For years, Damietta has been the capital of the Egyptian furniture industry, and up until recently, it was an island of growth and prosperity in a sea of economic hardship.
Has the Sisi government’s megaproject in the coastal city, Damietta Furniture City (DFC), been aimed at creating new jobs and developing Egypt’s key export sector, or will it severely harm small entrepreneurs and simply bring an end to a proud tradition of craftsmanship in Damietta?
Situated on the northern tip of the eastern branch of the Nile Delta, just 15 km south of the Mediterranean, Damietta is known as the Egyptian hub for furniture industry, where about 70 per cent of exported Egyptian furniture reportedly used to come from Damietta.
Once upon a time, when it came time for betrothed local couples to set up their new home, they traveled the desert road to Damietta, Egypt’s furniture capital, to shop for dining room tables, living room sofas, matrimonial beds. While Egyptians still shop for housewares in this port town, where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, economic realities have shifted, and Damietta now faces an uncertain future.
The coastal town has developed a proud reputation over the years for its high-quality, hand-carved household furnishings. The furniture sector has long been considered one of Egypt’s most competitive industries globally.
Even by the first decade of the 21st century, Damietta’s furniture sector enjoyed exponential growth, largely driven by a surge in exports, which—unlike virtually every other sector—has continued to grow, even as the industry overall has fallen on hard times in recent years.
On 4 May 2015, then Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab laid the foundation stone for Damietta Furniture City (DFC) in Shata, Damietta – a mega project as Sisi’s consecutive governments are fond of since he assumed power in the aftermath of the military coup that he led in 2013. .
“DFC is among the largest and most important craft and industrial projects, and is a significant tool for sustainable development,” Mahlab then declared.
Built on some 331 feddans, DFC targeted provision of 30,000 to 40,000 job opportunities, according to Ismail Taha, then Governor of Damietta.
Small workshop owners suffering
The owners of small furniture workshops in Damietta are suffering so much nowadays, including: the high cost of materials, imported furniture invading the local market, low-quality and low-priced Chinese goods, a lack of adequate social security, control over workshop owners by tycoon merchants and their capital and the deteriorating health of workers.
The industry has been neglected and doesn’t receive enough support, given that it is the main source of income for Damietta governorate, with exports in the first quarter of 2014 reaching LE207 million, according to the Exports Council.
Approximately 70 percent of Damietta’s residents work in the furniture industry, in addition to workers from Gharbiya, Daqahliya and Port Said, among other areas — for Damietta is the “Kuwait” of Egypt.
According to official statistics, there are around 11,000 workers registered in the syndicate of furniture workers. The numbers in reality, however, are quite different. There are no accurate records of the number of small workshops, and the most recent statistics, from 2010, show 37,000 registered workshops that pay taxes.
But there are thousands of unregistered workshops in Damietta, the city that seems like a huge factory without walls. On both sides of the street, warehouses stocking imported wood can be found, and furniture showrooms are everywhere.
After the 2011 revolution, the city and its workers witnessed several changes: local designs regressed, the cost of materials soared, and merchants evaded payments, which increased their debts.
Many small workshop owners left their business to find alternative sources of income that were more stable, even if they were earning less than from their workshops. This is one of the largest blows to the industry, since most of the youth in Damietta prefer artisanship to government employment.
Many carpenters and wood polishers suffer from bronchial asthma, caused by constant exposure to sawdust and polyester paint. Most artisans don’t receive medical care for vocational diseases, which can mean they only live until 50 years old, or so.
Carpenters risk injury on a daily basis, and in some cases require the amputation of a finger or limb. The nearest hospital is Damietta General Hospital, which has a shortage of services and trained staff.
The Workers Syndicate, established more than 35 years ago, does not offer any other services to workers, so they and their families do not receive any social or medical insurance.
Post-DFC further suffering
The suffering of the Damietta people has even worsened after the government’s megaproject, the Damietta Furniture City (DFC), that proved useless and even a complete failure.
This video clip, which was filmed by a woman from Damietta, in which she expresses her suffering and the suffering of her husband and children, clearly reflects the difficult reality that Damietta is living through nowadays, after it had been a zero-unemployment city.
In the footage, the woman says:
Today I am going to talk about a serious issue that we suffer from: we can no longer earn our living and we can’t even find anything to eat.
We and many people have talked about this problem a lot but without finding any solution. Now my husband is wood polisher, and he is out of work ; and my kids, one is 28 and the other is 26, are carpenters that are also unemployed. My children are at this age and yet they cannot get married because they simply cannot rent flats to live in; as they still live with us in a rented flat.
The reason for this is that the poor condition of the workshop owners led to the closure of these workshops, and thus the craftsmen could not find work and could not earn their daily living. The activity of some workshops have been changed into other activities, while craftsmen find look for other jobs but they cannot find any. Even housewives went to look for work in factories to earn their household’s living.
We are literally dying slowly, and we can’t find food. At the same time, we are craftsmen and do not know any other work other than these crafts that we know. If there are no jobs, what can we do?
We don’t want mere talk; we just want a solution to our problem.
The lady then addressed her complaint to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, saying: “We only want to earn our livelihood and the food of our children,” adding, “The so-called Damietta Furniture City, on which millions have been spent, is just concrete structures, and there is no work in it. As for those who can practice any activity there, it is because they own sufficient money to engage in such activity.”
She added, “Wasn’t the purpose of creating this furniture city to provide job opportunities? Unfortunately, this city did not work and there are no jobs. It is a just a ruin city inhabited by street dogs.”
“Furniture workshops became cafes; Our craftsmen have become unemployed and remain sitting in these cafes. Please, find solutions to our problems,” she said.