In 6 October City, a new sprawl of malls and mansions just west of the capital, locals say there is only one shop that sells alcohol. Its name is Bazaar al-Gamaa, and if you ask its owner, Abu Ramez, nicely, he will fetch you a bottle of vodka from the storeroom. In the fridges opposite the till, there are crates of local lagers: Sakara, Meister, Rex – and Stella, an award-winning Egyptian lager unconnected to its Belgian namesake. “That’s my favourite,” said Ramez, who has been an off-licence owner for 22 years. “Low alcohol percentage. Better for my liver.”
But now, Ramez has more to worry about than his beer consumption. Last month, Egyptian authorities announced plans to ban alcohol sales in new developments outside Cairo. Most worryingly for Ramez, they said existing licences would not be renewed in towns beyond the capital – towns such as 6 October City, a satellite development built in 1979 of about 1 million people.
To add to the gloom, the government doubled beer tax to 200% this month, with wine tax rising from 100% to 150%. Then last Monday, the civil aviation minister mooted banning alcohol from duty-free shops in airports. For many liberals, this triple blow adds to the impression that Egypt’s Islamist-led government, headed by President Mohamed Morsi, intends to turn the country significantly more conservative.
“If this government continues on this same path, we’ll be like Saudi Arabia,” said Akram, assistant manager at Charwood’s – one of a handful of restaurants that sell alcohol in 6 October City – who preferred not to give his surname. The planned licence ban had been discussed at management level, Akram said, and there are concerns that it could affect business. “Most of our guests are foreigners or Egyptians who drink alcohol,” he explained.
But other restaurateurs were more relaxed. “It’s not relevant,” argued Rafaat Habib, manager at the nearby Piccolo Mondo, who said his restaurant’s alcohol licence is sourced through its head office in the capital. “Our licence is connected to Cairo.”
Habib’s nonchalance may also derive from a wider expectation that the authorities lack the political will to enforce new licensing legislation.”The thing about licences – it’s a thing to scare people,” said Ramez, stocking his fridge with a recent Stella delivery. “When they make these questionable laws, it’s the people who will decide whether to enforce them. It’s not actually going to be implemented. In Port Said, they had a curfew, and no one followed that. They’re a failed government and no one’s going to listen to the things they’re trying to enforce.”
In any case, for all the talk about Egypt’s Islamisation, countered one of Ramez’s customers, many Egyptians would not adhere to a licensing ban. “It wouldn’t make a difference,” said Emam Hussein, a logistics manager, popping in to buy vodka. “There are tonnes of people who drink, even the religious. There are tonnes of Copts and tonnes of Muslims who drink underground.”
“We will never allow our country to become a fundamentalist country,” Ramez added. “As long as we keep on talking and speaking, no one will be able to change Egypt in this crazy manner.”
Even a high-profile Islamist politician sends his driver to pick up a crate of beer every week from Bazaar al Gamaa, Ramez claimed.
Yet beneath the bravado, there were hints of a more pressing danger. “On the phone I get a lot of threats saying ‘we will burn down your shop,'” said Ramez. “I responded very aggressively and I said that they should go ahead and do it. We won’t let them get to us. If it comes to violence, so be it.”
Others in the alcohol business were reluctant to speak on the record. Many Egyptian drinkers source their alcohol from delivery companies such as Gocheers or Drinkies. But when the Guardian visited Gocheers’ headquarters, no one was available for interview, or willing to say whether remotely located delivery services would be affected by the licensing change. Drinkies was also reluctant to be drawn on the subject, conscious – one employee said – of keeping a low profile.
“We are in close contact with stakeholders to remind them that we are an important employer in the country,” a spokesman for Drinkies’ owners – Al Ahram breweries – said in a statement. Al Ahram is owned by Heineken, which therefore controls the vast majority of Egyptian alcohol brands, including Stella and Sakara beers and popular wines such as Omar Khayyam. The spokesman pointed out that Al Ahram employed more than 2,000 people, and was “strategic for the tourism industry, which is a key driver of the Egyptian economy”.
In general, claimed Akram at Charwood’s, some Egyptians were wary of being seen as too fond of alcohol. “After the fall of Mubarak, there wasn’t really a government, and people had more freedom – so people drank more,” he said of his customers. “But eventually there reached a point when the customers became a bit more fearful and they didn’t want to be seen downing a whole bottle. They just drank a glass.”
This apprehension is derived from the government’s open conservatism, Akram argued. “There’s a much stronger group in power that’s out to implement their laws,” he said. “Before one person might tell them drinking is against religion. Now you have an entire group in government saying this. So people are more afraid in public.”
But Ramez had other ideas. “If [the government] wanted to prevent alcohol sales,” he said, “then they would have banned it [completely]. But they just want to raise more taxes.”