Bad spirits: Brotherhood govt targets Egypt’s alcohol industry

A few streets down from a crowded local mosque in the affluent satellite suburb of 6th of October City, Abu Ramez proudly stacks Egyptian beer and wine onto the shelves of his supermarket, Bazaar al-Gamaa.

“We are the only shop that sells alcohol in the entire district,” Abu Ramez boasts.

Recent measures announced by the current Muslim Brotherhood-led government may jeopardize the future of off-license shops such as Bazaar al-Gamaa.

In recent months, different government entities have announced three separate plans to reduce alcohol consumption, raising fears among Egypt’s alcohol consumers within both the expat and local communities.

Whether it is the threat of banning alcohol sales from duty-free shops or new suburban communities or raising luxury taxes, government efforts or — at the very least — rhetoric targeting alcohol sales have alarmed some and been written off by others.

Earlier this month, the Civil Aviation Ministry announced it is considering a ban on the sale of alcohol in airport duty-free shops after receiving complaints by citizens and ministry officials.

“We were never informed of this decision,” said Ashraf Hassan, the manager of the Duty-Free Shop in Mohandiseen. “We heard of [the government’s] decision to ban alcohol in the duty-free shops from news announcements, just like everyone else.”

Hassan stressed, however, that the management of duty-free shops in the airport is not linked to that of others throughout the country.

Nevertheless, Hassan fears the long-term impacts of such measures on the tourism industry and the expat community.  

“Most of our customers are tourists, expats or foreign diplomats,” adds Hassan. “Alcohol is probably the most purchased product in duty-free shops.”

Hassan also fears that the rising maintenance costs of shops, coupled with increased prices and taxes, could lead to job losses for the shop branch’s more than 1000 employees.

To add insult to injury, the New Urban Communities Authorities announced their decision last month to stop issuing licenses for the sale of alcohol in new Cairo suburban settlements, due to alleged complaints by local residents.

Nabil Abbas, vice president of the committee, says these measures were taken after local residents complained that Egypt’s security vacuum makes liquor stores an easy target, and therefore endangers the lives of residents living next to them.

Meanwhile, the Investment Ministry announced higher taxes on several goods, including alcohol, over the course of the coming 27 months. Luxury taxes could increase by up to 200 percent on local and imported beer, and 150 percent on other alcoholic beverages.

This course of action comes two months after President Mohamed Morsy announced his intention to raise taxes on a much larger amount of goods, and subsequently canceled the call the next day, after public outrage. 

Ministry and government representatives were unavailable for comment.

The Brotherhood and the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, the former’s political arm, both distanced themselves from these decisions, claiming they had no decision-making role in the current Brotherhood-led government.

FJP spokesperson Ahmed Sobei went as far as to say that the party is unaware of such decisions and, in general, cannot interfere in ministerial decisions.

Brotherhood spokesperson Ahmed Arref says the group did not take part in the decision-making process, as it is “not in the ruling government.”

But many, such as Zamalek resident Dina Ahmed, believe the threat of increased luxury taxes is emblematic of Brotherhood attempts to impose its conservative doctrines on society at large.

The 32-year-old interior designer relayed her anger at the government’s proposed measures, while shopping at her neighborhood off-license shop.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and their government are attempting to slowly usurp all industries, which they believe to be contradictory to Islamic Sharia law,” she says. “If someone chooses to drink, it should be their right.”

Increasing alcohol consumption?

However, many liquor storeowners such as Abu Ramez are not concerned and believe these fears to be unfounded. 

“Alcohol sales have actually increased in the past year,” he says.

According to Al-Ahram Beverages — Egypt’s largest beverages company — Egypt has the 17th largest beer market in Africa and the Middle East, selling roughly 110 million liters of alcohol annually.  

A recent World Health Organization study reports that alcohol consumption gradually increased from the mid-1970s up to the mid-1990s, when it dramatically dropped. Since then, according to the study, however, consumption has slowly increased once again.  

“There are tons of people who drink — even the religious ones. There are tons of Copts and tons of Muslims who drink underground,” says Emam Hussein, a logistics manager who passed by the Bazaar al-Gamaa shop to buy a bottle of vodka.

The largely conservative atmosphere in Egypt has generally forced alcohol consumers, outside of the upper-class districts of Zamalek and Maadi, to either drink discretely or turn to the black market.

Alcohol licencing and sales laws

In the past, despite a thriving tourism sector, alcohol consumption laws were relatively restrictive on paper. Law 63/1976, which is still in effect today, prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol in public spaces or shops not deemed touristic.

During several Islamic holidays and the holy month of Ramadan, bars and restaurants are already subject to strict penalties for serving to Egyptians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Nevertheless, for most of the year and in practice, laws regarding the sale of liquor were generally lax under the previous government and essentially allowed many non-touristic establishments to sell alcohol to locals.

Downtown Cairo, for example, boasts as many as 50 drinking establishments with a diverse array of clientele, including foreigners and locals.

Moreover, super taxes on alcohol are also are not unprecedented.

With taxes on spirits as high as 3,000 percent over the course of many years, the mainstream spirit market has decreased, while a liquor black market has been increasing throughout the country.   

“There are many like me who drink in secret, and have done so for almost our entire young adult life,” says Gamal, a resident of Shubra, who preferred not to give his last name. “Nothing will change with these laws. If someone wants to drink alcohol, they will always find a way.”

Weddings and celebrations at lower-income neighborhoods, such as Shubra and Imbaba, are prime examples of underground alcoholic consumption.

Abu Ramez also believes that these laws, if passed, would never be put into practice.

He believes the general atmosphere of civil disobedience shows the inefficacy of the application of law by the government.

“In Port Said, they had a curfew, and no one followed that. They’re a failed government, and no one’s going to listen to the things they’re trying to enforce,” he says.

Even a high-profile Islamist politician allegedly sends his private driver weekly to buy crates of wine and beer, Abu Ramez says.

Abu Ramez is also cynical of the government’s intentions to deplete the alcohol industry.

“If [the government] wanted to prevent alcohol sales,” he says, “then they would have banned it [completely]. But they just want to raise more taxes.”

He adds that raising taxes in generally affluent neighborhoods, which are prone to alcohol consumption, also shows the government’s intention to profit from, rather than their adherence to, religious purity.

Abu Ramez also notes, however, an unprecedented danger, as he says he has received numerous threats via telephone to burn down his shop.

“I told them to go ahead and do it. If it comes to violence, then so be it,” he says.

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