:

Squeezed in to the tight streets of Bab El-Louq, downtown Cairo, is the grand Greek Campus. Once a girl’s school for the city’s Greek community, it was taken over by the American University in Cairo (AUC) in the mid-20th century. After the AUC moved to its new campus on the sandy edge of the city in 2008, the vast complex fell idle for five years.

In November 2013, the opportunity to re-fashion the old classrooms and lecture halls into a new seat of development was seized by businessman Ahmed Al-Alfi. He signed a ten-year lease with the AUC and set out to create Cairo’s first technology and innovation park – and things are looking good.

“2014 has been a great success for us. One year ago this entire space was empty, and now we have 101 companies with over 600 employees working here,” CEO Tarek Ali Taha of the Greek Campus told Daily News Egypt.

The management likes to think of the Campus as an ‘ecosystem’ of small start-up businesses, housing innovative approaches to childcare, digital services, renewable energy, handicrafts, and even an online radio and carpooling scheme.

“In terms of what’s led to our successes this year, our downtown location is key. We can provide small companies with a type of space that is hard to find in Cairo, where commercial and residential units are often mixed. Having so many companies in a shared space allows us to share ideas and give extra energy to one another,” said Taha.

Sitting amongst streets that have been filled by many protestors in recent years, Taha remains concerned about security for the businesses he hosts.

“For next year, especially with our proximity to Tahrir Square, political stability is an important issue for us,” he said. “We want to be able to have a safe environment for our companies and employees. But we’ve been very happy with this stability this year.”

“We would like to have more of an international profile in 2015, so we can attract foreign businesses and have our hub known across the entrepreneur world. It would be great to see the government fund some kind of entrepreneurship programme providing education and support for these fledgling companies.”

Taha feels that the world of small businesses would benefit significantly from a reduction to bureaucratic red-tape hindering work and tax incentives for small companies.

For Eddie Saade, a business developer at the Campus, the challenge for his work in 2015 is not poor market demand, but the country’s poor education and a cobweb of bureaucracy.

“Teachers are overburdened and underpaid, so many also work after-hours in private tuition and the public education suffers. It’s difficult to find qualified and skilled staff, even for soft skills like professionalism.”

Saade is currently working with Al-TV, a start-up hoping to ‘monetise’ video content for local producers. “To find the right staff I’ve had to tap into informal networks. There’s a huge, young workforce who are eager to learn, but the process of having to constantly develop your staff’s skills is unfeasible for small companies like us.”

A main reason for Egypt’s difficult small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) environment is that the bureaucracy is “ridiculous”, says Saade. “It’s not that there isn’t a lot of SMEs, it’s just that they avoid registering”.

But Saade is unfazed by the difficulty in getting the ball rolling for his new business: “I see the challenges as an opportunity, because if you can provide a solution to the problems you make money”.


2014 was “one of the worse years” for workers, says Fatma Ramadan, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Fatma Ramadan, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), described 2014 as “one of the worse years” for workers.

Hoda Kamel, coordinator of an NGO-led campaign called “Towards a Fair Labour Law”, said one of the many issues workers continue to face is the absence of a law regulating union freedom. Independent trade unions are unregulated under Egyptian law, according to Kamel, who noted there are thousands of them.

Fatma Ramadan, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), agreed, saying such a law would allow workers to organise freely without intervention in their affairs. “These unions would tackle the injustice that workers face,” she said, but added the general labour unions have long proven they do not defend workers’ rights.

Ramadan described 2014 as “one of the worse years” for workers. She added that it is now worse than under former President Hosni Mubarak, due to rising inflation and low workers’ bonuses.

The current regime policy is leading to more unjust dismissals, she said, especially for workers involved in trade union activity. The Ministry of Manpower does little to help workers who complain about injustices, she added.


The healthcare industry was the subject of many patient and provider demands. Architecture student Donya Younis, who lives in Ezbet Hagana, said one of Egypt’s biggest healthcare problems is unaffordable treatment. Even in public hospitals, patients are often required to pay for certain services and medication.

While consumers are unhappy about the services, industry workers complain the government is ignoring their demands.

Doctors started 2014 with a series of strikes that lasted until May.

Taher Mokhtar, a doctor and former board member of the Doctor’s Syndicate, said only some of the doctors’ demands were achieved, with doctors winning some financial incentives and allowances.

In February, former Interim President Adly Mansour passed a law addressing doctors’ financial issues. But the final demands for raising the state budget for health to 15% was also not addressed, which reflects on the medical service offered to citizens.

Mokhtar said some doctors are currently angry and considering striking once more in 2015. Others have simply lost hope for a solution, and are leaving the country for opportunities abroad.

Sahar Ibrahim, 46, nurse, lives in Faysal: Everyone says nurses are “cruel” and fail to do their jobs, but they should come see the conditions nurses work in. We are very poorly paid, and salary margins increases slowly or never. The hospitals and medical centres are in terrible condition; we are sometimes under-staffed and have to work long hours. All this puts lots of pressure on nurses, I want the government to start fixing the healthcare system starting with the nurses because they are a major part of it and contribute a lot.

WORKERS WITH NO CONTRACTS: Mohamed Douban, who is demanding a job of the Petroleum Projects and Technical Consultations (Petrojet) company said: “There was no notable achievement in 2014”. Douban and several hundred workers were involved in Petrojet projects on a contract basis which have not been renewed since the 25 January Revolution.

Douban claims the company is currently involved in many projects and is resorting to contractors to supply workers for these projects, but that “there is no intention to reinstate us” he said.

Despite no change in their situation, Douban said they did not hold protests in 2014 because of the “political situation in the country”. He said they did not want to be the reason for instability in the country.


Steel prices will be fixed in August despite what the domestic market suffers from stagnation. (DNE PHOTO)
Egyptian Iron and Steel Company’s (HADISOLB) workers have carried on striking from 2013 all through 2014

The legal environment surrounding workers:

Worker and strike representative Mohamed Omar, from the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company’s (HADISOLB), said not a single demand was achieved in 2014. He said the most important demand at this stage is running factories at full capacity.

Douban said he sat with government officials and agreed on a deal, which would see the company’s administration replaced, bonus payments and increasing the factory’s running capacity.

HADISOLB employs over 11,700 workers, and is one of many companies belonging to the Egyptian Metallurgical Industries Holding Company, which employs almost 34,700 workers across 14 companies.

Iron and steel workers ended 2013 with strikes, even welding shut the gates of a factory in Helwan in December, ending 2014 the same way. On 7 December 2014, they shut down the gates of another factory, announcing a strike.

  1. Law 32/2014, protecting “corrupt government contracts”

Omar said the company currently runs at 20%, with many public companies privatised.

EIPR’s Fatma Ramadan mentioned more than one indication suggesting this direction, including Investment Law 32/2014.

The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) says the law protects “corrupt government contracts”. It also describes the law, issued in April 2014 by then-Interim President Adly Mansour, as one of the worst new laws which wastes public money.

It prevents third parties from challenging contracts between the government and investors, and even prevents challenges to decisions on real estate privatisation. The law states that appeals against any investment contracts signed by the government will not be possible.

ECESR is currently appealing, basing their appeal on nine constitutional challenges against the law, including violating various articles of the 2014 Constitution.

  1. Amendments to the Labour Law 12/2003

There have long been calls by workers to amend this law. Ramadan said draft amendments are “more unjust than the law itself”.

“This law is supposed to protect the workers,” said Hoda Kamel from “Towards a Fair Labour Law”, adding “it is being amended in a manner that works against their interests”.

Article 194 in the draft law bans workplace sit-ins leading to a full or partial halt in work, according to a study by the campaign in August.

In November, the campaign criticised amendments to the law, saying the draft indicates the Minister of Manpower Nahed Al-Ashry has “submitted to the demands of business owners”.

One of several amendments the campaign cites is a text stating that workers are to be dismissed through a labour court decision. As it does not stipulate a punishment for not doing so, businesses can dismiss workers without a court decision and without punishment.

Another amendment bans the unjust dismissal of union members due to union activity, but this text also does not stipulate a punishment for business owners, should they do so.

  1. The Protest Law

Former Interim President Mansour issued one of Egypt’s most controversial laws in November 2013, the Protest Law.

The law has since faced heavy criticism from international and domestic rights organisations, with most describing it as repressive, and infringing on rights for freedom of assembly and expression.

Ramadan said the Protest Law has affected the labour movement. The permits workers apply for to be able to protest rejected leaving them unable to ask for their rights.

The Protest Law stipulates that if a protest, march or general meeting is planned, organisers must submit a written notice to the nearest police station at least three working days in advance.

Evicted farmers speak about the demolition of their homes

The Endowments Authority has sought to evict thousands of Alexandria farmers to pursue real estate development.  On 10 and 17 December, 20 homes were destroyed near the rural Montazah district, and in the Amamel Mamour Sharty and Shara Al-Malah areas.  Over 100 residents were left homeless.

One of the residents, father-of-eight Said Mohamed, constructed a wooden shack of about 3sqm after his home was destroyed.

He said: “We were working in the house when the security forces came and knocked on our door.  They dragged us from our home and punched us, my wife and my son.  They beat us.  The security forces pushed us out of the house. We showed them our documents but they said it was not their problem. How is it possible they get our homes and our lands? Why did they do this? We want them to know we are not criminals. We just want to live.”

Though his home was not destroyed on 10 December, Mansour Zidan feels as though his building is next for demolition.

Mansour Zidan said: “I’ve lived here for 75 years. This is my childhood home. I have documents for this land.  I have the rights to this land. We have documents that showed we paid for everything. I want them to leave us alone.  Eighteen people live in this house.  We just want some place to sleep.  I’m just a farmer. I don’t have experience with anything else but farming.  We just want to stay here and earn a living.  Maybe President Al-Sisi is a good man, but he doesn’t know our problems.  There are powers under him who do these actions.”

Fisherman voice marginalisation and neglect from the government (AFP Photo)
Fisherman voice marginalisation and neglect from the government
(AFP Photo)

The fishermen speak:


Sami Ragab, a fisherman in Damietta, complained that “fishermen are marginalized and completely neglected by the government.” He said the government should establish a rescue unit to save fishermen from the sea in the case of accidents.

“The fisherman’s job is risky and dangerous, yet he is not covered by health insurance,” said Hossam Khalil, president of a cooperative society for fishermen in Damietta.

Khalil called for greater benefits for fishermen and said that the lack of an independent ministry for fisheries was one of the main reason behind the government’s neglect of the industry. “The current system of fisheries is scientifically incorrect and causes a waste in resources. It does not allow time for reproduction and only 10 percent of the fish survive,” he said.

“Moreover, there is a lack of monitoring and regulations on fishing, according to international standards, as fishermen catch fish they are not supposed to, for example females who are supposed to be preserved for reproduction.”



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