Stella bar in downtown Cairo. Photo by Aaron T. Rose.
For much of the 90s, drinking Egyptian alcohol was akin to dancing with death. So potent was the dose of formaldehyde in the local Stella beer that US airmen stationed in Cairo during the Gulf War were warned off sampling the native brew for fear of chronic drowsiness. Before Al Ahram Brewery—which still produces Stella in Giza and is now owned by Heineken—was privatized in 1997 many alcohol-guzzling Egyptians were equally wary of the state booze monopoly’s unappealing offerings. Some took to moonshine made out of fermented bread to sate their thirsts, while foreign reporters—ever mindful of the need for liquid motivation—sought solace in their monthly duty-free allowances.
For those who remember the alcohol scene’s heyday, modern Cairo’s cast of degenerate characters must seem very drab. “My mother-in-law used to have crème-de-menthe after lunch and not even think it was alcoholic,” said Joyce Foda, a sprightly 81-year-old American lady, whose husband administered Stella beer for 25 years after it was nationalized. Bishoy Habib, who works at the century-old Orfanides liquor store in the downtown district, chuckled as he recalled his youthful misadventures. “God, we were stupid," he said. "My cousin couldn’t see for two days after we drank ethanol.”
And it wasn't just those in Cairo's booze industry who overindulged. Many judges used to throw themselves into downtown’s dives with such abandon that their clerks soon grew tired of combing the city to summon them back to the High Court and they hit upon a happy compromise: an in-house bar, which fast became one of the best-stocked in the city.
Fast-forward to the present day, and it can be exceptionally hard to gauge alcohol’s place in Egyptian society.
Date-tinged Arak liquor has long boasted a devoted following in swathes of the countryside, and the 8 percent-strong Meister Max beer has seen its market share surge since 2010, while the old Nile-side Grand Hyatt hotel, a doyenne of the post-WWII social scene, saw its occupancy rates collapse when its new Saudi owners banned drinking. One of Al Ahram’s biggest breweries, tucked away in the conservative and mostly rural Sharqia governorate, is said to do a roaring local trade.
Despite all that, 79 percent of Egyptian Muslims insist alcohol consumption is immoral, according to a 2013 Pew poll, and the formal alcohol market has always largely been the preserve of the Coptic Christian minority and metropolitan elites.
“It was a matter of class,” admitted Mrs. Foda. And to an extent, it still is.
Most recently, an upscale restaurant on Cairo’s leafy Zamalek island turned away a young woman wearing a hijab, the headdress worn by a large majority of Egyptian women, because the bouncer worried it would make the alcohol-drinking patrons uncomfortable.
ln recent years some signs indicated that Egypt’s drinking class was expanding beyond its traditional demographic. Liquor sales across the Middle East surged 72 percent between 2001 and 2011, nearly two and a half times the global average, according to London-based International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR). That advance came to a screaming halt in 2012 thanks to revolutionary flux and Mohammed Morsi’s yearlong Muslim Brotherhood rule, which were unkind to the industry. The Morsi administration’s attempt to raise tax on beer by 200 percent went nowhere because the opposition was so vocal, but alcohol purveyors sensed a strong shift in public discourse and acted accordingly.
Several downtown Cairo liquor stores felt personally threatened and draped curtains over their windows to obscure their stock, while some alcohol distributors, mindful perhaps of attacks on bars by religious conservatives in the south, scratched off their vans’ company logos, and began delivering at odd hours.
“We felt insecure in every way. Not only about the bar,” said Marileez Suter Doss, whose family owns the storied colonial-era Windsor Hotel, where the deliveryman has opted to stick with his unmarked vehicle.
The raft of anticipated anti-alcohol measures never fully materialized, but the promise of future restrictions was enough to scramble the market. Drinkers panic-bought in early 2013, and continued their spree into Ramadan, when alcohol sales usually plummet by up to 70 percent (though no one told the ostensibly Muslim Uzbeks, who threw a riotous embassy party in last year’s holy month, which culminated in vodka bottles sailing over the wall onto the street).
With the outbreak of serious violence after Morsi’s bloody toppling, tourism collapsed and sales of many spirits bottomed out. Scotch, the biggest spirit import in Egypt, saw a 24 percent decline. Tequila, the lifeblood of many Russian and Eastern European beachgoers, was particularly hard hit, according to IWSR estimates that were sent to VICE via email.
Businesses are still hurting, and possible tax hikes on alcohol to plug Egypt’s strained public finances might mean more pain. But as Youssef, the owner of a liquor shop in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, pointed out by way of an impromptu history lesson, Egyptians have been here before. “Gamal Abdel Nasser threw out the Europeans, who were the only ones who knew how to make good alcohol. [Anwar] Sadat brought back the Islamists, and they just wanted to destroy us,” he said.
Roughly 90 percent of Egypt’s 88 million inhabitants are Muslim, and the country’s politicians have managed this delicate dance with drink since well before Morsi checked into the presidential palace. Cairo’s sizeable foreign communities once operated a near monopoly on alcohol production, but Nasser’s rash of extreme nationalist policies in the 1950s and 60s drove most of them—and their alcohol-making expertise—into exile. The Greek Clubs in Cairo and Alexandria, where non-Greeks pay an entry fee, are among the few mementos of their existence.
Anwar Sadat charted a different but still negative direction for the alcohol industry. Where Nasser had presided over an anti-Western secular state, his successor welcomed back American and European investment, but worked to appease the surging Muslim Brotherhood by bowing to some of its demands. In came the ban on alcohol advertising, which endures to this day, and out went the issuing of any new bar licenses—except for upscale restaurants and hotels, a rule that also still stands.
It’s probably too soon to tell what Cairo’s new rulers will mean for Egyptian alcohol’s long-term prospects. The fortunes of the industry have long served as something of a barometer of the state’s openness, and here, the signals have been mixed so far.
Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, doesn’t drink, and the continued absence of foreign tourists, on whom some of the tolerance to alcohol seems to rest, has led to fears of a possible future crackdown. On the other hand, in January all bars stayed open on Eid, the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, for the first time in recent memory, and a Zamalek liquor store, Uno Ambrogiano, has re-opened several decades after its owner fell afoul of Nasser’s police chief and died in prison.
Those in the potential line of fire have, however, had plenty of time to ponder possible responses. “If they come for my beer, I’ll come at them with my gun. A man’s alcohol stock is his kingdom,” said Youssef in Tanta.
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