Class Struggles

Academics discuss whether poverty-stricken residents could rise up in the future with a revolution of their own. By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, March 2011)

In the days that marked the birth of a revolution, Egyptians of all social classes could be seen standing side-by-side in Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers to demand reform. Similar reports came from Alexandria and other governorates where protests took place.

But what drove these protesters to the streets, particularly those living under the poverty line? Were they there to lend their support for political reasons or were there other factors unique to these communities at play? Furthermore, what drove some to loot and break the law? Academics are analyzing these questions and more as they reflect on the revolution and the people driving change in Egypt.

At least 20% of the population are living below the poverty line, according to a government report released in January. For years the government has struggled to improve the quality of life for those below the poverty line and even those who live in pauperization (with an income of less than LE 205 per month), but the fact remains that the gap between the rich and  poor continues to grow.

After January 28, reports flowed in from around Egypt that groups were taking advantage of the lack of police and looting. There were also reports of road blockages, vandalism and large numbers of people leaving slum areas. Some witnesses claim the looters were mostly thugs hired by the government to cause trouble, but others say poverty-stricken citizens were descending on vulnerable areas to make a quick buck.

Egyptian film director Khaled Youssef went on Al-Arabiya the night of January 28 saying people from the slums were looting banks, museums and several public buildings. Youssef called it the “revolution of hunger,” a topic he explored in two movies, Heena Maysara (When Things Get Better) and Dokkan Shehata (Shehata’s Shop).

Although Business Today could not substaniate his claims, the idea of hunger revolution, where poor people are the main drivers of a revolt to demand better lives, is not a new idea in Egypt.

“We always thought that the revolution would be sparked by people in the slum areas, but when we say ‘upper to middle class people started it,’ we thought that the hunger revolution that we always were warned of was not yet here,” says Madiha El Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Academics say that although middle and upper-middle class Egyptians were the spark, once others saw the government start making concessions, they realized that they too could affect change and began joining the protests.

“The nature of the people in Tahrir changed as the protests continued. Even if it started with a higher class, toward the middle or the end of the revolution many people there were jobless, who thought instead of just sitting at home […] they could join the people in Tahrir and finally get a chance to open their mouths and express themselves,” says Amirah El-Haddad, an economics professor at Cairo University. “But this was only the case during the revolution.”

She says the lawless nature of the first few days of the revolution left an opening that many without means saw as a once-in-alifetime opportunity to profit.

“From the moment, it was announced that the police had disappeared from all the streets, it gave the initiative for many poor people who were suffering [at the hands of] the government and from poverty for a long time to seize this opportunity, and say in the absence of the police, ‘I can do whatever I want’ and ‘This is my chance to get away with anything,’” says El-Haddad. “There is no doubt that the revolution made poor people become much stronger.”

Uphill battle

But the looting and rampaging didn’t end with Mubarak’s ousting. Empowered, people from poverty-stricken neighborhoods broke into one the Ahram City project’s gated-communities built by Orascom Developments on Al-Wahat Road near Sixth of October City. Their goal was simple: break into the compound and take the homes for themselves.

“All the different categories of people, the marginalized, those who graduated 10 years ago and still haven’t found a job and even those whose salaries are not enough to support their families, all found hope in this revolution and this was the way they rebelled,” says El-Haddad.

That being said, these cases hardly constitute a true hunger revolution. Nor have any of the problems the poor face been solved by deposing Mubarak, so could there be an uprising from this segment in the future?

According to Said Sadek, professor of sociology at AUC, things will have to get much worse before that happens. But this is a distinct possibility should the new government fail to come through with promises of greater freedoms for Egyptians.

“Until this moment, we still have reserves of food and raw materials to survive on, but if the government does not really respond quickly to people’s demands, we will start running out of our resources and in six months we will actually witness a hunger revolution that no one will be able to control,” says Sadek.

Professor El-Haddad says people are now divided into two camps: one that is willing to give the new government time to enforce new rules and policies and another that will settle for nothing less than immediate action.

Should these groups come to blows, Egypt’s political stability could be on the line, leaving the door open for chaos and the beginnings of a hunger revolution.

The only way to prevent this is for the government to make quick decisions that benefit Egyptians via expert advice from numerous sections of the population.

“Instead of slowing down the wheel of production, different groups should start thinking what they want to develop and what should be changed to make things better for everyone,” she says. “Another important question we have to ask now, generally in the coming period, is are we going to be a communist country and nationalize things […] or will we be a capitalist country?”

The movie Heena Maysara on Cairo Slums

Four stages of denial

Sadek says that any revolution goes through four stages: The first is the revolution itself; the second is the counterrevolution; the third is the formation of a new political system and the fourth is the consolidation of the system. At the moment, Egypt is still in between the second and the third stage. Many are taking advantage of the instability by airing their grievances via strikes, particularly in the government.

After Mubarak stepped down, several governmental departments went on strike, demanding their own reforms. Media reports show there were 163 strikes comprised of various public and private-sector workers across the country after Mubarak stepped down.

Sadek said that if you observe the strikes that began after the fall of the regime, they were mainly instigated by workers and employees of the government’s various sectors.

“These employees always had economic and administrative grievances because of the regime, and even corruption complaints were never heard. Today the revolution […] gave them a chance to talk,” says Sadek. “Many of these employees were working under temporary contracts for years and no one ever responded to their requests to have fixed contracts, and they thought this is the time for it.”

He says that when people called for a revolution, they were demanding the downfall of the regime, but after the revolution they realized that although Mubarak is gone, much of his legacy remains.

“This is really provoking people, and now they should change the Cabinet and start purging people who were working under Mubarak to be able to calm people down,” he says.

Sadek says that if you really want change, you have to make a dramatic change within the Cabinet.

“We will remain in this civil disobedience until a major change happens from the government,” he

On the Verge of Dyeing

A shortage in leather production is threatening an ancient industry in Egypt. By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, February 2011)

As you pass the Kasr El-Aini bridge and head toward the Magra El-Oyoun wall, you can get a glimpse of the complex world of leather tanning hidden behind the ancient structure. The Mante’et El- Madabegh (the leather tanning district) is bustling with activity as sellers hawk products from atop bicycles. Every block is filled with workers in boots and overalls carrying leather or stretching dyed fabric on benches to dry.

The area is home to a tight-knit community of 450 factories that has produced quality leather for over 50 years. But now that same community could face extinction in the wake of increasing material costs and the inability to expand.

For many, these two factors could mean businesses will be forced to close down.

In search of supplies

The factories here used to buy animal hides from a slaughter house in Old Cairo, which they would tan and sell to manufacturers that made leather accessories and apparel.

Today, fewer and fewer are able to afford hides since the price of meat began to rise a year ago due to a shortage of livestock.

The price of calf hides has increased from LE 90 to LE 350 in only a year, explains Hamdi Shawki, owner of a butchershop in an upscale neighborhood of Dokki.

According to statistics from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the amount of livestock decreased by 5% between 2008 and 2009, dropping from 19.2 million cows to 18.2 million. Hamdy Harb, chairman of the Chamber of Leather Industry and a leather tanning factory owner, says that the effect of this has created a black market among leather suppliers, who only sell to the factories offering the highest bids. In addition, some butchers have started slaughtering outside of the legal venues in order to charge more for the hides and raw leather.

Harb explains that this gives the butchers the chance to “play with prices.” There is no official record of how many animals they’ve slaughtered illegally.

“I personally slaughter my calves at the slaughterhouse and get it stamped by the Ministry of Health, but when the crisis happened a large number of butchers resorted to slaughtering some extra calves [in other] areas, and they also started slaughtering female calves, which is illegal, just for the sake to get some extra money,” says Shawki.”The butchers do not have anything to do, so they just create their own underground market for meat and leather, they do it secretly,” he adds. The price of animal fodder has also increased, driving up costs for leather tanners and traders.

Harb says before the global financial meltdown, the cost of animal hides and raw leather were already high, but that was nothing compared to where they stand now.

“During the crisis we lost huge amounts of money because all the export orders we had back then were cancelled,” he adds.

The industry has had little time to recover before materials prices jumped again at the beginning of 2010. And it’s not restricted to Mante’et El-Madabegh — leather tanning factories around the country are suffering.

Mahmoud Abdel Hameed, owner of Al- Tabarak leather tanning factory in the El- Max district of Alexandria, complains that they have been enduring one difficulty after another since the global economic crisis. He adds that the current situation is tougher because in Alexandria raw leather prices have doubled.

“This last Eid al-Adha, the prices were exactly more than double and the leather products manufacturers don’t understand the fact that we have to increase our prices because of this huge increase in the prices of raw leather,” he says.

Domino effect

The high prices have led to a shortage in raw leather supplies across Egypt.

“While the prices of leather are highly affected by the sudden increase in the prices of meat, there are also other factors [impacting] this,” says Shawki. “[Raw] leather suppliers set prices as they see fit and sell to whoever pays more,” he adds. Inflation has also taken its toll, pushing up the cost of living for these families, which has strained their ability to run viable businesses and put food on the table.

The tanning factories are struggling to cope with their current circumstances by trying their hand at exporting to Europe, the US and Asia, while leather products producers have begun importing imitation leather from China.

“The manufacturers are pressuring [tanning factories] badly,” says Harb. “They are blaming the sudden increase on the fact that we are exporting. In reality, we are exporting because they stopped buying leather from us. [They instead] depend on importing artificial leather from China,” says Harb.

The leather products’ manufacturers have been voicing their anger by calling on the Ministry of Trade and Industry to limit the export of leather.

“[Tanning factories] export almost $1 billion (LE 5.9 billion), which brings in a lot of foreign currency,” says Harb. “The leather products’ manufacturers used to depend mainly on our leather for their business, but now almost 90% of their products depend heavily on [imported] artificial leather because it is cheaper for them to get it, and they are able to market it better.”

Standing still

Experts say the only way to remedy the deteriorating situation is to increase the availability of local livestock.

Amirah El-Haddad, professor of economics at Cairo University, explains that when prices of a certain commodity go up, this serves as a cue for potential businessmen and traders to invest. But the dynamics of the leather industry function differently, because there’s a supply constraint to begin with — manifested in higher prices of both meat and animal foodstuffs. Until the situation stabilizes, nobody will want to invest, she says.

“To overcome the increase in prices, [people will] have to resort to owning their own farms and bringing calves in, and when this happen the prices will drop again,” she says.

But to breed livestock, the manufacturers have to have viable space to do so. The lack of space for infrastructure and business development in Cairo’s leather tanning district is being compounded by the area’s overpopulation problems.

Though there has been talk of moving the leather tanning factories to El-Robeiky, a new area outside the Cairo near Tenth of Ramadan City, to allow for expansion, little has been done to turn those plans into a reality so far.

According to a report released by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs in 2006, the decision to move the factories out of the city was passed more than a decade ago in 1999. The decision also aimed to move hazardous substances and dyes used by the industry away from residential areas.

Harb says the city is now ready to host the factories, which makes him confident a move could happen as soon as the end of the year.

But even if the move were to be approved sooner rather than later, many industry members say they would be hard pressed to work so far away from their homes. According to Harb, the move is essential to ensure the community prospers in the future.

“The area was designed when Egypt’s entire population was only 10 million, but today with over 80 million people there is no room for any expansion or accepting more work in the current factories,” he says. “Why wouldn’t people want to move when this means more room for everyone?”

But with the chronic shortage of resources and the residents’ resistance to relocation, it is unclear if a possible move could make the crisis

Getting Back to Business

Downtown shops and restaurants managed their businesses in coping with the post-revolution state of affairs. By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, April 2011)

On weekday mornings, Cairo’s streets are bustling with people going about their business, shopping or just hanging out. Cars are everywhere, and so are pedestrians crisscrossing the streets and ambling along sidewalks. Likeusual, the downtown area is buzzing with people just two months after the revolution that saw former President Hosni Mubarak step down. Although the streets might make one think things are back to normal after weeks of protests in Tahrir Square, it’s not business as usual for shops in the area and the square’s surrounding streets. Many outlets in Tahrir are still closed after being looted, burned, vandalized and taken over by protesters for almost a month, while others simply shut their doors because of the protests themselves. Several shops along streets nearby such as Mohamed Mahmoud, Bab El-Louq and Talaat Harb have also closed their doors — some for good.

But there are a few exceptions to the rule who stuck the revolution out and even benefited from remaining open during the turbulent times. With things still up in the air for some businesses, residents and shop owners wonder whether the downtown core will bounce back better than ever or fall into disrepair. Experts, however, say that businesses can help jump-start the process by taking advantage of the new sense of pride Egyptians are experiencing.

State your business

Walking on Bustan Street, right next to Talaat Harb Street, it’s hard to miss the huge pink building with the sign ‘Al Bustan.’ Some know the building as home to the famous electronics and computer mall. It is also one of the biggest garages in the area. It has nine levels of parking and has become a spot that residents, workers and shoppers park in every day, although it is also one of the most expensive lots in the area at LE 4 per hour.

Just months after Mubarak left, the parking lots were filled with vehicles, although some were covered, indicating that they may have been parked there for a long time. But the busy influx of vehicles constantly heading in and out of the garageshow business in the area seems to be returning to normal. That can’t be said for the computer mall itself, which is emptier than usual.

“We actually never closed down Bustan from ‘day one’ during the revolution and up until today,” says Hanan Ahmed, a security department employee in the mall’s administrative offices. “The parking [garage] was open, but we were given orders not to let people in the mall for security reasons, but anyway, there were almost no cars at all coming in the mall because the area around was closed and was not safe.”

While the parking lot wasn’t affected by looting or vandalism and was able to open its doors quickly, the owners of the computer shops were still worried about their businesses and many ended up staying closed long after the revolution ended on February 11.

“Two days after the revolution started, most of the owners came and moved all their goods away from the area, and those  who were unable to transfer their stuff early, decided to just come and sit here every day to guard their [businesses],” says Ahmed.

Other than malls and parking areas, almost every street around Tahrir Square dozens of clinical practice, from optometristsand dentists to surgeons. Most doctors here say they were unable to open their clinics to work for weeks, if not months, because even if they could get to their clinics during the revolution and subsequent protests, their patientswere unwilling to take the risk. Dr. Akram Azzam, an orthopedic doctor and professor at Qasr El-Aini Medical School, closed his clinic for almost a month. Azzam’s clinic is located on Bab El-Louq Street, walking distance from both Tahrir Square and the Ministry of Interior, both of which saw a great deal of activity during and after the revolution and subsequent protests.

“It was impossible for me to resume work for a really long time, as I actually work there at night and with the curfew neither would I be able to do this, nor would people be able to be there at night or even make it there with all the streets are closed,” says Azzam. “And even until now, months after […] the revolution, it is still not the same.”

And he is not alone. Many doctors agree, especially those with clinics on streets closest to Tahrir.

In charge of changing times

Decades ago, Downtown Cairo was one of the most popular and trendy areas in the city. People would visit to get the best that Cairo had to offer, from clothes to restaurants and much more. In recent years, although the area is still busy with people, most stores now cater to lower-income shoppers who flock to the area in droves for its cheap goods.

This has changed in the wake of the revolution. The shops are stringing banners and signs announcing discounts up to 70%, with others touting slogans like: “The people want to breakdown and destroy all prices.” Nonetheless, consumers have remained wary of spending in the wake of the revolution, leaving these stores virtually empty.

On Talaat Harb Street, the Nour El-Ain clothing shop is deserted and has only one employee working. A few of the stores next door are closed, others are deserted as well.

“Things never got back to normal for me or for any of the shops around the area, even if you see that the streets are busy outside,” says Sobhy Farouk, Nour El-Ain’s manager. “As you can see, we all have sales and still people are not really back and shopping.”

Groppi, one of the country’s oldest cafés and bakeries, used to be a favorite hangout for Cairenes and remains a symbol of Downtown Cairo’s glamorous past. Now, only two tables are occupied, a trend that the restaurant is seeing all too much.

“We closed down for more than 28 days, but we didn’t get customers back again,” says Gamal Azmy, the manager. “As you can see, there is almost no one here and I don’t think that things will be in better shape around the area anytime soon.”

From Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper

Businesses believe in booms

While the majority of businesses in the area closed down during the revolution, there were also some that enjoyed a boom, especially food stalls selling Egyptian classics like koshary and falafel. One of the most successful was the popular sandwich restaurant Felfela. The small shop always has a line of people in front of its Talaat Harb Street takeaway, waiting patiently for their sandwiches. The falafel and fuul sandwiches only sell for between LE 1–2, but with thousands and sometimes more than one million people in Tahrir, Felfela raked in the cash.

“Our takeaway outlet was doing a reat job,” says Madgy Farag, a Felfela employee. “You could see people lined in front of [our shop] to get their sandwiches during the revolution, while on the other hand, our restaurant, which is located on the neighboring Huda Shaarawi Street, was closed for a really long time, as we usually depend heavily on tourists.”

According to Tarek Selim, associate professor of economics at the American University in Cairo and faculty affiliate to Harvard Business School, the lower volume of sales most businesses near Tahrir are experiencing is normal after turmoil.

He predicts the situation will get better as the country becomes more stable.

“In every business, you have to study the short run versus the long run,” he says. “In the short run, which is about six months until the elections are over, there will be instability, uncertainty and losses as people are still concerned about the security [measures] there, especially with strikes. But in economics, we call this the ‘funk condition.’ This funk condition means that the future has to be brighter.”

Selim says businesses should start planning for the future and do their best to attract business back using Egypt’s newly rediscovered patriotism as a starting point.

“Clothes shops should focus more on [selling] pure Egyptian products, […] products related to the revolution and things that could be interesting for both the locals and the tourists,” says Selim. “And for restaurants, they should change their Western designs and add a local flavor. Maybe put up photos from the revolution as well as having more commercial Egyptian food.”

Thinking long term, could political stability ensure a new beginning for Downtown businesses?

“I would say that there will be a very high demand in these businesses in a year, and it will be a touristic area,” says Selim”When the revolution collects its fruits, things will definitely change in Downtown, and it will become popular again.”

But until then, businesses in the vicinity of Tahrir Square will just have to patiently wait, a difficult choice considering they must continue to pay salaries and rent. bt

A Living Legend

For nearly seven decade, ‘Felfel’ has been the face of Cafe’ Riche By Lamia Hassan

Courtesy Magdy Abdel Malak (current owner of Cafe' Riche)

(Egypt Today, July 2010)

Cairo in 1943 was a busy place. The Second World War was raging and out at the Mena
House, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and China’s
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were negotiating the Allied resistance to Japan. Omm Kalthoum
was entertaining her audience with Ana Fy Entezarak (I’m Waiting For You) and Naguib
Mahfouz was finishing his Pharaonic love story Rhadopis of Nubia.

And 13-year-old Mohamed Sadek, newly arrived from his small Nubian village, showed up for
his first day of work at Downtown Cairo’s Café Riche.
Like Roosevelt, Churchill, Kalthoum and Mahfouz, Sadek — better known as simply Felfel —
has achieved the status of legend in the special world of Cafe Riche, where he has been greeting
customers for 67 years. With just a wooden door separating it from the street, Café Riche is a
world away from the rest of Downtown. For almost 100 years it has been standing, with new
people coming and going.
Even from the outside, Café Riche seems different from its modern Downtown surroundings,
having retained its old design even after renovations. Inside, Felfel is standing by the first table
on the left, organizing things for another working day. While the other waiters are dressed in
blue uniforms that used to be worn by servants at princes’ or pashas’ houses, Felfel stands out in
his classic black and white suit, complete with a bow tie.
“He has been working the same way every day for at least 60 years, without a single mistake,”
says Magdy Abdel Malek, the current owner of Café Riche, while watching him work.
If you have been there before, you must have heard his story, or at the very least you are able
to recognize him. Felfel is Café Riche’s oldest waiter, as much an institution as the restaurant
itself. “Felfel has witnessed all the different generations that came to this place,” says Abdel
Malek, “and he was able to see how each generation changed from the one before it.”
Egypt Today sat down with Felfel to find out how he has held his ground in a changing world.
A Lifelong Routine
Felfel leaves his house on Haram Street everyday around 8:30am to make it to Downtown by 10
am for the start of the workday. It is a more relaxed schedule than when he started.
“In the old times, you would find all the people here by 7am, and they were all early risers. But
now people are becoming very lazy; we open at 10am, and still people do not really show up
early, except for some of the foreigners that come here for breakfast,” Felfel says. “But it is not
only the world of Café Riche that is changing. Look around and you find that nothing is the same
We arrived as the restaurant opened, and after he organized and checked the patrons’ orders,

Felfel sat down with et to talk about his life’s work.
And then abruptly got up and walked quickly to the entrance when a pair of new customers
walked in.
“That’s Felfel; he would just leave you or anyone to get his job done,” says Abdel Malek, who is
very protective of Felfel. “He is very dedicated, and the clients are his first priority.”
Although Felfel runs towards each new customer to ask them what they would like to have, he
is not really interacting with them, just getting the work done. His heart lives in another world;
a world peopled with the intellectuals who used to fill the café tables. Echoes of their influence
linger in the old photos hanging on the walls and the memories Felfel carries of legends such as
Abdel Wahab, conversing in ages past.
“When I started here everything was different. Before, we had all the famous people and
intellectuals come here almost every day for coffee or to meet one another, and sit down. I used
to learn a lot from them being here,” he says. “Now you won’t really find people here interacting
with you; they just start talking to you if they have a question or need directions to a certain
place, and they are mostly foreigners.”
Felfel joined Café Riche’s staff in 1943, after coming with his uncle from the village of Tomas,
near Aswan. When he joined the team, he was barely a teenager, was very young for the job,
but he helped the older men by carrying things for them. He recalls that when he started, Café
Riche was still under Greek ownership, and all the other waiters were foreigners, mostly Greek.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that he got a real job there, when most of the foreign waiters were

“It was around the time of the 1952 Revolution that most of the waiters started going back to
their countries, leaving more space for Egyptians to work,” he recalls. “Foreigners felt at the
time, after many things changed, that the Egyptians were more deserving of Egypt, so they left
and went back to their home countries.”
At the time Felfel was still known as Mohamed, but when another Mohamed joined the staff the
Greek owner Michael Nicolapolits, now long gone, gave him the nickname Felfel, saying that his
skin was the color of black pepper.
“Ever since that day I was known as Felfel,” he says. “No one here ever calls me Mohamed,
and I don’t think anyone thinks that Felfel is not my real name.”

Schooled by the Literati
When Felfel arrived at Café Riche, he was barely out of elementary school; he recalls he used
to read the newspapers to know what was going on around him, and to learn new words. But the
intellectuals who frequented the café were also his teachers, even if they paid little notice of the
boy who used to watch them to learn new manners and words.
In the 1940s, Café Riche was the morning coffee spot for everyone from journalists to lawyers,
poets, writers and filmmakers, and Felfel would find them waiting by the door for the café to
open. They would have a quick cup and then headed off to work.
Among the intellectuals and celebrities who used to sit at Café Riche back then was the late
Egyptian actor Estefan Rosty, who Felfel recalls fondly. “When I came from my village, I used
to love movies, and Rosty was one of the people I loved to see, and I was very happy when I saw
him playing tawla (backgammon),” says Felfel. “And other actors that I loved — like Roshdy
Abaza, Ismail Yassin and Abdel Moneim Ibrahim — also used to come to Café Riche, and I was
so delighted to see them.”
The people Felfel met not only shaped his education, but also his personality.

Naguib Mahfouz & Gamal El-Ghitany at Cafe Riche

“Dealing with such people helped me know how to deal with others,” he says. “With their good
manners, they taught me that my voice should be low all the time, and all my clients should be
treated the same, whether they pay or not, and no matter how they behave.”

In a world before the digital information age, the coffee shop was the community’s ‘chat
room,’ and even the news was communal experience. “Even with the simplest things, now you
can get coverage of the world’s news and the news in Egypt 24/7, but back then it was very
special how you had to wait for a certain hour to be able to listen to the news on the radio; it had
a totally different feeling.”
Naguib Mahfouz used the café to hold his weekly discussions in the 1960s, and Felfel had the a
chance to meet a wide variety of knowledgeable Egyptians and foreigners all speaking the same
language. Felfel used to see Mahfouz almost every day talking about his stories and chatting with
people at the café.
“Naguib was generous, and never embarrassed anyone; he used to answer all the people’s
questions. I felt really sorry about his death, as we did not lose just a normal person, but a rich
source who contributed a lot to the Egyptian society with his stories that people still learn from
now,” says Felfel. “I used to watch him walking to Café Riche every day and sit outside when
we still had an area outside, drink cups of coffee and take his Rivo [pain medication].”
In addition to Mahfouz, Felfel has met many influential figures in the course of his work,
including Youssef Idris, the poet Amal Donqol, Abbas El-Aswany (Alaa El-Aswany’s father).
Author Tawfik El-Hakim, Felfel recalls with a waiter’s typical attention to detail, used to order
vegetable soup.

“I remember we had many poets and writers from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon who used to come
here when they were studying in Egypt,” he says, “and they would come back [later] and see
how it has changed.”
While Café Riche is famed for attracting revolutionaries, Felfel’s focus was more literary than
political. “I also heard that Gamal Abdel Nasser and other political figures used to come here,”
he says, “but maybe I did not notice them.”
He says that Café Riche and other Downtown hangouts were an intellectual hub, attracting a
clientele with similar education or background who came to share ideas among themselves and
with the foreigners still residing in the capital.
Today, Café Riche typically draws the tourist drawn by an entry in a guide book or resident
foreigners for a Downtown get-together. The occasional Egyptian intellectual shows up to the
breakfast party that Abdel Malek throws every Friday.
“We sometimes now see a weird segment of people trying to get inside Café Riche, and some
couples who see it as any other café in Downtown,” says Felfel, “but Mr. Magdy does not allow
them in, to preserve the ambiance of this place.”
After watching the city go through a nationalistic phase, Felfel is struck by how Egyptians
unthinkingly imitate Western styles. “I feel sorry when I see them walking on the street because
they are actually without an identity; they are just a bad copy of the West,” he says. “I remember
when Camp David was signed, people 6 — Youssef Idris and others — left the café to go on a
strike protesting the signing. This has all changed.”
He says that in past decades, people were more willing to mix with someone of a different
background. “I remember we had at one table Muslims, Christians, Jews, Armenians, Italians
and Greeks, and no one actually cared what the nationality, religion or sect of the person sitting
next to him was,” he says. “They all used to come here on Saturdays and Sundays, before

heading to the horse races in the Gezirah Club and Heliopolis, and just anyone paid the check,
and they were all one. Now people really don’t care to mingle together.”
Looking toward Midan Talaat Harb, Felfel points out that everything has changed, even how
the buildings look. When he started working, he says, Downtown was a beautiful piece of art,
with gorgeous buildings and streets. “When I used to walk from my house to Café Riche, I used
to see all the elegant restaurants and places that all the people used to sit in, but now I don’t
see these places except for Café Riche and Groppi. They are now replaced by shoe stores and
European and American fast food chains.
“I even heard that they are selling the old Downtown buildings for a lot of money to
foreigners,” he continues. “The Egyptians deserve to keep these buildings more than anyone
else, but why would the Egyptians keep them if they barely make it to Downtown because of the
terrible traffic that makes you spend hours trying to reach your destination? The Egyptians that
make it to Downtown are those living in it, or those who have some errands to run.”
The General Organization for Physical Planning, part of the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and
Urban Development, is working working with consultants on a plan to pedestrianize Downtown
Cairo. Felfel says that he is not sure if this will bring in more people or less, but he hopes that it
will ease congestion.

A Legend in His Own Right
Recently turned 80, with grown sons and daughters, Felfel has been as much an influence as the
café’s famous customers.
“He is a rare figure that you would not come across in your life,” say Abdel Malek. “That is why
I would put a photo of him inside with the word qodwa (role model) on it, which is something I
did not even think of doing for my father.”
Louis Greiss is a prominent Egyptian journalist, member of the Supreme Council for Journalists
and a patron of Café Riche for more than 60 years. “I used to see Felfel working when he was
still 13,” Greiss says. “It is hard to find someone like him, with all the manners and experience
he’s learned from the people he met in his life. He is always active — he does not even give you
a chance to call or even clap to make him aware that someone needs something.”
The world of Café Riche is in a sense a time warp, a bubble from a vibrant period in the capital’s
cultural scene. Outside, the world is still a busy place but in its own, different ways. Instead of
Roosevelt, it is US President Barack Obama in Cairo, Mohamed El-Baradei on Facebook, and
filmmakers pondering a 3D movie version of Alf Leila Wa Leila (A Thousand and one Nights).
Inside, Felfel still greets the café customers, perhaps a little slower than when he was 13. He says
he is satisfied with all that he has done so far, and he is just living out his days with his memories
and one simple goal.
“One last wish I have from this world is to go on the Hajj before I die, and then just to leave this
world in peace.” et

Washed Up

Pollution, unchecked irrigation and armed bandits decimate what was once one of Egypt’s most productive fishing grounds By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: aldakahliaikhwan

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, June 2010)

In the towns surrounding Lake Manzala, the air used to hang thick with the scent of saltwater and
the day’s catch. Along the lake’s shore, children hopped between the rails of hand-built dinghies
while fishermen prepped nets for the day. Local markets bustled from a lucrative trade that once
supplied the country with 30% of its total catch.
Located on the northeastern edge of the Nile Delta, Manzala has historically been host to one of
the country’s largest fishing communities, with over 300,000 people finding their days work in
the lake.
Separated from the Mediterranean by a sandy ridge, the lake once spanned five governorates and
was connected to the sea via several channels.
The exchange of water between the lake and sea had been largely beneficial to the Manzala
community, with the circulating waters maintaining an environmental balance and allowing fish
to repopulate with ease.
At least that’s how it was supposed to work. Over the past two decades, the situation in Manzala
has changed drastically.
“The lake was like heaven for us. We could live, fish, swim and eat out of it. Everyone would go
back home satisfied with what he got at the end of the day,” says 37-year-old Manzala fisherman
Youssry Ibrahim. “But now we are crying out for help. We can see the lake being stolen right in
front of us.”
Recent years have seen the lake shrink to a mere 25% of its original size, and instead of being
replenished with Mediterranean water, it’s being pumped full of sewage. Local wildlife has
suffered, and as a result so have the fisherman who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.
Extreme pollution has rendered the remaining fish hazardous, eliminating vast numbers of jobs.
But the combination of factors that are turning Manzala into an environmental wasteland have
seeped into the local community as well. A population influx has fueled the area’s degradation
and simultaneously sapped it of its main revenue source, leaving inhabitants of the nearby
fishing towns with empty nets and empty wallets.

Changing tides

From the edge of the shallow lake it is difficult to see the below the water’s surface. Sprawling
leaves from the Ward el Nil, or Egyptian White Lotus, have spread and now cover the lake’s
surface. The plant lives in fresh water, and while it can survive amid heavy pollution, it isn’t
usually found in saltwater.
Manzala has always been brackish, with direct connections to the Mediterranean ensuring
salinity. The fact that the Ward el Nil can grow in Manzala demonstrates the extent of the
changes that have altered the fundamental characteristics of the lake — primarily a result of
excessive pollution.
The Bahr el Baqar drain transports water 170 kilometers from eastern Cairo and feeds directly
into Lake Manzala, dumping three million cubic meters of fresh water, untreated sewage,
industrial waste, organic toxins, heavy metals and bacteria into the water each day. Hydrogen
sulfide and methane bubble on the lake’s surface, sending greenhouse gases into the air.
The Bahr el Baqar drain is one of five major drains that feed into Manzala, and their combined
discharge has decreased salinity, raised sediment levels and endangered the health of the
northern delta population.
“The amount of water coming from the drains is much more than that coming through the
channels from the sea. It changed this area from brackish water to fresh water, where the types of
fish that live in the sea would not live,” says Professor Alaa El-Haweet, of Alexandria’s National
Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
The lake used to host a wide variety of high-value saltwater fish. Sea bass and mullet, for
which Manzala was known, sold well in markets throughout the country. But today it seems only
a few species of freshwater tilapia can survive. What remains of the fish population in the lake
is heavily contaminated and unsafe to eat. A 2007 United Nations Development Program report
notes the extent of the damage, stating that the “tilapia show a high frequency (85 percent) of
organ malformation and discoloration, caused by environmental and contaminant stress.”
A 2009 study published in the Research Journal of Microbiology states that: “Lake Manzala
water samples as well as the fish samples were found to have very high pathogenic bacteria
contents; some of these pathogens produce dangerous extra cellular products that are virulent.”
Also mentioned in the study’s findings were high levels of ammonia and nitrates, as well as
samples of dangerous bacteria strains such as E. coli and salmonella — found in both the lake
and its fish.

But somehow this hasn’t stopped local fisherman from attempting to harvest and sell fish, though
revenues are unsurprisingly down these days. The trade quite simply seems to be hard wired into
the community.
“We don’t send our kids to school here, we all grow up working in fishing and we take our
children and try to teach them what we’ve learned. It is the only profession we know”, says
Abdel Kareem El-Refa’i, a practicing fisherman, the head of the fishermen’s union in the town
of Matareya and a member of the Lake Manzala development committee.
The continuation of fishing in Manzala does, however, help explain the growing health problems
that have emerged in the lake’s surrounding regions. Intestinal diseases have become widespread
among the populations that rely on the lake for food and water.
“Sailing your boat on the lake today is exactly like knowing that you are going to die in
advance,” says 55-year-old fisherman Rashad El-Refaie. “The lake is dead now. And whoever
eats the lake’s fish risks getting sick because of all the different pollutants.”
Rising Pollution

Authorities claim that they are working to save Manzala. From 2002 to 2007 the United Nations
Development Program collaborated with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)
to produce a 60-acre engineered wetland at the base of the Bahr el Baqar drain. Flow from the
drain is slowed by reeds planted in the engineered area, allowing sediment and pollutants to
settle while cleaner water pushes through to the lake. But while wetlands have proven to be
an inexpensive and efficient alternative to chemical treatments for polluted water, the project
was capable of treating only 25,000 cubic meters of water each day, 1/120 of one drain’s daily
As recently as 2007, the European Union was collaborating with the EEAA on an additional
segment of the Manzala wetlands project, the task being a particular concern as the lake has
increased pollution levels in the Mediterranean. That project hoped to boost treatment to 50,000
cubic meters per day, though still a far cry from making a discernible impact.
“The problem with the government’s efforts here […] is that it tried to get rid of the existing
pollution in the lake, but not to stop the actual source of pollution,” says El-Haweet.
And while local and international governments have made small gains towards improving the
quality of the lake, those who depend on it have yet to see the type of change they had hoped for.
“We are not asking for a lot, we are just asking for someone to put a strict plan [in place] to
clear Manzala of the people that are threatening us, remove the sewage water, and bring back the
water from the Mediterranean to get the fish back here,” says Ibrahim.
On dry land
In the 1970s, the government embarked on a series of land reclamation projects to boost
agricultural production and make room for urban expansion in lakeside towns.
Southern and western portions of the lake were dried and by the early 1990s, the lake was
just 25% of its former size. But the falling water levels also made water exchange with the
Mediterranean slow. And instead of replenishing water from the nearby sea, the drains that pour
into Manzala changed the basic composition of the lake.
“We grew up knowing the lake as 750,000 acres. Now they say it is only 100,000 acres, and I
can tell you that there are less than 10,000 acres for the fishermen to work in,” says Mohamed
El-Sehrawy, who represents Matareya in the local assembly and is a people’s assembly
candidate. El-Sehrawy himself was once a fisherman but the deteriorating conditions forced him
to abandon the trade.
El-Sehrawy’s decision to leave the fishing industry was by no means unique. With poor
conditions in Manzala, a large percentage of its fishermen could no longer support their families
and were forced to leave the lake. According to locals, some managed to illegally emigrate
across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, while others were caught last year fishing off
the coast of Somalia. Another popular story among the fishermen is the high number of former
Manzala residents caught fishing in Saudi Arabian waters.

Tools used to illegally dry land

And the migration of fishermen from Lake Manzala has led to overfishing in other lakes. Last month, the fish authority in Fayoum announced that fishing will be banned until the end of June to allow fish to reproduce, as the number of fish in Lake Qaroun has decreased drastically due to excessive harvesting by record numbers of fishermen. Illegal land reclamation Nasser Aboul Naga, a fisherman from Matareya, has noticed that the decline of Lake Manzala has had consequences quite separate from the environment.
“I was out fishing with other fishermen when [bandits] attacked us,” he says, recounting an
incident from early May. “They stole our fish, took our boat and even our clothes. They even hit me and broke my arm.”
As the economy surrounding the lake has suffered, so too has the reach of public services like
law enforcement, giving way to what locals claim is an increasing level of lawlessness. While
the government continues to rent dried parts of the lake to residents, some have taken to bringing
in equipment to dry shallow sections on their own, creating small islands in the middle of
Manzala. It’s a practice that has been going on for years.
“The government would rent five acres to one person, and the next day they would wake up and
find that this person stole maybe an extra 15 acres,” says El-Sehrawy.
Fishermen and local officials have lobbied to put an end to the practice, which they claim is
contributing to rising crime rates, but according to Naga their complaints have had little effect.
“The problem is not the absence of laws, but the difficulty of applying those laws,” says El-
Haweet. “Although the law prohibits drying parts of the lake, people are still doing it. When I
was younger we used to go on campaigns to stop people, and in the end we would find out that
people of influence are backing this up.”
The practice of creating illegal islands in the lake has a direct impact on how and where the
fisherman can attempt to work, but more pressing, they say, is the wave of violent crimes
perpetrated by the island inhabitants against them.
“Across the whole lake you notice islands that people are illegally living on. They make them so
close to one another with tiny passages between each and every one, but if a poor fisherman tries
to come near them, he risks being beaten up or shot, and the authorities cannot stop it,” says El-
For their part, authorities are trying to curb the violence that has become associated with the
illegal land grabs. “We are doing our best to catch people all the time, but it is really hard,” says
Akram Hatem, head of Matareya General Authority for Fish Resources Development.
But given the progress of initiatives to clean the lake and restore the fishing industry to the
Northern Delta, residents of Manzala’s surrounding towns have little faith that the future will
bring improvements.
“Unfortunately, we neglected Manzala for a long time,” says El Haweet.
“Then, when the time came to try and save it today, we are just attempting solutions to fix the
holes temporarily.”bt