Egyptian society pressuring liquor shops to close

BY Haitam El-Tabei  /  AFP, CAIRO

Sun, May 26, 2013 - Page 14

Egypt’s liquor stores say they are under growing pressure to stop selling alcohol, though not from the country’s Islamist government, but from its society.

The shelves of Amir Aziz’s central Cairo premises are stacked with beer, wine and spirits, but they are invisible from the street. Aziz has covered the window with metal sheets to avoid angering conservative Cairo residents.

Like many liquor store owners in Egypt, Aziz says the mood toward alcohol has changed drastically since the 2011 uprising that toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and brought Islamists to power.

“There are no restrictions from the government on the sale of alcohol,” Aziz told reporters. “It’s the people who are giving us trouble.”

Since Mubarak’s fall, Islamists long suppressed by his regime have set up political parties and gained a voice in the media.

In June last year, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, became the country’s first civilian leader.

Consuming alcohol is banned under Shariah, which is the main source of legislation, according to Egypt’s new constitution.

However, Aziz was doubtful that the government would move to ban the sale of alcohol.

“I don’t think the government will ban alcoholic drinks because they generate a lot of revenue from taxes,” said Aziz, who recently renewed his shop’s alcohol license without any difficulty.

“We have had no problems with the government so far. Our problems are always with the Salafists [ultra-conservative Islamists] who harass us, either verbally or with violence,” he told reporters.

Earlier this month, gunmen opened fire on a cafe in the north Sinai town of el-Arish that sold alcohol, killing a waiter.

Officials from Morsi’s government have made a string of statements in recent months that have raised the specter of tighter restrictions on alcohol sales. Cairo doubled beer tax to 200 percent this month, with taxes on other alcoholic drinks rising from 100 percent to 150 percent.

In February, the Egyptian New Urban Communities Authority said it would stop issuing alcohol licenses to new housing developments and in March, Egyptian Minister of Aviation Wael al-Maadawi announced plans to ban alcohol in the duty-free shops that the ministry runs.

However, authorities say no formal instructions have been issued banning the sale of alcohol.

Sherif, who did not want his last name used, manages Drinkies, an outlet for Al Ahram Beverages, Egypt’s largest liquor store chain. He said they had not had any problems with authorities.

“The police give us no trouble, we get our license renewed,” he said.

However, he said recent statements by Islamists, who oppose the sale of alcohol and drinking on religious grounds, are worrying.

“We have hired extra security outside the shops,” Sherif told reporters.

Another employee at the store, Samir, said they have to endure insults from passers-by because they sell a product that is prohibited by Islam.

“We’re not forcing anyone to buy alcohol,” Samir said.

“Drinking alcohol is a personal issue,” said Galal, a customer at Drinkies. “It’s not for anyone to interfere.”

Despite the absence of official restrictions, many liquor stores are covering their store fronts because of pressure from society, residents told reporters.

At a duty-free shop in central Cairo, employees said they would welcome a ban, even though they know it is unlikely because 80 percent of their revenue comes from alcoholic drinks.

“I am for a ban because it’s forbidden [in Islam] and it’s against our customs, regardless of the Islamists being in power,” Shaimaa Hassan said.

Mohammed Zeidan, a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party — the political arm of the Brotherhood — insists that in Islam “what is allowed is clear and what is banned is clear.”

He said the current laws do not represent the views of the party.

“The laws that would satisfy us will be drafted by the people through their members of parliament,” Zeidan said.

Egypt has been without a parliament for almost a year after a top court declared it unconstitutional for technical reasons. During this time, the price of a bottle of beer in Egypt has risen from 7.5 Egyptian pounds (US$1.07) to almost 12 pounds.

According to the budget for this year, the Egyptian government expects tax revenues of about 1 billion pounds from beer alone, six times the amount of the previous budget.

“Of course raising taxes on beer can be seen as a restriction, but it also leads to more revenue for the government,” economist Mahmud Negm said. “The figures show that the Egyptian government needs Egyptians to drink more beer and not restrict them.”