His polished shoes have bronze tips, a rich man’s trinkets on a poor man’s feet. The shoes glow as he lords it over a stretch of sidewalk where, after paying off cops and other officials who sidle up to him with a wink and a smirk, he can earn $5 a day parking cars beneath the palms near the mall.
Moving quickly through the traffic, Mounir Essawy co-opts public space and turns it into a sliver of private enterprise. He and the other parking guys are part of Cairo’s gray economy, a vast netherworld of whispers, bribes and illegalities that keeps this overcrowded city running the way an old engine is kept alive with spare parts.
“A TV show called us thugs and claimed that we take money by force,” said Essawy, his shirt tucked into dirty jeans, his combed-back hair a testament to the days when he had his own barbershop and life was less precarious.
“But I have four kids and I can’t feed them. I have to polish shoes in the day and park cars at night. I’m an educated man, but all doors are closed to normal Egyptians.”
Essawy and his compatriots have divided the sidewalk and road outside the CityStars mall so that each gets 10 parking places. They charge two Egyptian pounds, or about 35 cents, a car -- the driver doesn’t have to pay, but a refusal may draw narrow stares and angry words. The police get kickbacks and pretend not to notice; if the bribe is late, an arrest is made.
Few complain. This is how Cairo works.
At the top of government and society, multimillion-dollar corruption is common, but sleight-of-hand cleverness also trickles through the streets and alleys where even those with steady civil service jobs venture into creative and questionable moonlighting.
Teachers, for example, earn more by privately tutoring students after school than they do in the classroom. This has hurt public education and has forced parents, many of whom earn no more than $145 a month, to pay for what the state fails to provide.
“Gaps are being filled because the state is weak,” said Samer Soliman, a political economist at the American University in Cairo. “Once I saw a soldier with his gun cleaning a car. He was supposed to be guarding a building, but instead he was polishing a car to make extra money.
“It was very revealing. The people at the bottom of government are very poor and have to find other ways to make money. This hidden economy is highly acceptable in Egyptian society.”
Here in Nasr City, a neighborhood built in the 1960s and ‘70s with money that migrant Egyptians sent home from jobs in the Gulf states, poverty bleeds into nouveau riche affluence.
Outside the CityStars mall, where Philippine maids window-shop and men in suits carry gifts in designer bags, the parking guys dart among cars while boys selling bunches of wilted spearmint make the gritty air sweet.
Parker Sayed Sadeeq Abdellah keeps an eye out for police.
“Sometimes they raid us and we have to run away,” he said. “We make no money on those days.”
He is circumspect when asked whether he pays bribes to cops, but after a while, a smile creeps across his face and he nods, “Yes.”
He fled the Suez after Egypt’s 1967 war with Israel, ending up in Cairo, where he opened a peanut shop that eventually went bankrupt, forcing him onto the street. “I didn’t understand the politics of the market,” he said.
His brother-in-law led him to the business of parking cars. The job is another curious wrinkle of the Cairo streets, where occupations unheard of one day materialize the next out of crafty desperation. Most men here don’t have parking vendor licenses, which makes their work illegal, but that technicality is overlooked as long as the police go home happy.
For Abdellah there’s nothing illegal about it; he provides a service that earns him about $132 a month to support his three children, including two university students.
“Only God knows what future my children will have,” Abdellah said as the men around him negotiated for cars, each guarding his swath of blacktop and concrete. “Will it be better than mine? I don’t know. I feel so much despair these days. . . . There is so much competition and greed in this job.”
The ragged bills passing from Abdellah’s palm to his pocket are an indicator of how severe things have become in this city of 16 million people. The parking guys used to charge 10 cents, but with fewer options and jobs available amid steadily rising prices, they bumped their fees. Many old people complain and refuse to pay; others scoff and give a lower amount.
Hamidi Ali’s plan was to fix refrigerators. But his degree from a vocational school has done him little good, and like the other men on this stretch of road, he is a silhouette hustling between the setting sun and the neon.
“I passed this street three years ago and saw guys doing this, and I decided to join them,” he said amid the sparks and construction clatter of a building rising behind him. “There is no other way. I have no money. I can’t get married. How can I raise a family? . . . I’ve been arrested two or three times, but the prosecutors release me. I come back because there’s nothing else.”
Essawy was a barber for 25 years. He had his own shop for a while, but the number of customers dwindled and he couldn’t pay the rent.
He showed up at CityStars with a shoeshine box and a lot of debt. He polishes shoes and parks cars, moving his brushes and watching the street, talking about his two daughters and two sons.
The barber in him projects a regal air and, despite the black jeans and a pullover shirt misted with dust, he seems to have kept part of himself separate from his predicament.
“I’m here from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. each day,” he said. “I’d like to have a job with a good, fixed salary, but there are none.”
A police car passed. Shoppers filed toward the mall’s Magic Galaxy wing, not far from an atrium shaped like a pyramid. A truck screeched, a driver shook his hand in anger. A man selling belts from a pushcart edged through the traffic and waved.
Essawy waved back. “That’s my brother.”
Noha El Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.