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.

Bursting My Bubble

Wandering aimlessly the chaotic streets of Cairo was something that I have always loved to do. Whether by night or day, I always thought there is something charming about it. But, as I grew up, I came to realize the ugly truth: there’s no way to enjoy it without going through the awful sexual harassment on the streets everyday.

Starting from when I used to park my car few streets away and walk to the university’s campus on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, this is when I started changing my views about the streets of Cairo. And, even when I finished school and moved to Mohandessin for my first job, then Maadi for my second, it was still the same old story.

I bet we all agree how awful and common the harassment is in Egypt, and some ladies know how to deal with it, and some blame it on what you dress (which is definitely a lie), but for me it was different; yes, I try to fight it by writing and talking about it, but because I can’t stand it I will just put my headphones and music on every time I leave my car. I just chose to live in a bubble I created, but replacing the ugly words with the music I choose for myself.

It became something essential to me to an extent that if I forget my headphones at home I would be so nervous and don’t want to leave the car. I was always aware that people on the street verbally harass me as I pass by and sometimes I could guess what they are saying, but at the end of the day I felt okay as long as I don’t actually have to hear it.

For years now, I chose the headphones thing as my defense mechanism against harassment and tried to be alert all the time. Sometimes I just pretended that music is on so that I don’t have to hear anything. I was always aware that it is a very weak one, but it was the only way for me to partially enjoy walking in Cairo.

Only this year (or last year as we just started a new one), I got a chance to spend my first four months ever away from Egypt. As much as I hated the homesickness experience, spending four months with almost no harassments on the streets at all gave me a chance to realize how weak I was. I realized that instead of trying to solve the problem I just tried to live in my bubble by not listening to any harassments, while I’m aware that they will never go away like this. I always used to give myself the excuse that I have tried, given that I talked about the issue several times and during the International Women’s Day march in 2011, which was a complete failure.

This December when I went back to Cairo, I thought I should change. I was still scared of being harassed since the moment I walked out of the plane, and it actually happened. But, I just decided I will stand up for myself. I will not let anyone change the way I live or stop me from doing something I always loved to do.

Maged Butter ( @MagButter ) recounting his detention by CSF

Written & video testimony of what happened to Maged

In the coming tweets I’ll tell u a brief of how I was detained and beaten up. I was w/ @monaeltahawy at Mohamed Mahmoud st, while the police is heavily shooting, a couple of persons in civilian clothes surrounded us.

They pushed us aside 2 a nearby alley (bon appetite) claiming it’s a better refuge, while they pushed us, 1 of them groped @monaeltahawy.

..@monaeltahawy slapped him & tried to beat him, while the other defended him. I tried to pull mona’s arm & run from the shooting but they didnt let her ago & I heard her shouting “my phone, u animal,” and in less than 10 seconds, csf surrounded us & pulled us apart.

I didn’t see @monaeltahawy since then. 5 soldiers surrounded me, beat me with batons all over my body w/ extra dose for my head, and dragged me along M.Mahmoud st, 2 beating me with batons, 1 kicking me, 1 fingering my ass, 1 checking my pockets, till the end of the st., also kicking my balls.

Then they handed me 2 a police officer, who also gave me a couple of punches. He dragged me along while I’m screaming, bleeding like a fountain of blood. He asked me “where r u from”, I answered “Alex”..he “no, u r not Egyptian, u r a spy”. Me “u can see my ID”..He “I dont see IDs u cant speak Arabic well” Me “my mouth/lips r severely beaten, I cant speak at all not only Arabic ”
Then he handed me to 2 soldiers, also kicked me in the chest. I saw many army officers, & cried for their help but they seemed happy w/ my blood.
1 man in a civilian clothes came out of a crowd & stopped us, asked “what’s going on here?”..”they beat me up..” He asked “where r u from?” Me..”Alex”..He..”Take him”..then they sent me to a kiosk where they put another 28 detainees among them a Dr.
They got me an ambulance & put a bandage for my bleeding head. And they put us in a car, and we were sent to Torrah Cen. Police Camp.
We were there past 2am, they collected everything we have & told us we will be released at 10am. I asked for medical help but, no answer.

At 8am, we were sent in the same car back to M.Mahmoud st. & set us free. but they didn’t give us the stuff they took at the prison.
While we r walking from the car to the protesters on the other side of the street, army soldiers greeted us calling us “heroes” !! and I met the same man in civilian clothes whom I saw the night b4. I asked “why u didn’t help me?” “I don’t recognize u” he smiled.
I told him what happened, he apologized & hugged me. I asked about my phone as I need to call my family, He “I don’t know who took it”. Me “How come u dont, I can recognize last night officer who was responsible of what happened” He “I don’t know who were the soldiers”. Me “How come u dont know ur soldiers?” He “Come back later I’ll find u ur phone” Me “I wont come later, I need to contact my family now”.

He gave me his phone & offered 2 dial my family but I insisted on having mine. then I asked “who r u?” He “I’m major general Maher “. Me “police or army?”, “police” Me “How can I reach u?” He “Here is my phone number ****, now u need to go” with a big smile on his face.

I left, we didn’t get our stuff back, they threw them among protester to claim that the protesters stole them and disappeared. I went to the field hospital, I got 5 stitches in my forehead, 3 beside my eye, and lots of bruises all over my body & endless chest pain.

Worst thing, they beat me b4 they accuse me of anything. no interrogation, no accusations, nothing! the only question was “where r u from?””

I can’t go to #tahrir or #Smouha in the coming weeks, I beg everyone who’s reading this to head there instead of me because u might be next.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DlQqc3T-8Gmg%26feature%3Dshare&feature=share&v=lQqc3T-8Gmg&gl=US

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

Learning a lesson from ‘Tunis’

Visiting Fayoum last week for the first time after the revolution, I was actually expecting to see the people there in a bubble or as i see many people in Cairo, opposing the revolution and blaming it for everything. I though I’d find them not really aware that there are protests still going on, especially that it was not one of the cities that were making the news during the revolution, except for the prison incident.

Although the trip was not to cover anything related to the revolution or politics, it was good to hear from people there how they feel about the revolution and the situation now in Egypt. We drove around Fayoum, but our main stop was in ‘Tunis’, a beautiful village overlooking the lake, famous for pottery, and most of the people living there are farmers, foreigners, or Egyptians who come rest there away from the bustling city life. Although the word ‘journalist’ sometimes freak out people especially these days, the people of the village were very helpful and took as around, until we got to meet one of the village’s famous contractors Hajj Sayed Abdel Sattar.

When asked about the revolution and politics, he said that people here are happy about the change, adding that it was right about time that things change. He also said that protests are still going on there because people will continue to fight for change. But for me, I expected him to say that people were first supporting the revolution and then turned against it when they felt things are still not getting better for them, as it is the case with many people i spoke to in Cairo, and when he didn’t mention then i asked him. His response was actually the lesson i learnt. He said that although the majority there understand that we are in a transition period and things will not get better at the moment, there were others who thought when the money of the former officials is returned, it will be re-distributed among the people. “It is the job of those who understand that this a common phase in every revolution and that it will take time until we see the real change, to explain to those who do not understand so that they don’t blame the revolution for everything we are seeing now,” says Abdel Sattar. He adds that we might be seeing worst conditions now, but people should understand that things will get better on the long-term.

Tunis might be a tiny village as compared to Fayoum, and even a dot on the map as compared to Cairo, but i totally believe that it is the duty of those who read and understand how revolutions work to reach out to people on the street and  help in spreading political awareness. I do not think it will be easy to continue with a successful revolution if we keep losing people on the way. Hussien Younis, a cab driver in his early thirties, was an employee at one of Zoheir Garrana’s travel agencies for over eight years. He used to make LE 1800/month, which were enough for him to support his wife and three kids. But after Garrana’s assets were frozen, Younis, like many other employees had to go find another job. Driving the cab, Younis says he barely makes LE 500 after the revolution. Being a devoted Tahrir protester and supporter of the revolution during the first 18 days, starting January 25th, Younis says he turned against it all when he found the prices going on, lost his job, and everything is going worse for him. The good thing that talking to people like him helps them understand that the situation will hopefully get better, but like he says, “me and many of the business owners in Downtown that i spoke to already would love to believe that this is just a transitional phase and things will get better,” explains Younis. “But it is much easier to believe that when you don’t have a family to support and nothing else to lose more than what you lost already.”

It is pretty simple.. many of us had the privilege of good education and if we do an extra effort of reading more and explaining to the people on the street, we might end up with more people willing to work, instead of having people who want to hijack the revolution. It is not only that people are not aware of the different levels or steps in a revolution, but also many of people on the street are not familiar with any of the terms they hear in statements, news or anywhere these days, like: the articles of the constitutional declaration and the condition to apply them only after the emergency law is over, the martial laws, the importance of voting and how to choose candidates, etc. It is important to pass whatever we learn to those who do not know, even just among people in your house or neighborhood.

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

Egypt: new vision/division?

 

Sitting with friends joking about the latest gossips in town, one of my friends brought up that her sister was at H&M CityStars the other day and saw that they started covering the models’ bodies in the photos like they do in some countries (i.e Saudi Arabia). When that first came up we just made fun of that and laughed about it, as both my friend and her sister were not sure then what this is really about or if it happened by mistake in one photo. But, it wasn’t until the next day that my friend’s sister went back to the store and this is when we saw the first actual photo from there.

H&M CityStars covering the model's leg (photo by Dalia Rabie)

 

What started as a joke turned into a serious concern when i decided to go beyond the photo taken at the story, and dig more in the website.

 

When I saw the first photo my intention was just to simply go on the website and find the same photo of the dress there, and see whether it is the same on the website or they just covered in the store. My surprise was when i decided to open both the Egypt and US versions of the website and compare the latest collections. It was funny to see the two sides of it as the same model appears in one photo wearing shorts and on the other version with legs covered.

H&M website Egypt Vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

I was faced by a question: is that a new direction H&M Egypt is taking or it was always there but we never noticed? Being a frequent visitor to the store, i remember well that i have seen photos of models wearing shorts and skirts without having their legs covered, which makes me sure now that this is kind of new, but just not sure how recent it is. What i found funny is that unlike Saudi they are not covering all the skin, but they cover the legs and arms in one photo, legs only in one and then arms in another, which was a bit weird and not clear. I understand that in Saudi it is part of their culture that they cover-up the models in photos as women are all covered there, as well as doing it from a religious side. But, the fact that maybe the owner took this decision lately or suddenly noticed that the store here is different than other stores needs to be justified. We have a totally different culture here, one that we even see now stricter than how it was back in the 60s and 70s, but still not a seriously strict one; not as free as Lebanon now, but at the same time different from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

H&M website Egypt vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

 

Living in this country for over 24 years now, I am totally aware that there might be many frustrations about life in Egypt, but there were also some privileges that I always enjoyed and was not sure that anything would ever change those privileges. Although women get harassed almost anywhere they go, no matter what they are wearing or their age group, but at the same time we enjoyed some freedom that maybe some other countries in the Middle East (example: Saudi Arabia and others) might not have. Visiting Saudi Arabia once, i might not be the best judge, but i was able to notice some of the differences between Egypt and there. While shopping there, i noticed that most of the international stores there have a specific fashion line for ladies there, for example Mango, Vero Moda, as women there wear long skirts or dresses underneath their abayas most of the time.

H&M website Egypt vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

When i went to looking for the fitting room in most of the stores i found out that women are not allowed to try the clothes in stores, instead you have to buy them, maybe go try them at the rest room in the shopping mall, and if they do not fit you go back to exchange them. Walking around with my cousins at the mall, when we tried to find a cafe’ or somewhere to sit for a bit, i found out that many of the cafe’s and restaurants wouldn’t let you sit unless you are with your family. Not only that, but most of the cabs wouldn’t take you if you are a girl on your own; we were in groups most of the time. Other than the shopping and cabs’ experience, most importantly, women of the country were always prohibited from driving, and also Saudi women, as well as those visiting, are not allowed in or out of the country unless they go with their guardian (mehrem).

 

Back to Egypt, although the numbers of veiled were dramatically increasing over the past years, still we never had the pressure of having to be all covered to leave the house, like in Saudi, no one limits who you sit with at restaurants and women were allowed to drive. Also, men and women sit together normally, without someone asking how they are related to one another, like the ‘Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ Committee in Saudi do, as they enforce the Saudi rules on people of the country and visitors there.

 

I remember maybe a year or couple years ago Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris brought up that the country we’re living in is not the Egypt he knew. He pointed out that the veil covering almost half the body (what’s referred to in Arabic as khemar) and the niqab (full-face veil) were transferred to our country from other countries (like Saudi and Afghanistan). When he said so people attacked him claiming that he offended the veil, but what he said was actually true. It’s not that the other countries are bad or it is a shame to have these veils, but it is just that it’s not our country.

 

The H&M thing might be a coincidence, and I might be overreacting about it, but it is just that i feel that our country might be moving to a new direction, a kind of backward direction, one we did not plan or aim for. I guess I or someone needs to visit the store to find out the story behind that because it is not like a trend in CityStars. It is more an H&M thing as i saw the same in H&M Dandy Mall.

Please check the website to see the difference yourself: http://www.hm.com/eg/summertime#path=1.1.7&transition=10&duration=500 & http://www.hm.com/us/summertime#path=1.1.7&transition=10&duration=500

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

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