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.”
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