Egypt’s Ramadan still has a Chinese flavour

An April decree bans importing imitations of traditional Egyptian handicrafts, including Ramadan lanterns. But is it enough to revive local handicraft businesses?

Lamia Hassan, Tuesday 9 Jun 2015 (Ahram Online)

unnamed2Islamic Cairo’s Khan El Khalili market is crammed with shoppers buying the goods they need for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. From its entrance on Azhar Street to its smallest alley, the neighbourhood is brimming with people, mostly locals, examining the products displayed in shops and on the side of the street.

As Ramadan approaches, the season’s colourful lanterns have just made a comeback around the market, starting from the tiny LE 5 lanterns to the bigger ones selling for hundreds of Egyptian pounds.

Known to be the hallmark of unique Egyptian products, Khan El Khalili and its surrounding streets have long bustled with shoppers from all over Egypt and the rest of the world. With its handmade copper plates, cushions, clothes, alabaster, jewelry, lanterns and even chandeliers, Khan El Khalili caters to all different tastes.

But, while the products cramming the market have remained the same for years, their origin has recently changed.

Especially when it comes to Ramadan lanterns, Pharaonic-themed souvenirs and jewelry, cheaper Chinese imports now outweigh local products.

“People used to come from all over to buy the finest goods made by Egyptians, but then the cheap [imported] products took over the market,” says Hassan Mohamed, the owner of a small workshop in El Darb El Ahmar that makes engraved copper plates.

Chinese products started appearing in the market 10 to 12 years ago, says Amr Abdallah from Awlad Ezzat (Ezzat’s Sons), one of the big lantern shops on Al Azhar Street.

“Chinese products weren’t very popular when they first appeared, but over the years more shops started importing and replacing their local products,” says Abdallah.

When the Chinese Ramadan lanterns became popular, Abdallah himself started importing them, he says.

But five or seven years ago, he changed his mind.

“I decided that it was time to stop buying imported lanterns and to support local business,” he says.

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Ban on imported imitations

Amid concerns about foreign imports putting local craftsmen out of busines, Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Moneer Fakhry Abdel Nour in April announced an import ban on all imitations of Egypt’s traditional handicrafts, as a move to protect Egyptian identity and intellectual property rights.

The ban comes as an application of Article 20 of the 1994 international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which gives any country the right to take the necessary measures to protect its “national treasures of artistic, historic or archaeological value.”

“It’s our right to protect our intellectual property and our identity and to take the necessary measures to do so, and all the countries do the same,” says Yasser Gaber Shaker, the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s spokesperson.

The ban includes Ramadan lanterns and Pharaonic-themed souvenirs such as papyrus.

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But it remains unclear to what extent the ban will help to revive local handicraft production and sales.

While the ministry says the decree has already been implemented, some vendors claim that they have not yet seen a clear document detailing its terms. Most salesmen have already placed their orders for the season, they add.

Ministry spokesperson Shaker however claims that importers have spread a rumour that the ban has been postponed so that they can continue to sell their imported products.

Preserving crafts from the past

Not far away from Khan El Khalili and Al Azhar, Taht El-Raba’a, the production house behind many of the market’s lantern shops, is all geared up for Ramadan.

Unlike the other shop owners, Abdel Aziz Hashim hangs only the old-fashioned tinted glass lanterns outside his shop.

“For me, these are the only lanterns I know,” he explains. “Everything else they added or brought in from China has nothing to do with Ramadan.”

But over the last decade, plastic lanterns from China have flooded the Egypt market.

“Try asking kids who are born in the past 10 years about the traditional lanterns,” echoes Salama Hanafy, whose family has run a lantern making business from a tiny room in the neighbourhood for over 50 years. “They will know nothing about them.”

Although both Hashim and Hanafy welcome the new ban, they say that its implementation will be difficult.

Importers might already have enough imported goods in storage for the next year or even two, says Hashim.

And traditional lanterns will remain more expensive due to a rise in the cost of the materials needed to make them, says Hanafy: “We used to buy the glass for the lanterns for LE0.60 a kilo, but now it’s LE 3, which will definitely increase the cost of a lantern.”

Emphasising quality

But Hisham Raslan, another Khan El Khalili shop owner, relates the recent shift to Chinese products to a decline in the quality and creativity of local work.

“One of the reasons we have always depended on local handicrafts is for their quality, but when this started deteriorating and the Chinese manufacturers started to coming up with ideas for new products, we started to depend heavily on Chinese products,” he says.

Raslan, who is against the ban on imports, says that the products imported from China are different to those produced locally.

For example, Chinese manufacturers have innovated with pens covered with images of Pharoahs, Pyramids and Ancient Egyptian statues, he says.

The new decree is a positive step in the right direction, but more efforts are needed to revive local handicraft industries, says anthropologist Nawal El Messiri, who has worked on reviving local traditional craft industries for years at the Egyptian Folk Traditions Society.

The government and concerned organisations should raise awareness among manufacturers on the importance of quality for business growth, she says.

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“When manufacturers understand that people will stop buying their lanterns if they continue to make them with sharp edges or in poor quality, they automatically put more effort into what they make,” says El Messiri.

When tinsel embroidery from Upper Egypt was in danger of disappearing, her organisation helped to train local youth to master the technique and managed to sell their products outside Egypt, she says.

Beyond traditional handicrafts and Ramadan items, the government could also help to protect other local craft industries from foreign competition, she adds.

“Some of the best local furniture comes from Damietta, but many similar items are also imported,” she says. “There should be bans on all of these.”

For his part, Shaker stresses that the trade ministry supports local craft businesses with more than just the April ban on imports.

“We are working with 39 small and medium industries in 17 governorates across Egypt to help them develop their business and up their standards to revive the local industries,” he says.

As Ramadan approaches, Hashim says he wishes to one day see all shops only selling local tinted glass lanterns like his, although this is unlikely to be soon.

“We have been wishing for a decree like this for years, and it’s about time we use our dollar reserves to buy only the essential items that we cannot produce, and instead depend heavily on local businesses,” he says.

Hanging by a Thread

photo credit: Première Vision (website)

Liberalization unravels one of Egypt’s prized local industries

(Business Today Egypt, April 2010)

The showroom of El-Hosseiny textiles in the Delta town of Salmone El-Omash is one large open space.

The walls are lined with sun-bleached mannequins, their features covered in a thick layer of dust. The room is packed with overflowing boxes of brightly colored garments, leftovers from last season.

And there isn’t a customer in sight, despite the fact that it’s past noon and El-Hosseiny is one of the few stores open in Salmone, long-renowned as the country’s premier locale to buy wool clothes.

“The place never used to be like this. It used to be packed with people all the time, and we used to make LE 3,000–4,000 in profit per day,” says Ahmed El-Hosseiny, who runs the store and a textile factory in neighboring Mansoura.

“But every year it gets worse. One day we make LE 50, and another day we make nothing.”

At this time of year El-Hosseiny, like many of Salmone’s other 40,000 residents, should be brainstorming new ideas for the coming season. But with last year’s clothes gathering dust, producing a new line is more than futile — it’s a guaranteed loss.

In 2008, Salmone’s factory owners sold roughly 50% of their manufacturing quota. In 2009, that number dropped to 25%.

Salmone El-Omash was once a major hub of textile production and clothes making. Part of its name, El-Omash, literally translates to textiles. But in recent years the town’s roughly 1,500 workshops and 25 stores have seen business collapse. A lethal combination of the financial crisis, deregulation and an influx of inexpensive imports, especially from China, have leveled the local economy. And just as Hosseiny exemplifies what is happening in his village, Salmone is a microcosm of broader changes taking place throughout the country.

Homespun Industry

Villages usually evoke visions of a simple agrarian life. But Salmone turned that image on its head. For nearly 70 years, residents have been making textiles. Homespun wool workshops predated electricity in the region, and as technology was introduced, manufacturing kept pace. What began in homes evolved into workshops and factories; what sustained a region then supplied a nation.

The residents of what was once known as “Mini Japan” established an industrious reputation. In 1986, President Hosni Mubarak highlighted their contribution to the national economy with a visit to the town.

But today, the spirit is gone. “We don’t wake up before 5pm each day. We all just stay up trying to do anything that would make the night pass, then sleep all day,” says workshop owner Hassan Shafie.

Historically, production season in Salmone spanned 10 months — these days it’s lucky to last four. The inability to turn profits predictably led to decreased wages and large scale layoffs. In a local economy based around a single industry, failure also has social ramifications. Workers have abandoned the village, and desperation has fueled a rising tide of criminal activity and increased tension among neighbors.

“The thefts that are occurring now come from the village residents stealing things from each other,” says El-Hosseiny.

Free Fall

Through much of the 1990S, textile imports were banned by the Egyptian government, which allowed local manufacturers to thrive.

But in search of growth, Egypt joined the World Trade Organization in 1995, setting it on a path of market liberalization.

A series of cuts in tariffs during the last decade leveled the playing field for foreign manufacturers, and by 2007 imports were surging.

At the head of the pack were Chinese manufacturers, who “showered the market with their cheap products,” says Mostafa El-Samouly, the owner of a textile factory in Mahalla and a member of a key industry association.

Even when Salmone manufacturers switched to inexpensive fabrics like acrylic, they could not match the prices of imports.

“In China, they have subsidized fabrics, factories and everything they need to be very productive,” says Mo’awad El-Shafihe, who owns a Salmone plant. “Everything for us is overpriced; taxes are high and we have to pay a lot for water and electricity. I started selling the pieces that were worth LE 26 for only LE 13, and people are still not happy with the prices.”

Factory owners also face high import and port tariffs on foreign-made fabrics.

The combination of those factors has industry players worried that they will never be able to make up the gap with foreign manufacturers.

“Today everything in our life is Chinese and they will keep expanding everywhere until one day […] there won’t be anyone else to compete against them,” says Ahmed Sakr, a Salmone native who has a business in Cairo.

While Salmone and other industrial regions were reeling from a market saturated by international competition, the economic crisis may have put the final nail in the coffin. According to Dr. Amirah El-Haddad, an economics professor at Cairo University, textile production has dropped 25% since fall 2008.

Losing the domestic sales battle in the short term does not always spell the end of an industry. The export market, where Egypt had found success in the past, offered the potential to compensate for losses.

But the lowering of international trade barriers in the middle part of this decade put the country in direct competition with textile powerhouses like China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. (In early 2005, just after one major trade barrier was dropped, exports from China and the US doubled.)

Developed countries with highly efficient production facilities made gains in the international marketplace, leaving many Egyptian firms out in the cold.

Dusty Workrooms

The textile sector, which employs about 25% of Egyptian workers, has suffered the brunt of liberalization. But it is not the only domestic industry reeling from Cairo’s embrace of the free market. Former stalwarts like cotton, marble, and auto production have also experienced difficulty adjusting to global competition.

“Unemployment is a huge disaster now in Egypt that should be solved immediately, before it gets even worse,” says El-Samouly. With the government focusing on other aspects of economic recovery — the vast majority of its stimulus dollars have gone towards infrastructure — the textile industry, and the people of Salmone, will likely have to weather the storm on their own.

While business is bad, El-Haddad says a sector-wide recovery is possible

“After the crisis recedes, things are expected to get better,” she says. “If [manufacturers] hang in there for a year or two, they may be able to revive their business.”

Despite the challenges, some Salmone residents remain optimistic.

“We are capable of doing anything that the market requires,” says El-Shafie, the factory owner. “We just need chances. We need fair prices for the fabrics we are using. We need export markets to open. [Then] we will be able to revive the industry.”

Inside the small workshop he shares with brothers Abdo and Mohamed, El-Shafie stares at the floor. Colored threads, half unspooled, spill into a corner and mix with spider webs. Cloth has been left on the machines, and the dust is thick enough to taste. No one has entered the space for at least a month.

“The village is dying and no one cares,” says Mo’awad El-Shafihe. bt

Opening Soon?

The local movie industry is in a major slump and it could be years before it gets back on its feet again. By Lamia Hassan

of the 2010 Egyptian summer movies

 

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2010)

Every year during Eid El- Fitr, Ibrahim Said and his wife Hoda Kamal take their three children to the movies. For most of the last decade and a half, they have been going to the Miami theatre in downtown Cairo, where massive banners outside the theater entrance usually advertise scores of top-flight Arabic-language movies.

But this Eid was different. There were only four locally-made films playing, none of which were in the running to win any awards.

“This Eid […] none of the movies are a good value,” says Said. “It’s not like in the past when people waited for the holiday season to see good, new Arabic movies.”

Miami is not the only Cairo movie theatre to face a shortage of local films. At the Galaxy theatre in El Manial, eight of

the nine movies showing at the end of September were in English. This marked the first Eid in recent memory where Arabic films took second billing.

Producers, actors and other film industry insiders say this is emblematic of a larger decline in local movie making. They blame the falloff on increasingly close ties between major studios and theaters, which have edged out smaller production houses, the global economic crisis and a short summer season punctuated by the World Cup and Ramadan. Some believe it could be years before the industry is back on its feet.

“The movie production business has been declining recently, and will continue to decline going forward,” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group. “This past summer season witnessed the success of only a couple movies, while all the others were failures.”

For years, the summer and the two Eid seasons coincided with the release of new Arabic movies. Between 2006 and 2008, the Egyptian cinema industry was booming; in 2008, over 50 films were produced, 41 of which made it to theaters. But in 2009, that number dropped into the 30s before bottoming out in 2010 with just 16 Egyptian films released through Eid El-Fitr.

Al-Adl says the main reason behind the recent drop is a fundamental shift in the way movies are released. In the past, production companies, distributors and theaters were separate entities. But now, several large companies own and control all three layers, squeezing smaller filmmakers out of the game.

“The market is dropping because these production companies are monopolizing the market and giving their movies better distribution, leaving out the other movies,” says Al-Adl.

Meanwhile, producers planning to release their movies this summer held back out of fear that a season shortened by Ramadan and the World Cup would diminish their chances of success at the box office. Some have postponed releases until Eid Al-Adha, when people traditionally have more time to see movies. Those films include Ahmed El-Sakka’s Ebn El Qonsol (The Son of the Consul), Adel Emam’s Alzheimer and Karim Abdel Aziz’s Faswel Wa Nowasel (A Break and We Get Back).

Broader economic trends have also taken their toll on the country’s film industry.

“Right before the economic crisis, the cinema industry in Egypt was booming. The revenues of the movies were doubling as compared to years before that, but the crisis came and brought everything down,” says Adel Adeeb, CEO of Good News production company.

Miami Cinema, one of Downtown Cairo's busiest cinemas (photo credit: Panoramio)

About 80% of a locally-produced film’s revenue comes from Gulf countries, which were hit especially hard by the downturn.

At the beginning of the 2009 summer season, revenues for the film industry were down 30% year-on-year. By the middle of the season they had dropped 50% and by the end they had plummeted 70%.

But while filmmakers blame things like piracy and the short seasons on the decline of the movie business, audiences place responsibility on studios which they say produce lackluster movies. “Most of the movies that I have seen at the movie

theatres recently are chick-flicks, and even those that are not have repeated plot lines and lack quality,” says Engy El-  Etreby, a frequent moviegoer. “Out of 10 Arabic movies that I have seen recently, I can only say that maybe one or two were good.”

Throughout its history, the Egyptian cinema industry has had its share of peaks and valleys. It flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, a time known as the “Golden Age” of Arab film, sagged in the 1960s, entered a transitional period in the 1970s and eventually picked up again in the mid-90s.

But local cinema’s current stagnation doesn’t spell the final chapter of Egyptian filmmaking. Adeeb sees the industry recovering a few years down the line. While some filmmakers are looking towards Eid releases this month for signs of a slight improvement, El-Adl is skeptical that the few movies that do come out will make a difference.

“The three or four movies that will be released will not really make a difference and the market will still be left without good movies,” says El-Adl.

“But the producers who are monopolizing the business are like supermarket vendors. They will soon realize they are out of quality produce and they’ll have to start looking for solid products again.” bt

MENA’s Hollywood?

With nation’s first private studio, film company hopes to entice foreign movies makers back to Egypt By Lamia Hassan

Screenshot- Yacoubian Building

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2009)

  The upcoming blockbuster about the builder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali, was originally scheduled to shoot both here and in Syria.

But with production costs at Egypt’s state-owned film lots running almost double those of Syria, the maker of the LE 50 million film, Good News Company, moved shooting out of Egypt.

The decision was perhaps the ultimate condemnation of Egypt’s bureaucratized state-run studios — and it was far from the only one. Since the golden era of Egypt’s film industry in the 1970s, foreign and domestic filmmakers alike have been steering  clear of the increasingly costly local scene.

It is a situation that Good News hopes to change through the creation of the country’s first private studio.

Good News, which was behind hits like the Yacoubian Building, Haleem and Ibrahim El-Abyad, is planning to build 14 studios in Sixth of October City, with the first phase of construction slated for January 2010.

The plan represents the culmination of a two-year struggle for Good News CEO Adel Adeeb. For decades, the Egyptian government had denied applications by private companies to build film lots. At the same time, rates at the country’s handful of state-run studios were steadily rising.

Adeeb discovered, though, that there was no legal basis for the rejections.

“I found out that this had been just a custom and not law. I kept after it daily for two whole years. [I was hoping to] to change the situation for the benefit of the cinema industry,” he says.

Good News eventually got the sign-off from Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni,

Baby Doll Night movie poster

Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin and Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqqi, allowing the company to begin the LE 35 million first phase of the studios.

With the ministerial go-aheads, as well as approval from the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, Good News got busy. In August, the company signed a deal with ARRI Group, the world’s largest camera manufacturer, during a press conference in Cairo.

ARRI will work as consultants for Good News, supplying camera equipment, training local staff, maintaining and upgrading gear and consulting on studio construction.

“I want our studios to provide better special effects, more space to be creative and technology that will save you time. This is the added value that we will be providing to the market,” says Adeeb.

Bringing Back Business

Once renowned as an international shooting location due to both its scenery and studios, Egypt as a filmmaking destination has been in decline since its peak in the mid 70s, when it was nicknamed the “Hollywood of the Middle East.”

Adeeb says his main goal for the new studios — which will be filled with digital equipment — is to lure international filmmakers back to Egypt. For years they have favored locations such as Malta and Syria.

“They will be saving almost 50% because the cost of using digital equipment is much cheaper than normal equipment,” says Adeeb. He also says that cheaper Egyptian currency will reduce costs for filmmakers.

Adeeb’s cost savings received a boost early this year with the government’s decision to exempt filming equipment from customs duties. The decision will ensure that international and domestic filmmakers can use the latest technology here.

But luring international films back to Egypt is not just about costs and technology; Egypt’s infamous bureaucracy represents another major hurdle.

When foreign companies shoot in Egypt, they have difficulty getting permission to film at historic locations, waste time waiting for the censorship bureau to approve scripts, and sometimes get harassed by police when filming on the streets, says Adeeb. “Even when the police cooperate with us while shooting on the streets, people keep on harassing us [wanting] to appear in the movie, or make noise to ruin the shot.”

According to Adeeb, local filmmakers pay LE 10,000 per hour to shoot at a site with antiquities, “and the hour does not start from the moment we start shooting, but it starts from the moment we enter the site.” Foreigners are charged around double, he says, claiming that prices in nearby Syria are around half of those here. “When I asked there [in Syria], while shooting Leilet El Baby Doll [Baby Dolly Night], for battle tanks, they charged me $20 per day for each, with ammunition. Can you believe that?” he asks incredulously.

During a series of March meetings between the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, producers and heads of artistic syndicates, Moneeb Shafie, head of the chamber, discussed ways to draw filmmakers here.Shafie listed three major steps that need to be taken: decrease custom charges, speed up censorship bureau script approval — it currently takes 30 days — and reduce prices at shooting locations.

Change is slowly taking place, as the decision to remove customs on equipment is showing results.

One notable success was the filming of sections of Transformers II — one of Hollywood’s biggest hits this year, earning $200 million in its first five days — at the Pyramids, in Luxor at the Valley of the Kings and at the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) studios.

“It was generally a very enjoyable experience but there are things that definitely could be improved,” says Ilt Jones, the film’s location manager, of shooting here.

European filmmakers, with lower budgets than their American counterparts, are also being encouraged to come back. “We shot part of a feature film in Egypt, mostly at EMPC last summer, and our experience was positive,” says producer Roy Anderson of the Norway’s Nordisk Film. “The production went smoothly because Egypt has a very talented crew regarding the film industry.”

He called the venture “cost effective” and the location convenient. “I would like to film in Egypt again if the possibility presents itself in the future.”

Good News hopes its cutting edge technology and professional expertise, along with state-backed legislative changes, will usher in a new golden era for the Egypt’s cinema industry.

Already, the reviews have been good.

“Good News provides great facilities, offering a great potential for the film industry,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with Good News on The Yacoubian Building. “It should make it easier for production companies around the world to come shoot here.” bt

Who Are the Sufis?

Considered more mystical than political, Sufis have enjoyed relatively little harassment from the authorities By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: Islammemo

(Egypt Today Magazine, May 2011)

Sufis, more often than not, are not media-savvy, and they keep away from the limelight, giving

the impression that there aren’t many of them in Egypt. However, Sufis do have a strong presence; in fact, unofficial reports put the number of Sufi adherents across the country at 10 million.

Although it is said that Sufism first appeared during the ninth century in Iraq, Sufis usually trace their origins and roots to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who they consider to be their first sheikh. The 11th-century Persian Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and the 13th-century Mawlana Jalaludin Rumi, from what is now Tajikistan, were among the early popular Sufi thinkers. Another revered scholar is the 14th-century Shah Naqshband Muhammad Bahauddin Uways al-Bukhari from what is now Uzbekistan and for whom the Al Naqshabandi order is named.

Sufism first became popular in Egypt following the 1952 Revolution and during the rule of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

 

Beliefs

 

Unlike other movements or religious sects, Sufism is more about philosophical or spiritual thinking than it is about dogma or political practice for instance. Sufism involves self discipline, above all, and regulating day-to-day behavior in an attempt to submit to God in preparation for the day when the soul meets Him.

Over 70 schools of thought and religious orders fall under the umbrella of Sufism in Egypt, but many of those orders originated outside of Egypt.

There aren’t any constraints or rules for people to become Sufi; anyone can become a Sufi, choosing the school of thought or sheikh they would like to follow under that umbrella.

Unlike Salafis, Sufi Egyptians have one sheikh leading the group — Sheikh Al- Toroq Al-Sufiya or the Sheikh of the Sufi orders, appointed by the Egyptian president — under which all the different Sufi schools fall. In practice, Sufis seek divine truth and love through ‘direct encounters’ with God, as shown in their prayers and the way they address Him. The origin of the name itself might not be very clear to the followers. Some believe it is derived from the Arabic word suuf (wool), since some of the early adherents used to wear worn-out wool, a harsh fabric that was meant to symbolize their disinterest in the material world.

Sufis achieve a mystical state of mind when performing their rituals. They are very famous for zikr, a ceremony that involves repetitive prayers coupled with certain movements aimed to be an act of remembrance of God.

Sufis visit shrines regularly and celebrate mulids (religious festivals) honoring the birth and death days of revered sheikhs or thinkers at mosques housing their shrines. The city of Tanta is famous for the popular Al Sayed Al-Badawi, while Alexandria has numerous shrines and a concentration of Sufi adherents as well.

Sufis are not confrontational in nature and have not been perceived as a political threat over the years.

 

Role in Post-Mubarak Egypt

 

Sufis are one of the few sects that did not have negative encounters with former President Hosni Mubarak’s government.

Although apolitical during the Mubarak era, Sufis have made a more open appearance in the public sphere post-revolution and for once showed their anger at the destruction of several Alexandrian Sufi shrines, allegedly by Salafis. So far, however, they have not shown significant interest in politics. et

 

Who Are the Salafis?

A look at the school of thought inspiring a controversial group By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, May 2011)

Contrary to popular perception, Salafis — unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad or Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya — are not a faction, but a school of thought comprising individuals who follow a dogmatic approach to Islam.

Salafism is a form of al daawa (the call), and its adherents do not follow a specific leader or guide. They do share, however, the rules and curriculum that none of them deviates from — but the degree of observance of these rules and what they see as the uncompromising tradition of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ranges from extreme to moderate.

To understand the way they think, one understand how this fikr (thought) seeped into Egyptian society. The root of the word Salafis comes from the word salaf or ancestor and refers to the first three generations of Muslims who are considered exemplar models. The full reference is sometimes Al-Salaf Al-Saleh, or the Pious Ancestors — a phrase that is also remnant of early Islam.

The Salafi movement first emerged with Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal during the Abbasid era, circa the eighth century AD. The prominent scholar is also the founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic thought, credited with influencing the

rise of Salafism.

Following Ibn Hanbal came Ahmed Ibn Taymiyyah, who appeared after the fall of the Abbasid empire. He was stricter than Ibn Hanbal in terms of keeping to the verbal tradition of the earliest generations of Islam, down to the details of everyday living.

A third person who influenced the evolution of the Salafi movement, especially in its modern form, is Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, the 18th-century Saudi thinker and scholar who founded Wahhabism. The term Salafi first appeared in Egypt in the 19th century in Al-Azhar University through scholars such as Imam Mohamed Abdou and Gamal Eddin Al-Afghany.

Many believe that Salafism was imported by Egyptians returning home after living and working for decades in the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia. This ideology is clearly manifested in conservative dress codes such as the niqab (face veil) for women and white ankle-length robes for men.

 

Beliefs

 

In a nutshell, Salafis follow what they consider the purest form of Islam, seeking to emulate the version practiced during the time of the Prophet, Al-Sahaba (his companions), and the two generations following them.

They do not advocate violence, but are partial towards jihad. They do not believe in the separation of religion from rule, since they advocate politics and economics should be inspired by Sharia.

They do not approve attempts of innovation and favor of a more literal understanding of Islamic laws.

A common misconception, however, is that Salafis prohibit Muslims from visiting graveyards. They allow visiting the dead, but prohibit visits to shrines, practicing rituals or making supplication to the dead. They also do not approve of building mosques around them.

 

Role in Post-Mubarak Egypt

 

Salafis have built grassroots support in the past couple of decades, gaining popularity among various socioeconomic classes.

As with many other religious movements, Salafi practices and movements were tightly controlled under Mubarak’s rule. Their sheikhs were present in mosques, but their tongues were tied. Salafis satellite channels, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, were mostly popular among adherents only.

Following the revolution, Salafis have become more visible. A group that has never taken part in the political life, the Salafis are now trying to create a political force. Ironically, they had always criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for focusing on politics arena, as opposed to religion.

Many citizens are concerned about the rise of Salafis, especially over signs of extremism spotlighted in the mainstream media. Some Salafi sheikhs have also taken a stance against those who voted ‘no’ on the March 19 constitutional referendum, claiming that Article 2, which guards Egypt’s Islamic identity, would be scrapped. et

Bad Luck Haunts Advertising

Television advertising expects to see a bad year following the revolution By Lamia Hassan

(Business Today Egypt, May 2011)

Although many local and international satellite channels saw a sharp rise in viewership as unrest swept through Egypt, most also experienced a huge drop in their television advertisement revenues. The wave of protests here, as well as in several of Egypt’s neighbors, shifted what citizens watched. Instead of tuning into their favorite sitcoms, viewers were constantly checking for updates on 24- hour news channels, eagerly awaiting the latest information as Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab nations descended into chaos.

Like many industries dealing with the ramifications of the revolution, ad agencies are witnessing a serious slowdown in business, especially those specializing in television advertising. They, like many, are holding out hope that cash flows will return to this once profitable industry by the end of 2011, but insiders say they will be lucky to salvage even 50% of their business.

A murky path

When the protests began on January 25, people did not expect anything to come of the demonstrations, which meant companies and financial institutions remained

open for business. But soon after, the demonstrations became violent and commerce shut down around Cairo for at least a week. Many of those businesses stayed closed for much longer, with some shuttering offices even after former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

For television advertisers, the situation [would have been] even more complicated. “During the 18 days [of the revolution] it would have been impossible to advertise for anything, as this was a poke at the country and the whole world, so you definitely would not be advertising for toothpaste or anything similar during that period,” says Naila Hamdy, professor of journalism and mass communications at the American University in Cairo. “And, following that there was an economic situation, where people were still not sure and also advertisers were still not sure how to advertise.”

Usually, TV ads are booked depending on the viewership of a program or channel. The most expensive TV ads would often garner huge audiences thanks to their placement during breaks on popular talk shows. The highest rated shows enjoyed the premium advertisers, with the largest number and most costly ads booked during the muchanticipated Ramadan mosalsalat season that boasts the highests viewership ratings all year.

During the revolution, talk shows that used to discuss human interest stories, with a smattering of news, social and cultural

activities and entertainment, shifted their focus to hard-news coverage, while others shut down completely.

“For a very brief period of time at the beginning of the revolution, some channels

banned ads, but this was maybe a week only, while after this they started accepting ads

again, but the advertisers’ appetite was very low, as they were very suspicious about advertising,” says Shaheer Farag, head of business management at UM Egypt. “Mobinil and a minimal number of clients, for example, went on air with relevant [pieces] about the revolution, but there was definitely a delay in advertising during this period of time.”

UM Egypt is an ad booking and buying agency. Its job is to tell advertisers where to put their ads as well as slotting the best time for them and then purchasing that air time on behalf of the company.

Farag says even after the 18-day revolution, some advertisers were still skeptical about conditions in Egypt and whether it was the right time to go on air, particularly since most of the programming was dedicated to revolution news coverage, which isn’t something most companies had appropriate material for. He says as of April, the sector has seen a 70% drop in revenues compared to the same period in 2010.

According to “Egyptian Revolution and Impact on the Egyptian Advertising Scene,” a presentation put together by Mindshare MENA media company last month, most advertisers abstained from airing ads during the first few days of the revolution, despite a dramatic increase in viewership.

At the end of the month, the number of viewers was still high as compared to previous rates. That’s when entertainment show ratings started going up again, bringing some advertisers back to the scene with programs dedicated to Egypt, the revolution and patriotism.

In March, viewer numbers started to return to normal, but ad agencies and on air bookers were still reeling from a 27% drop in February versus the 58% increase in television- advertising profits the year before. The presentation also pointed out that advertisers were split between airing material related to Egypt, patriotism and nationalism, announcing new corporate social responsibility projects or airing their usual lineup of ads.

“I do not really see a reason why the television advertising sector will not be affected like everything else in the country that was impacted by the current events in Egypt,” says Hamdy. “All businesses are affected at the moment, and I believe things will start improving again gradually when the economy starts improving too.”

Hamdy says though the actual revolution ended after the 18 days, its effects are still rippling outward. It seems every minute brings some change, which shows the situation is not stable for the media and advertising worlds.

Mindshare MENA’s study of television viewership and attitudes between Januaryand the beginning of March 2011 shows dubbed serials were the most popular programming, followed by talk shows and Arabic series during the third week of January. In the second and third weeks of February, the highest rated programs were talk shows, with most viewers tuning into Al-Ashera Masa’an on Dream channel and then programing on the Mehwar network. During the fourth week of February and the first week of March, talk shows again garnered the highests audiences. However, during that time, advertising numbers did nto improve.

Ramadan shift

But according to Farag, there is a possibility that the sector might not be able to recoup its losses during Ramadan because fewer new and innovative programs are expected to air.

“Out of the total profits of the year, 50% comes from the ads aired during Ramadan,” says Farag. “People this year are not expected to be going after new material, so for example if last year you had 60 series, this year you will have only 10, which will highly affect the sector.”

This is a serious charge in light of the role Ramadan plays for television advertisers. During an interview with Business Today during Ramdan last year, producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl for Media Production said the number of Ramadan series rises every year, as they have become a large part of the “advertising revenue cake” and that advertisers in Egypt and the Gulf spend a combined LE 1.3 billion during Ramadan.

Farag says there will likely be fewer shows this year because many of the series produced during Ramadan require government funding.

“As the government and the ministries are now going through dramatic changes, expect that there will definitely be a drop in the number of programs or series that they used to produce before,” says Hamdy. “Also, Egyptians will not be giving their full attention to series during Ramadan like previous years because the few months between the revolution and Ramadan (set to start in August) are not enough to make everything go back to normal.”

Oxford Business Group’s Egypt 2010: Media & Advertising report states average daily viewership hours jump to seven hours during Ramadan, as compared to four and a half hours the rest of the year. It also states Egypt has the largest number of televisions per capita in the Middle East and North Africa at 200 television sets per 1,000 people.

Due to the instability, there are no guarantees that the situation will improve any time soon, but industry watchers remain hopeful.

Hamdy she expects things may start improving after elections. “Once we have a president for the country, things will improve,” she says.

Farag adds that the advertising industry grew substantially over the past few years because of real estate projects, government- sponsored ads and high competition between different agencies. It will take time before advertisers are sure what direction they want to go.

“The quality will not be compromised, on the contrary, now people are expecting even better quality, but it all revolves around stability,” he says. “If we, by the end of this year, get to 50% of 2010 [profits], we will be very lucky.”bt

 

Taking it to the Streets

Inspired by the spirit of Tahrir, the youth are seizing the initiative to create a better nation. By Lamia Hassan

 

(Egypt Today Magazine, May 2011)

For the 18 days of the revolution, it was like the country was on hold. Business ground to a halt, people feared for the stability of the country and their own personal security. On the positive side, neighbors came together to protect their communities, while those in Tahrir Square organized a fully functioning community of their own.

After the revolution, charity organizations went back to work on projects aimed at helping the affected families around the country. But what Egypt needs now more than ever is not just charity work, but an organized and solid plan to help the country move forward. The end of the Mubarak era has been like a wake-up call for society, and as the country hits “restart,” young people are stepping up with ideas, projects and reforms to help build a new Egypt — trying to harness a positive energy has not seen in at least 30 years. Egypt Today looks at two initiatives already in the works.

Ebda’ Beh Nafsak

After playing a vital role in the revolution, many of the youth wanted to continue having a role in rebuilding the country. Three friends in their mid to late twenties — Mohamed Aboul Naga, Mohamed El- Beltagy and Yehia El Shazly — decided to launch an initiative under the name Ebda’ Beh Nafsak (Start By Changing Yourself). The idea behind it is that everyone in the country should start doing something to change themselves and others around them to create a better country.

“The idea of the initiative came about when I was on my neighborhood watch with my two partners on February 25. Everyday the newspapers wrote about really depressing things, and about looting and crimes,” says Aboul Naga. “So we thought of trying to do something positive that would inspire some hope in people, especially because everything was still unstable and chaotic then.”

Aboul Naga says that as a start, they decided that their first project would be simple one that could be done instantly and would help improve people’s behavior. Finding a problem to address was easy: They just looked at the streets and the tangle of vehicles trying to weave through double-parked cars.

The solution? They created a sticker that reads “This is rude. The country is changing and you are still double parking.”

The team — at that time there were only five people onboard — went out into Zamalek and started putting the stickers develon any car they found double-parked, to see how people would react. Aboul Naga recalls, “People actually liked the sticker.”

The group’s sticker soon became popular, especially in Zamalek. When people saw it on cars, even those who double-parked, thought it was a good and funny idea. “I was with a friend in Zamalek and we saw the sticker on a car on 26th of July Street,” says Zamalek resident Sara Mostafa. “We did not really know what it was exactly and we were really curious. When I heard about the idea, I thought it is a really good one to start changing people’s manners and behavior.”

Within three weeks, the group of Ebda’ Beh Nafsak volunteers had swelled to 100 people. Today, the initiative has five committees, including public relations, media marketing, human resources, fundraising and research, which meet at least once or twice a week to come up with new ideas.

After the success of the relatively simple sticker project, the group decided to take on a more complicated social awareness project. The members coordinated with schools in slum areas to gather residents from these neighborhoods to talk about improving social manners.

“We thought it was important to go and talk to the people there and inform them of what their rights are, and raise awareness of issues such as the role of women and girls and how they should be treated, and so on,” says Aboul Nag”We decided that our projects would not involve politics or religion, but we really think that by raising social awareness issues, we will help shape future generations.”

So far, the group’s activities are focused solely in Cairo, with plans to expand their reach to communities outside of the capital. Aboul Naga says they first wanted to start in Cairo to establish themselves and gain more members before branching out.

The members of the group are increasing on a daily basis, many of whom are working on the neighborhood project. While many of the proposed future projects are dedicated development and social awareness, a waste management project is also under discussion. At the moment, the Ebda’ Beh Nafsak campaign has been able to self-fund their efforts, but the founders say they are also looking at large-scale projects that will have to involve fundraising. The group can be reached on the Facebook group ebda2 benafsak or via email at ebda2benafsakgroup@ groups.facebook.com.

One

While it may not be the youth that launched the company called One, youth are at the core of its work. Founded by Bayan Waleed, who is involved in creative media and education projects, and Egyptian filmmaker Adam Ali, who wants to create a medium for youth to build their projects, One is working on an initiative for the youth called Onestival, due to launch in the beginning of May.

Waleed and Ali believe in the importance of engaging the youth in building the country and giving them space to be creative, innovative and implement their projects. “The first and main objective of the project is to have everything under one umbrella, and its second objective is to have everyone around the world communicate through art,” says Waleed. “Through this we would like to show how the youth in Egypt are creative, innovative and up to date.”

The youth will create a short video where they talk about their ideas, then upload them to the internet so people around the world can share their ideas and find ways to implement them. “We will also be posting good ideas by people who are not even part of the project, like Osama El-Baz’s development project, so people can learn from them,” Waleed adds.

Waleed says that they will also be presenting talks to people in universities, clubs, cultural and youth centers. They will also have an online archive for their debates for people to access them.

One’s founders have attracted some major organizations to support this youth project. Among them is Taking ITGlobal — one of the largest online platforms for youth to exchange ideas. “We also have Yalla Start-Up, which reaches out to entrepreneurs and finance their projects,” Waleed adds, “and also Kelmetna and Teen Stuff magazines, and many more are joining.”

One offers more than just an online clearinghouse for good ideas. Onestival also includes a seven-stage competition with a focus on building Egypt. The seven stages start with I Build, followed by I Achieve, I Develop, I Inspire, I Lead, I Conquer and finish with I Mentor. Each stage will feature a separate competition, with the I Build contest set to be announced on May 4. The later stages will be rolled out every two weeks. One will put the winners of each competition in contact with other foundations, private sponsors and NGOs that will help take the idea a step closer to the actual implementation.

“When you reach the full growth of your project,” Waleed says, “you help others make their project [happen] too.”et

When the lights go down in the city

Power cuts are becoming more frequent and more painful- and there’s no end in sight. By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: jadaoun

 

 

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, September 2010)

 

Lucille’s is one of the busiest restaurants on Maadi’s buzzing Road 9. A wooden bench outside the Cairo institution is perpetually packed with people waiting for tables. During Ramadan, the restaurant does a booming business as customers break the fast with one of Lucille’s signature burgers.

But one day last month, things didn’t go as smoothly as usual.

With the dining room full of people preparing for their iftar feast, the power went out. Some hungry customers waited around in the darkness and heat, but within the hour, everyone had left to break their fast somewhere else.

The blackout lasted four hours, spoiling food and wreaking havoc with the restaurant’s sensitive kitchen equipment. By the time the power returned, even management had gone home.

“It happens a lot these days,” Mohamed Mabrouk, the restaurant’s manager, says about power outages. “Even if we decided to continue our working day while the power is off, clients will not stay without lights or air conditioning.”

For people across the country, stories like this have become all too familiar. Since the end of July, waves of rolling power cuts — some lasting as long as six hours — have swept across Egypt, plaguing factories, homes and even hospitals.

By some reports, thousands of businesses in Cairo alone have been affected by outages during working hours, resulting in losses in the millions. (The cuts follow on the heels of government assurances that power would not be cut during Ramadan and after that, only in the evenings.)

The government-mandated cuts, a byproduct of heavy summertime electricity consumption, are part of a larger plan to save energy in what has become a power-starved country. And if the nation’s ailing power grid and steadily rising consumption are any indication, people will have to get used to living in the dark.

The country currently has a stored capacity of 24,000 MW of electricity. In June, peak consumption hit 22,700 MW — a new record. Though the government is exploring alternative energy options and improvements to the existing power grid, such solutions are years away. The nation’s first nuclear power plant is slated to add just 1,200 MW to the power grid, coming online in 2019.

In the meantime, national energy consumption is growing 7–8% annually according to the World Bank. Energy analysts predict that peak consumption will more than double by 2027 and by that time, Egypt will have become a net energy importer. That sort of strain on the power grid is increasingly unsustainable and solutions are in short supply.

“This is not only the story of Lucille’s,” says Mabrouk. “It’s happening everywhere around us and even across different areas in Egypt.”

 

In the Dark

Blackouts are affecting more than iftar plans. Until recently, the term “lights out” was a phrase used in Hazem Badie’s Dokki dental clinic only when a patient was put under heavy anesthetic. Recent power cuts made him think a little more literally.

“It really strikes me when I am working with one of my patients, and the power goes out when I just gave him anesthesia and started to make a cut to remove his tooth,” Badie says. “It is getting really frustrating because they are doing it haphazardly.”

Ministry of Electricity and Energy spokesperson Aktham Abu El-Ela says the cuts happen only during peak hours, from 8pm to 10pm. The government also “decided that [it is] not going to apply them during Ramadan,” he told BusinessToday.

However, local newspapers reported that almost 1,200 factories and workshops in Shubra suffered power cuts during working hours last month, which slowed down production and shorted out machinery.

The press also reported multiple outages in Naga Hamadi, costing the Egypt for Aluminum Company LE 78 million in lost productivity. Despite assurances, the cuts often come during the work day with no warning.

“It is really ridiculous to just cut off power randomly, especially on factories and clinics, and places that should be informed beforehand,” says Badie.

Abu El-Ela says some of the cuts during the day in Ramadan have been accidental. But many aren’t sold.

“I still do not understand why the government is cutting off [electricity for] people and businesses, while charging the commercial side a lot of taxes and high electricity rates,” says Badie. “Instead of cutting it off in buildings, they should at least turn off the outdoor ads they have on all day and night.”

Minister of Electricity Hassan Younis

Summer in the City

It’s no coincidence that the sudden strain on the country’s electrical grid comes in the heat of summer. The number of air conditioning units countrywide stood at 3 million in 2009, up from 700,000 three years earlier. Abu El-Ela expects that number to increase by a million more in 2010.

And people aren’t afraid to use them. According to the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, home power consumption in Egypt outstrips industrial consumption. In 2009/2010, home consumption stood at 39.9% of national output, compared to industrial consumption at 32.8% for the same period. Since 2005/2006, home electricity consumption has increased 3.1%.

Current power stations are having trouble coping with the increased load. A press release issued by the ministry cited a 1,600 MW decrease in energy production, due in part to the types of fuel that power stations use.

In the statement, Mohamed Awad, the head of the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company, said that the stations were designed to primarily use natural gas, with low-grade oil as an alternate fuel. According to the statement, usage of natural gas in power stations has dropped to 79%, down from 98% a few years ago. Low-grade oil, which contains impurities that can damage power station equipment, is filling that gap.

Oil industry expert Ibrahim Zahran, the former CEO of Khalda Petrochemical, points to the increasing substitution of natural gas with lowgrade fuel as one of the major reasons behind the country’s power shortage.

“We have been warning about this since the beginning of natural gas exportation in 2004, and we warned that this will cause problems,” he says.

The low-grade oil can erode a power station’s boilers and decrease output. It’s also more expensive. According to Zahran, Egypt exports natural gas to Israel for $1.25 (LE 8.5) per every million thermal units. It pays $15 (LE 85.5) for the same quantity of low-grade oil.

With existing power stations degrading, new facilities are not being built fast enough.

“The reason the government is forced to cut power off now is because there were power stations that should have been built a couple of years ago that are not built yet, so there is a 1,600 MW shortage in power generation that they have to compensate for,” Zahran says.

That inevitably leads to increasing power cut quotas.

Zahran estimates that officials will have to shut off 60% more juice this year than they did in 2007 through rolling blackouts.

 

Modest Proposals

Power cuts are just the beginning; the cabinet of ministers has proposed other projects to save energy.

One such project that was suggested is applying a system similar to Europe’s, where shops close at 8pm, with pharmacies, cafes and restaurants being exempted.

With companies and factories already suffering from power cuts during working hours, energy- saving measures such as these could make a bad situation worse for many businesses.

“The peak time for buying and selling, especially with gift stores and similar businesses, is usually after 8pm, when all the people are back from work and schools,” says Faten Aly, owner of several gift shops in Mohandiseen. “This will really have a huge impact when it is applied.”

But according to Abu El-Ela, the ministry has no intention of forcing power-saving plans down peoples’ throats.

“People have to be convinced of the project and want to apply it,” he says. “All that we can do in the meantime is help people find ways to save energy. At the moment we cannot immediately provide a new power plant; it will take at least five years to build it.”

With no large-scale solutions to what is swiftly becoming a power crisis, many are anxious about Egypt’s future energy prospects. Energy consumption and population growth show no signs of stopping.

“This is something that the government should have thought of a long time ago, and should have planned ahead for it,” says dentist Badie. “I don’t really understand why the government is acting like they all of a sudden they woke up and found out that Egypt’s population had reached 80 million.” bt

 

Channeling Success

Ramadan mosalsalat have become a big business, but the financial landscape that surrounds them remains uncertain. By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: Middle East Online

(Business Today Egypt, October 2010)

Renowned TV producer Mohamed Fawzy hedged his bets this Ramadan. He shopped around three mosalsalat (soap operas) — a third season of his show El-Daly, starring Nour El- Sherif, Farah El-Omda (The Mayor’s Wedding) and Ana El-Quds (I Am Jerusalem).

Fawzy rushed to finish the shows in time for the Holy Month, hoping at least one would fetch a hefty return from a network hungry for programming. Unfortunately, other producers had the same idea.

Faced with a glut of new content — 50 mosalsalat aired this year, compared to 38 in 2009 — Fawzy failed to strike a deal and held onto the shows. Such is the uncertain landscape of Ramadan TV. The flowering of satellite stations in the last decade has stoked fierce competition during the Holy Month, upending the business models that have dominated Egyptian broadcasting for decades.

While a full third of annual advertising revenues are generated during the month, industry insiders say profit models remain uncertain. Series are becoming increasingly expensive, production timelines have been sped up and the plethora of shows mean producers aren’t guaranteed a sale.

“I don’t think the next year or the following years will see as [many series],” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group, one of the biggest studios in the country.

Talk show host and media commentator Moataz El Demerdash also questions whether viewers have the appetite for that much Ramadan fare.

“Instead of just producing a large number [of mosalsalat], we have to study this market from A-Z as a whole and examine closely the profits coming out of it. [We need] to see what the market can tolerate.”

A Shifting Market

Ramadan mosalsalat have been a staple for more than 20 years, with millions of viewers tuning in after iftar.

photo credit: Ismailia Online

Channels 1 and 2 used to be the mainstays for series. But expanding local and satellite television markets mean more channels are competing for viewers.

The focus now is less on mosalsalat as a cultural tradition and more as revenue stream. Since the recent makeover of the Nile Television Network (NTN), the Nile Drama channel has been dedicated to serials. Increased content prompted executives to launch the Drama 2 channel this Ramadan. And there’s still spillover. Mosalsalat have also begun appearing on NTN’s Nile Comedy and Nile Life.

Other companies have joined the competition over the last two years, including Panorama Drama 1 and 2, Cairo Drama, Melody Drama 1 and 2. Arab Radio and Television has also begun airing the shows on its three channels Hekayat, Hekayat Kaman and Hekayat Zaman.

“The reason behind the rise of all these [shows] is that mosalsalat have become a large part of the ‘advertising revenue cake’,” says Al-Adl. He estimates that advertisers in Egypt and the Gulf spend a combined LE 1.3 billion during Ramadan. According to estimates in the press, the production budget of the 50 Ramadan serials that aired this year was LE 750 million.

The push for content has also driven producers to cut corners, says Hisham El-Awamry, the manager of Hekayat.

“Some producers film during the day and deliver the tape right before air time.” One episode of the series Al- Hara (The Alley) was only 30 minutes long, falling short of the 45 to 50 minute range typical of episodes.

El-Awamry says things like that happen because production companies are churning out several projects at the same time. “They bet on one big project, and produce one or two other series as well, at a lower quality.”

The frantic environment leads to wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. According to El-Awamry, each channel discusses different deals with production companies about when to air series.

“There are different categories that come with the deals between the production companies and the channels,” says El-Awamry.

“Some channels gets exclusive airing of the series, while others get first-run rights, and others have to wait for the second run, after Ramadan.”

Despite the kinks, producers are bullish about the Ramadan market.

“Not only the stars, like Yousra and Nour El-Sherif, attract advertisers, but all those who are involved in the process are considered stars as well,” says Al-Adl.

“Even if the series are not depending on big actors and actresses, a big production company, or the series’ director encourages the advertisers to air their ads during the series.” bt

Uncharted Waters

An increase in illegal fishing is threatening the nation’s underwater treasures By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, November 2010)

Renting a fishing boat in Sharm El-Sheikh is an easy task. Numerous boats wait every day at the marina and can be hired out on demand. The types of boats vary, but there’s one thing they all have in common: a sign saying fishing near coral reefs is prohibited.

Like hiring a boat, ignoring that sign is all too easy these days. Port authorities ask few questions about fishing equipment or do little warn off fisherman from areas where fishing is banned.

“From the moment you leave the port and until you come back, no one supervises where you go fishing and what kind

of tools you are using to catch the fish or what kind of fish you brought back with you,” says fisherman Mohamed Ahmed Said, better known to his clients as Abu Ahmed. His boat, Karam Allah, plies the Red Sea waters near Hamata, a reef-rich area about 100 kilometers south of Marsa Alam. Every day, Abu Ahmed says, he is a witness to the growing numbers of people participating in illegal fishing.

It’s not an issue limited to Sharm El-Sheikh or Hamata. Since 2008, many of the nation’s waters and aquatic treasures have been increasingly threatened by illegal fishing. Though laws exist to prevent the practice, they are not enforced, say locals.

They say illegal fishing is not only destroying Egypt’s natural resources, it is also threatening the diving and tourism industries, each worth billions of Egyptian pounds.

Unprotected Areas

While the problem of illegal fishing is nothing new, those in the industry say it has become a more acute problem closer to shore and in prohibited or protected areas.

According to Ministry of Agriculture Decree no. 124, for year 1983, regarding fishing, aquaculture and regulation of fish farm, it is forbidden to fish in areas where fishing is prohibited or by using illegal equipment, or during any time that the Ministry of Agriculture prohibits fishing. Fishing boats are not allowed to have illegal equipment, such as mesh nets or spearguns, on board. The law also sets minimum size and weight limits for fish, making it illegal to buy or possess fish under the legal limits. In addition, it is illegal to remove ornamental fish from the sea except permission from the General Authority for Fish Resources.

“I go out to sea almost every day and I see how the fishermen are damaging all the resources in the areas where I work, like Hamata,” says Abu Ahmed, “leaving the fish with no chance to reproduce and continue living in the Red Sea.”

Illegal equipment such as nets with tightknit weaves are increasingly used by fishermen hoping to cash in on bigger catches – without regard for the damage the nets cause to sea life at large.

“How could we leave boats to damage an area like Hamata, where there are a variety of activities like fishing, snorkeling and even diving that generates income to all the people working in this field?” Abu Ahmed says.

A mainstay of the tourism sector, Egypt’s diving industry is worth about LE 15 billion yearly.

Hisham Gabr, chairman of the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports, says he receives complaints from fishermen reporting illegal fishing in several protectorates. Gabr says that some boats have managed to fish in Ras Mohamed and the Gulf of Al-Aqaba protectorates, damaging coral and further decimating marine life there.

“We are facing so many challenges here in the Red Sea, the major one would be that our main natural resources are being destroyed,” says Gabr. “Every day, from sunrise to sunset, there are boats fishing in Ras Mohamed and destroying the park, and we cannot stop them.”

While recreational fishing boats use fishing poles for individual catches, commercial fishermen often trawl an area, dragging large, tightly woven nets behind their boats.

“Since the holes are really tight, they not only catch some types of fish when they are smaller in size, but they also catch the baby fish that you cannot even eat and therefore damage the reproduction cycle,” says Alaa El-Haweet, a professor at Alexandria’s National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF ). “For example, at the fish market, the bolti (tilapia) fish caught by fishermen were sold at the size of 25 centimeters, but now with fishermen just catchingthem at any size, you would find the bolti now in the market are around 20 or even 15centimeters only.”

Authorities have tried to address the issue, but with little success. In 2008, a conference in Sharm El-Sheikh brought together the governors of the Red Sea, South Sinai and Suez as well as various ministry officials and experts in search of an immediate solution.

Their effort had little effect, Gabr says. “We even tried to repeat the same initiative another time in March 2009 but this time in Hurghada, and the same thing happened but nothing really changed.”

Though a legal framework has been in place to prevent illegal fishing since 1983, the real problem is a lack of oversight and enforcement.

When it comes to illegal fishing in protectorates, Gabr says it is the duty of the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs to supervise these areas. But he alleges people are still able to obtain permission to fish in protected areas because of corruption in the system. Egypt Today contacted the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, but officials were unavailable for comment.

There is also a lack of awareness as to why these types of fishing are illegal, says El-Haweet. Many fishermen do not recognize the immense importance of natural resources to the area, let alone their future livelihoods.

Gabr agrees. “People do not understand that the economic value of the presence of these fish in the sea is billions of Egyptian pounds coming from this type of tourism; these billions will continue to be added to the Egyptian economy as long as the fish are there in the sea and reproducing.”

Finding a Solution

At this juncture, experts say it is difficult to determine how long fish populations will be able to survive, with illegal fishing practices destroying their numbers and disrupting the reproductive cycle.

NIOF ’s El-Haweet says that if laws are enforced and coupled with increased supervision and awareness sessions for fishermen, the problem could be controlled.

The government currently prohibits fishing for two months of the year to give fish a chance to repopulate. Abu Ahmed says it isn’t enough. “The fishermen still need money, and even if the government prohibits fishing for two months, they still manage to catch fish,” he says. “They are only compensated LE 90 for each day during the two months, which is really nothing.”

Despite the setbacks, people like Gabr haven’t lost hope. “During the last economic forum that took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, our prime minister announced that Sharm El-Sheikh will be the first green city in Egypt,” Gabr says. “Even as we speak, there are preparations to form a committee for it to be on top of the situation in Sharm, but it is still in the process.” et

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Wanted: Friends of the Fish

Have you seen fishing boats in marine protectorates such as Ras Mohamed National Park? The Chamber of Diving and Water Sports (CDWS) wants to know. Make a note of the boat name and registration number, and if possible, document its activity with photos or video. Email the CDWS at fishing@cdws.travel with the date, time, name and registration number of the boat, location and any other useful information such as photos or video of the boat’s activities.

Where the Nile meets the Mediterranean

Our guide to road tripping through the Delta cities  By Lamia Hassan


Arguably the best way to see Egypt, a road trip proves that there is far more to this nation than big, bustling cities and cookie-cutter tourist towns. Smaller towns off the beaten path have a certain magic you won’t find in places like Sharm El-Sheikh and Alexandria. Rev up your engine and embark on a road trip through the cities of the Delta, where the Nile sprawls out in the shape of a lotus, dividing into two branches — the Damietta and the Rosetta — with cities lying on both sides. Along the coast, the Delta stretches from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east. You might have already dropped by one or two Delta cities on a school trip or driven through on a previous road trip, but try devoting a full weekend solely to exploring some of Egypt Today’s top picks in the area.

Damietta

Sitting on the east branch of the Nile, Damietta is about 200 kilometers north of Cairo — a two-hour car or bus ride. It is one of only two cities in the Delta where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, which gives it a sense of natural wonder so often lacking in the nation’s bigger cities.

Beautiful city of Damietta

Damietta is famous for its furniture industry. The locals have done an extraordinary job in making a name for themselves as one of the best furniture manufacturers in the country. Check out some of the furniture-making workshops or factories and snap some shots of how a piece of furniture is transformed from raw materials to finished product. The craftsmen are usually welcoming to visitors and are often happy to let you watch them work their magic. The city also has a wealth of history. Damietta was important in the Abbasid era (circa 800 AD), when it was a port on the route to India. During the early 1200s, the Crusaders knew that controlling Damietta meant controlling the Nile and access to their ultimate goal of retaking Jerusalem. Because of its importance to the Crusaders, Mamluk Sultan Baibars later destroyed the city and rebuilt it with stronger fortifications a few kilometers from the river.

One of the historic sites worth visiting is the famed Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque (sometimes referred to as Al-Fath): the second mosque to ever be built in Egypt and Africa. Despite having been converted to a church twice in its history, the mosque still mirrors much of the architectural design of the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque in Fustat, which was the first mosque built in Egypt. Damietta also houses mosques dating to the Mamluk, Ottoman and Abbasid eras that are open to visitors.

Another site worth visiting is what residents call El-Kobry El- Adeem (The Old Bridge), which dates to the 1900s. The bridge is identical to Cairo’s Imbaba Bridge, but the one in Damietta is particularly scenic due to its proximity to the shore.

Rosetta

Situated on the western branch of the Nile is another must-stop on your Delta road trip: Rasheed City, baptized Rosetta during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The city gave its name to the famed Rosetta Stone, which was discovered there. Unfortunately, you cannot see the stone in its namesake since it was moved to the British Museum 200 years ago. What you can see is the Rasheed National Museum. Not quite like seeing the stone that was the key to understanding hieroglyphics, but interesting nonetheless as the museum provides a comprehensive history of the city. The museum is open 1–9pm every day except Wednesday. Tel: +2 (045) 292-1733.

Zefta

The city’s name may not ring a bell, but the story of this small city located on the Damietta branch of the Nile in the Gharbia province is quite unique. During the British occupation in 1919, revolutionaries in the city decided to declare independence from the Republic of Egypt, and named their city the Republic of Zefta. Its residents were also active in resisting British occupation, no doubt fueled by their earlier ‘independence’ from Egypt.

Today, Zefta has a number of textile factories that you might want to check out during your visit. You might also want to bring your fishing gear to try and catch your own dinner before you gear up for the drive to your next Delta stop.

Tanta

Just west of Zefta is Tanta, the largest and most populous of the Delta cities. Almost an hour and a half away from Cairo, Tanta is known for its bustling moulid celebrations. The spectacularly designed El-Sayyid El-Badawi Mosque is quite a sight, particularly during the October moulid honoring the mosque’s namesake. The eight-day celebration features music, spiritual gatherings and Sufi dances. The area also bursts at the seams with carnival

games, local merchandise and, especially, sweets. They say no one goes to Tanta without sampling the local moulid sweets, including Turkish delight and nut pralines fresh from the factories that produce them. However, meshabbik is what Tanta does best. Watch street vendors make these funnel cakes drenched in simple syrup is probably half the fun of eating them. et


Safety On The Set

As the stunts that fill the cinema seats get better, so do the dangers of filming them. Yet 2009 recorded no major accidents, compared to the high-profile mishaps of years past. Egypt Today goes behind the scenes to fi nd out what is going right in the world of stuntmen. By Lamia Hassan

actor's safety (courtesy Andrew McKenzie, international stunt)

(Egypt Today Magazine, October 2009)

Actors lead a dangerous life. In this summer’s controversial hit Ehky Ya Shahrzad (Tell Us, Scheherazade), Mona Zaki’s character was brutally beaten up and dragged by her hair across a room by her husband, played by Hassan El-Radad. Later in the year, the actress was hanging off the back of a car with actor Ahmed Helmy as they were dragged through a parking lot. She walked away from both scenes with barely a scratch

Action star Ahmed El-Sakka was not so lucky during the filming of his 2007 thriller El-Gezira (The Island). In a mishap with a prop handgun, El-Sakka was shot in the eye and had to undergo surgery. He was off work for three months while he recovered.

The big-budget action thriller is still a relatively new genre for local filmmakers, with 2002’s Mafia, directed by Sherif Arafa and starring El-Sakka, considered the first Egyptian-made smash-bang flick to hit local theaters. Audiences flocked to see it, and Mafia grossed more than LE 10 million in box office receipts alone. Since then, explosions, car crashes and fight scenes have become a staple of not only thrillers, but also comedies, TV series and even commercials. But no one is actually supposed to get hurt.

Egypt has earned a reputation for its well-developed film industry with talented set designers, camera crews and directors, but high-profile accidents in recent years would suggest that safety standards have been left on the storyboard. That is slowly beginning to change.

Bringing in the Big Guns

Directors and actors have long complained about dealing with local stuntmen or stunt coordinators. Most are adventurous young men hired off the street with little training or knowledge about proper safety measures. In a June 2007 article, Arafa told Egypt Today “With action films, you need people to help you, with special effects and Egypt still doesn’t have those people — we have to work mostly with foreigners. But we have to start somewhere.”

The foreigner most directors turn to is Andrew McKenzie, international stunt coordinator and the nation’s only film safety officer.

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

On the set of the Chevrolet’s Optra commercial, where Helmy and Zaki are taken for a drag around CityStars, the stunt coordinator could easily be mistaken for the director, as he barked out directions, double-checked riggings and ushered Helmy and Zaki into position behind the car. “Obviously if you do this […] you will lose all the skin on your chest, arms and legs, but we have got a little technique here that enables us to do it safely and make it look real too,” says Mckenzie, declining to give away any industry secrets.

McKenzie’s stunt team first worked with El-Sakka in South Africa during the production of Mafia. His first project in Egypt was for El-Gezira: After El-Sakka, who insists on doing his own stunts, injured his eye on the set, McKenzie came to coach the actor.

“I mainly work with El-Sakka, but I have also worked on other movies, some television stuff as well as commercials,” the stunt coordinator says. McKenzie’s local projects have included Ibrahim El-Abyad with El-Sakka; El-Dealer, which i s being shot in Ukraine; 1,000 Mabrouk (A Thousand Congratulations); Mona Zaki’s two new movies, Awlad El-Am (Cousins) and Khalf Aswar El-Kamar (Behind the Moon’s Gates); and Amr Waked’s Moshtabah Zero (Suspect Zero), among others. Internationally, he has also done stunts for the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, with Nicholas Cage, and the 2005 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, as well as work on TV series and other films.

Hiring foreign professionals to work on local productions is not a popular option for the budget-conscious studios, which would rather bring in much cheaper local talent. But cutting costs on safety may ultimately end up hurting the bottom line more.

“We are here to make sure that work is done professionally. We do not charge much more than the others and we are not here to make money. We want to make better movies, and if you look at the movies that were made in 2000 as opposed to what we are doing today, they are completely different,” says McKenzie. “We have taken the action right up to give it a more international look, and we can do it safely. Some people might save money from working with other people, but when you hurt an actor you don’t get to shoot for six weeks.”

When actors such as El-Sakka refuse to have stuntmen do the scenes for them, they must rely on a good team behind the scenes to do these stunts safely. McKenzie feels that injuries like El-Sakka’s are avoidable. “There is no reason to get hurt; you could do all the action and come out of the movie with only the usual bumps and bruises you get sometimes while shooting.”

The Art of Stunts

Being a stunt coordinator is more involved than just telling others which stunts to attempt. “Stunt coordination is a science, a specialization that requires a lot of training, but what we have here in Egypt has nothing to do with this science,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with McKenzie on this year’s Ibrahim El-Abyad and with another foreign team on his debut film Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building, 2006). “That is why I prefer working with foreigners.”

McKenzie explains that elsewhere in the world, if  someone aspires to be a stunt coordinator they study and train for many years before actually going on the set. “I was a stuntman for 20 years, and then I was an assistant stunt coordinator for maybe six or seven years,” says McKenzie. “I worked with very well-known stunt coordinators in the world, like Dan Bradley who did James Bond and Independence Day. They trained me every single day for five years before I worked on movie sets being a stunt coordinator.”

In Egypt, there is no guild or other professional organization that trains or certifies stuntmen. Anyone who has worked as a stuntman in two or three movies may call himself a stunt coordinator.

Since moving his entire business to Egypt a year and a half ago, McKenzie has been working to improve not only safety standards, but also the quality of stunt scenes in the local cinema industry. “I look at camera angles, I help the directors [decide] where to put the camera, the best way to shoot. Action needs to be shot in certain ways, and it takes years of experience to learn these things,” he says. “All these things you have to be aware of.”

He is also training Egyptians to be professional stuntmen, teaching them stage combat techniques and fight choreography. McKenzie says there is still a lot of work to be done. “Out of the 20 people that I am training, there are only two that I could rely on 100 percent and five guys that I could use a lot.”

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

One of McKenzie’s protégés, Mohamed Azab made his debut as a stuntman in the 2004 movie Tito. He then worked on several other movies and commercials before becoming a stunt coordinator. He has also worked as a fight choreographer for the movie Al-Hassa Al-Saba’a (The Seventh Sense, 2005), directed by actor/director Ahmed Mekky and starring Ahmed El-Fishawy.

“Working with McKenzie on Ibrahim El-Abyad, we started training really hard for four to six months before they actually started shooting the movie,” says Azab. “And I actually owe him a lot. After I successfully did a stunt where I crash into a car door on a motorcycle and fly over the handlebars through the air, I felt really confident about doing action scenes. This encouraged me to take a huge step [in my career] and handle El-Fishawy’s next movie Telk El-Ayam [These Days] on my own.

“While working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I watched [McKenzie] and tried to learn from what he did everyday. I believe one of the most important things in action is eye-contact and timing,” he continues. “And the most important thing with safety is having your equipment, like vests, mattresses and wires ready. After working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I started buying my own equipment.”

Since Ibrahim El-Abyad, Azab has worked with McKenzie on Awlad El-Amm (The Cousins, in production) and on Lahazat Harega’s (Critical Situations) second season.

Stunts are all the rage not only in action movies, but also in comedies like 1000 Mabrouk. According to McKenzie, action in comedies is demanding because “to be funny, it needs to be really hard.

“With 1000 Mabrouk I sat down with director Ahmed Nader Galal, and he said, Andrew, we need to kill [actor Helmy] 20-30 times. What can we do?’” McKenzie recalls. “I got a good team and we got to play with stuff that has never been done before here in Egypt. We used dummies that were very similar to the actor, we had masks made for this, and we did tricks with rigging.”

With advanced equipment, special effects and stringent safety measures, an actor can do any scene and avoid injuries that could ruin a career, delay shooting or even worse. For 1000 Mabrouk, McKenzie had Helmy suspended in mid-air by only a five-millimeter cable. “I think I’m lucky because they [trust] in what I do.”

Choreography is an essential part of the big-screen magic, as evidenced by the fight scene between Zaki and Al-Radad in Ehky Ya Shahrzad. “That’s pretty much what we do,” says McKenzie. “We make things look violent while keeping the safety level at a maximum.”

Drive to Stay Alive

In a country notorious for poorly maintained roads and real-life traffic fatalities, car chase scenes pose their own special problems for filmmakers. There is more to being a stunt driver than just aggressive driving habits.

To make sure everyone walks away safely from a crash, directors call Amr Mahmoud, better known as ‘Amr McGyver.’ Nicknamed after the brainy hero from the late-1980s American TV action series, the 32-year-old heads the nation’s only professional stunt driving company, McGyver Team, which specializes in car and motorbike chases, crashes and rolls

“I have worked with McGyver,” says McKenzie, “and really, I could rely on him for everything with cars.”

Safety Rigging - Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

McGyver started his film career in 2001 with singer Mohamed Fouad’s movie Rehlet Hob (Love Journey). “Before 2000, we did not have any real car chases in Egypt, but I started the chases in this movie in 2001. A foreign guy did the roll,” says McGyver, whose industry credits now include 55 movies, 10 television series and multiple commercials. “I have a team of 20 professional drivers that do everything, but for the rolls I prefer to do it by myself because I’m used to it.”

McGyver is constantly trying new things in each project. “Working with McKenzie increased my knowledge because he has been working for years in this industry and has studied the physics of the different speeds, dimensions and weights,” he explains. “We actually tried new things together, like in Mohamed Heneidy’s last movie Ramadan Mabrouk Aboul Alamein Hamouda [2009]. For the first time, we made a car roll while hitting the ramp from the side and not head-on.”

Worse for Wear

This year has seen few major accidents reported from the movie industry and no fatalities, a marked improvement over years past. The 2008 Ramadan serial El-Fanar (The Lighthouse) was particularly accident prone: Actors Ahmed Rateb and Tarek Lotfy were filming a scene in Port Said in which Lotfy’s character is drowning and his father, played by Rateb, jumps into the water to rescue him. Rateb actually slid and almost drowned, because not a single member of the cast noticed until the coast guard rescued him. Other El-Fanar actors also missed work from injuries incurred during filming.

While McKenzie’s work within the industry appears to be paying off, actors and directors admit that stunt professionalism is still a serious concern. For director Tarek Abdel Moaty, it was a lack of professionalism that delayed shooting on Agamista (2007) for an entire day. Starring Sherif Ramzy, Khaled Aboul Naga and Donia, the movie is about a man (Aboul Naga) who, while in the North Coast, befriends a young man (Ramzy) on the run from drug dealers.

For a scene involving a car chase followed by a figh, Ramzy recalls, “The director hired someone to bring stuntmen to this scene, but right on the set, just as we were about to film, they refused to do the scene. I actually did the scene after the stuntmen refused and I got hurt. After finishing the most difficult scene, we went on with the rest of the movie without using stuntmen.”

It was Abdel Moaty’s first experience as a director, and he found using stuntmen was almost impossible. “In the international cinema, stunt work has rules, but here in Egypt they know nothing about it, and at the end of the day, I cannot force stuntmen to do the scene,” says Abdel Moaty, explaining that most Egyptian stuntmen are amateurs.

“It’s the stuntmen’s job to do the action scenes, and they should be trained to do so,” Ramzy adds, “but here in Egypt they do it by luck.”

It is not only the lack of professionalism that create  problems, but also a lack of experience and training. Pressured by deadlines and budgets, producers often do not give enough time for actors to adequately prepare for stunts.

“In the movie El-Eyal Herbet (The Kids Ran Away, 2006), I had to drive a motorbike and I was hurt because I was not given enough time to train well for it,” says Ramzy.

This carelessness can even extend to filming commercials. “At the beginning of my career I was in one of Chipsy’s old ads, and I was supposed to break through a glass wall,” recalls stuntman Mohamed Azab. “But because of the lack of experience of the people who were responsible for it, they forgot to make sure that it is powdered glass and not real glass. I ended up [cutting myself and] bleeding for a while.”

McKenzie says that attention to detail and proper preparation saves lives. “We were shooting Leilat El-Baby Doll [Baby Doll Night, 2008] in Syria, and we had two cars crashing into each other. Everyone was in a hurry and they have seen us do it and it doesn’t look dangerous, and they wanted us to put the actors in the car,” recalls McKenzie. “I said there was no way that I would put an actor in. I put the stuntmen in the cars. I was [installing] seatbelts, and the producers said it’s not dangerous, you do not have to do this. I said, ‘If I am doing this job then I will do it properly.’”

The stunt coordinator finished installing the safety belts and made sure his team was driving the cars. Sure enough, during the crash scene, one of the cars rolled. “If there weren’t seatbelts, [the stuntmen] would have been dead.”

Despite these difficulties, McKenzie has no intention of taking his business elsewhere. “Egypt probably has one of the best camera departments in the world, the directors of photography and everything with the camera departments is world class. The directors are also very talented, [and] the set designers are close to the best in the world.” says McKenzie. “Overseas we generally get told what they want and it is very boring, people aren’t looking to try new things. In Egypt, we get to design a lot of action and there are certain things we have done in Egypt that have not been done anywhere else in the world, which is great.”

Building up the profession of stuntmen will go a long way in securing the Egyptian film industry’s place in the spotlight. “If people get hurt or injured or killed on sets in Egypt, people hear about this worldwide, and [this] takes [away from] everything that the cameramen are doing, the directors and everything big [production] companies like Good News are doing, what they have built in Egypt … It takes all of that away and it makes people in Egypt look like amateurs, and they are not.et

The Censor’s Scissors

 Egypt Today sheds light on how the censorship process really works By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, February 2010)

In a conservative society, with prohibitions that come from deeply held beliefs, honest attempts to discuss social problems can sometimes offend. Last month’s controversial hit film Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya (With Natural Colors) addresses one such important source of tension in society: The relationship in society between religion and art.

The movie approached the issue of drawing live models and the conflicts between the religious and liberal students at an art school. When art students criticized the movie, claiming it defamed them, Osama Fawzy, the film’s director, said that he was using art to show the larger struggle in society between religion and the arts.

“They always talk about the three taboos: politics, sex and religion, but I believe that a taboo is what violates social harmony,” says Said Khattab, who was appointed the director of the Censorship Authority in October 2009.

The film and its ensuing controversy once again raise the question: Should certain types of art be prohibited?

To Cut or Not to Cut

Censorship has varied over time as societal norms have changed. For example, many of the stories that criticized President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not directly refer to him; some stories that were critical of Nasser were only released after his death.

When Yusuf Idris published the short story Akan Labod Ya Lily An Todi’y El Nour (Did You Really Have To Turn On The Lights, Lily?) in his 1971 collection Beit Min Lahm (House of Flesh), the book was banned. The story was well-known to be a criticism of Nasser’s policies concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially when he started negotiating with the Israelis to give back the Palestinians some of their lost land in exchange for recognizing Israel. The book was later allowed on the market.

In Idris’ story, a young sheikh is put in charge of a small mosque in an area known for drug dealing and addicts. All the men in the neighborhood are in love with a young girl named Lily — all except for the sheikh. Lily tries to seduce him while he is calling the people to prayer over a microphone. He fears he is falling in love with her and when he weeps, all the drug addicts awaken and go to pray, while he leaves the people behind, having finally fallen for her.

Naguib Mahfouz wrote short stories criticizing Nasser as well, including Taht El Mazala (Under The Umbrella, 1969) and Beit Saye’e El Soma’a (House Of The Notorious, 1965). In Awlad Haretna (Children of Our Alley), Mahfouz tackled sensitive religious issues, and the book was eventually banned because the characters personified God and his prophets. It is also said to be part of the reason an Islamist extremist attempted to kill Mahfouz in October 1994 by stabbing him in the neck. The assailant later confessed he had not actually read the book, he had only heard about what the book implies through its characters. Islamist groups say they had nothing to do with the attack.

According to Mostafa Faramawy, head of procurement for El-Shorouk Bookstores, there are two forms of censorship for books. Foreign titles go through the Department of Censorship of Publications under the Ministry of Information, but local titles are not subject to this process.

“Books in Egypt are given a deposit number from Dar El-Kotob, and then they are available at bookstores,” says Faramawy. “Books are almost never banned before being available at bookstores. They are sold, then when controversies arise, the books get banned until [the government decides what to do about them].”

If a book is banned, authorities collect the books from the stores.

Faramawy also says that the government requires that all copies of the Qur’an be approved by Al-Azhar. “We sometimes get the Holy Qur’an from Lebanon, so I make sure that all of the books we have are approved by Al-Azhar.”

Faramawy says that Egypt is somewhat flexible with books compared to the rest of the region. Some titles are allowed here that are outlawed in some of the Gulf countries, for instance. “We usually do not have a lot of books banned, but the government told us not to sell books by the Moroccan author Mohamed Shoukry,” he says. “But really, I do not believe that any books should be censored because we should know our thoughts and the others’ thoughts. If a person has decided to read a book, then he or she is aware of what is written in it. There are even people who do not have enough money to live and still manage to buy books, so we should respect that and give people the freedom to read whatever they want.”

The Censoring Process

From the controversial movie "Bel Alwan El Tabi'ya"

According to Khattab, television and radio have their own censorship departments, while music, movies and plays are under the main Censorship Authority. “Most series are shot at the Media Production City, which is considered a free zone, and those that are aired on satellite channels or Nilesat — outlets over which we have no authority.,” says Khattab. “We only get the scripts of a very few of them that need permission to be exported, but they follow our law, which is law 430 for 1955.”

For movies, the scriptwriter first files his or her script with the censor, who gives permission to start filming. The production company must get permission to screen the final film after the censors approve its content. If the Censorship Authority bans the film, it cannot be shown in local theaters or on the free-to-air channels.

“Every movie is seen by three censors and the director of the department, and if it is a controversial movie they form another committee. If part of the committee approves a movie and others do not, then I interfere and form another committee and get other censors from other committees,” says Khattab. “When there is a movie with a huge probability it will be disapproved, we summon the filmmaker and sit down with him and discuss the issues to find solutions [so the movie can be approved].”

For plays, the manuscript must first be filed, then the censors are invited to see the play on its first night. Musicians must file a song’s lyrics, before they get approval to record and sell it.

The Struggle to Be Seen

Films have been going through different forms of censorship ever since cinema came to Egypt. Movies represent the time they were made in. During the 1950s, many films were about the rise of the peasants and removing the king, whose image (on a photo in the background, for example) was blacked out. In the 1970s, most films were shallow, marking the period of aflam moqawalat (contractor films) — low-budget productions focused on quantity over quality, often with lots of sexual innuendos. Many were banned, but are still shown on satellite channels.

“The public morals change over time. In the 1970s, for example, women were able to wear whatever they want, ride buses and go to university wearing whatever they wanted, but now it is different. What you accept at times could be rejected at another time, and that’s what happens with the movies as well,” explains Khattab, adding that the level of tolerance for religious themes has changed. “[W]hat people used to accept before is rejected now in the society, and they do not want to accept it in what they are watching as well.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is to be a place where new ideas are born and have space to discuss and come up with new ideas and have the ability to diversify.”

Although the notion of censorship promoting creativity is dubious, Khattab insists that he is more liberal than his predecessors and wants to allow filmmakers greater freedom than they have had in the past.

While some criticize the Censorship Authority for approving movies that they feel are violating the morals of the society, filmmakers accuse the censorship bureau of being to strict. In 2003, for example, the Censorship Authority banned the movie Matrix Reloaded from screening in Egypt for religious reasons. There is no official explanation; some claim it is because the characters in the movie go to a city called Zion while others speculate that the Architect character was an attempt to personify god.

“Maybe the censorship is less conservative or let some scenes pass because they are important, but what is more dangerous to the arts than censorship is the audience, they are the real censors,” says Yosra Lozy, who starred in Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya. “Sometimes I feel that society is against the arts. They take photos with the celebrities when they see them, yet they attack their movies even before they are out in the theaters. There are also some lawyers and members of the People’s Assembly that file lawsuits against some realistic movies.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is

According to Khattab, the Censorship Authority is trying to implement a rating system similar to the type used in Europe or the United States, so that the viewer will be able to choose which movies he wants to see or show to his children.

“Our role is not to keep on cutting scenes from movies. We are a cultural institution, and I believe that with the rating system we are respecting the right of the viewer, ” says Khattab, trying to show concern over the damage that indiscriminate cutting can have on a film’s quality.

While controversial ideas are more likely to be discussed in film, directors must still be careful with how these topics are approached. “We could talk about anything — regardless if it will appear in a novel, movie, article or anything — the most important thing about it is to use the proper language for it,” says Marwan Hamed, director of 2006’s controversial movie Emaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building). “Part of the director’s skill is to know how to use the proper language from the cinema’s dictionary, and let it pass from the censorship and on to the viewer.”

Ibrahim El Batout, considered the father of independent cinema in Egypt and who made his feature debut with the award-winning Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2007), says, “Censorship is a rather out-of-date tool of control that has no efficiency nowadays. If it still exists in Egypt, it’s simply because we are out of tune with the whole universe and I see that sooner rather than later it will not be there.” According to Batout, all the technological developments that 2010 brings, especially in communication, will edge out any efforts to censor art.

Khattab says that in 2009 the censors allowed lots of controversial movies that tackle sensitive issues, like Awlad El-Am (Cousins, 2009), which deals with the Egyptian-Israeli struggle. While the censors say that they allowed a number of controversial movies this year, Khattab acknowledges that there are still movies prevented from being distributed such as Taht El-Niqab (Under the Veil), a movie about what women are sometimes forced to do under desperate economic conditions, and Haz West El-Balad (Downtown Belly Dancing), about sexual harassment. et

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 adds.bt

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 worse.bt

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
anymore.”
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
leaving.


“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
output.
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-
Sehrawy.
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