Monday, July 14, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Alcohol Licenses under New Government

Between continuous raids confiscating alcohol from various popular expat hangouts and other restaurants discontinuing their libation services (TGI Fridays and Fish Market), places where you could grab a cold one after a long day of work seemed to dwindle once Mohamed Morsi was elected president. But now with Sisi in power, it appears to be easier to acquire licensing for alcohol sales.

The first thing that you need to understand about Egypt is that everything is paid via bribes or the local term, backsheesh. This has not changed since Mubarak’s era, going into Morsi’s brief stint and now into Sisi’s rule. What did change was that by paying Mubarak’s cronies under the table, places were still “mostly” secure from being swindled for more funds. However, with Morsi in power, police would conduct raids, confiscate imported spirits and impose a hefty fine. Sounds perfectly legal – and that part is. What is not so legal is that after paying the fine, if you wanted the alcohol back, the police would determine how much per bottle. Once you paid that and alcohol was returned (or you were allowed to purchase more), you were raided again. Repeat process until you run out of money. There are other intricacies involved, but I’m trying to keep it short(er).

Now often times the places selling imported spirits (e.g. Jack Daniels, Absolut Vodka, Jim Beam, etc) were acquiring these bottles from the black market so it isn’t as though they were completely following the rules themselves.

Wait, there are rules in Egypt? I digress.

The alcohol black market consists of people working at various Duty Frees (DFs) throughout the country. When you first arrive, you are allowed four bottles from the airport DF or three outside the airport. Officials keep track of how many people opt not to use their DF, and those are the bottles sold on the black market. Jack Daniels is arguably one of the most popular types of spirits in Egypt, and if you’ll notice, it’s been hard to get Jack at DFs for over a year.

When I first arrived in 2008, you could contact certain people to deliver a bottle of imported spirits, including right to the front door of a nightclub (talk about top-notch service). The cost for a one-liter bottle of Jack at that time was LE 250 (exchange from back then would have been about $42). I hear current day costs is upwards to LE 400 or around $58 (running around $25 at DF). Black market spirits were also available in various places, but mostly kept hush hush. For instance, another place if you were desperate was a Christian deli that had bottles in a back room, but they only sold to foreigners.

New places are cropping up all over Cairo, and one particular restaurant that just opened in Maadi told me that after Ramadan they would allow alcohol. I asked if they had received the license and they said, “Yes, but only to allow people to bring in their own bottles. We will not supply for now.” This particular restaurant hasn’t even been open a month, but already has the license to allow others to bring in their own bottles – which, by the way, most people opt to do when going to nightclubs because a) no one really wants local booze and b) it’s much cheaper.

I inquired as to how they were able to get this license so quickly. The manager told me, “Of course we had to pay [insert hand gesture signifying cash].” He told me that they paid somewhere between LE 40,000 to LE 45,000 ($5,715 to $6,430). 


So fear not, things are going back to pre-revolution times – well, as far as alcohol (and as far as this one restaurant) is concerned.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Carjackings, Gas Prices & Ramadan

Update:

Taxi meters now begin at LE 3.00 instead of LE 2.50. Meters should start at LE 3 and then move up LE 0.25 increments starting at 0.8 km to 1.1 km (different meters start differently). The meter is only supposed to move up LE 0.25 again after 0.2 km. 


Carjackings

There has always been crime, but Egypt was a relatively safe place. In fact, I’d venture to say that it was “stupid safe” (e.g. so safe that you momentarily get stupid and forget to use basic precautions). That has all changed significantly.

For any of you that want to compare the crime rates to countries like the US and UK, save it. The reason that this is so important to those of us living here is because it is a sudden hike in criminal activity compared to previous figures. Comparing crime rates to other countries is like comparing apples and oranges. And by doing so, you downplay the activities negating the lesson that we all need to be more cautious and aware of our surroundings.

It’s been one full week since the start of Ramadan (June 29), and this Ramadan is seeing more criminal activity than years past. Already there have been three carjackings since the start of the holy month: two in Katamaya and one in Maadi.

One of the incidents in Katamaya was at a well-known gas station/supermarket. The man went inside the station and came out to another SUV pulling up. Several onlookers were present, but that did little to deter the armed gunmen as they surrounded the man and vehicle. The Maadi carjacking took place at the Grand Mall, also a high-traffic area with each of these incidents taking place around 8 am.

While SUVs seem to be the main target, the actions being taken in such a public spotlight show that the criminals are growing bolder. There is also speculation at how sophisticated this criminal activity of SUV hijacking has become, with some even wondering about police involvement.

Gas Prices

Photo source: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Gas prices have increased 30-75%. For instance, 92 octane was previously LE 1.85 and now it is LE 2.60 which will affect those of you who have cars and/or a private driver. Taxis are mostly equipped to take natural gas with prices rising from LE 0..45 to LE 1.10, an increase of 59%, according to my former driver Ramy (who was and still is an angel).

Since the white taxis hit Cairo streets about 4.5 years ago, the meters have not been changed to properly reflect the rising prices. So many times you will find that taxis are refusing to use their meters, and if you don’t know how to negotiate in Arabic, you may find yourself in a jam.

For those of us that lived here pre-white taxis, there were a few rules that you could use if you couldn’t negotiate.
  • Find out from friends about how much the ride should be, and make sure to factor in any excess traffic.
  • Exit the car and pay through the window. If the driver begins a tirade, just keep walking. However, make sure to get out in an area that has people around in case of any unnecessary aggression from the driver.


With the recent change, here are some price points that I’ve compiled to help (this is with normal traffic):
  • Maadi Degla to Corniche, LE 8-10
  • Degla to Degla should still run around LE 5
  • Maadi to Garden City, LE 28
  • Maadi to Zamalak (Asr el Nil Bridge with the lion statues to any of the boats), LE 35
  • Maadi to Zamalak (Sequoia/Abu Feda St), LE 40
  • Maadi to Heliopolis (Corba), LE 35

Those are just my estimates given how much they were prior to the most recent gas hike. Use your own judgment, but even if you do know how to negotiate in Arabic, try to teeter around those prices. Also understand that many of these drivers are very poor. You don’t have to over-compensate and don’t let anyone make you feel as such, but be mindful and pay a little more than you did.

And while you may be unhappy with the new prices, remember that Egypt struggles financially mainly as a result of unnecessary and outlandish subsidies. Increasing the price of gas is a necessity as subsidies were (and continue to be) a drain on the economy.

Ramadan


I am contributing to the Oasis magazine, a publication to help the expat community via the Community Services Association (CSA). In the most recent issue, I gave some pointers for getting through Ramadan (“A Woman in Cairo – Ramadan for Expats”). Please take a look and for the upcoming issue, I give tips on taking taxis. Unfortunately, that article was written prior to the recent gas price change; however, the rest of it is still very important for those of you that need to take a cab.