Duke's pub in downtown Cairo is supposed to provide a slice of English comfort amid the noise and pollution of the Arab world's biggest city. There are soft green leather furnishings and a beautifully polished oak bar, but the most essential ingredient — alcohol — is conspicuous by its absence.
Amir, the pub’s gray-haired bartender, stared disconsolately at a display of fruit syrups behind the counter.
“What’s an English pub without beer?” he sighed.
Duke’s has been dry since May, when staff at the Grand Hyatt hotel complex, which houses the pub, were ordered to empty every last bottle of booze on the premises into the Nile.
Cases of the finest cognac and champagne in the region were among the casualties, with local press reports suggesting that up to US$1 million in alcohol was washed away.
The man behind the move is the hotel’s owner, Saudi Sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, who has decided to make all his business interests alcohol-free.
Now, the sheikh is locked in a three-way tussle with the Global Hyatt Corporation and the Egyptian tourist authorities, a skirmish that reveals much about the religious and cultural dilemmas facing modern Egypt.
Ibrahim’s decision provoked a furore when it became public, dividing opinion within a society that has become ostentatiously more religious in recent decades.
Newspaper columnists condemned the move as a betrayal of Cairo’s reputation as a freewheeling capital of liberal tolerance, warning that the removal of alcohol from luxury hotels could have a catastrophic effect on Egypt’s vital tourist industry.
Supporters of Ibrahim insisted that foreign visitors must respect Muslim cultural norms.
For its part, the Egyptian Tourist Federation has announced it will shortly strip the hotel of its five-star status.
“It’s a clear-cut game of regulations,” a spokesperson said. “If you go dry, your rating goes down.”
The international Hyatt group, which manages the hotel, has been in furious negotiations with Ibrahim ever since.
The issue has brought to the surface the simmering resentment held by many Cairenes against the oil-rich Gulf Arabs who pour into their city each summer and who are rapidly buying up vast swathes of the Egyptian entertainment sector.
Many forms of entertainment, from film studios to belly-dancers, have been snapped up by petrodollars and although the Saudi investment provides a much-needed injection of cash into the ailing Egyptian economy, critics fear that the changing cultural landscape — dancers are now covering up and films are avoiding scenes of hugging or kissing — is being used as a vehicle to spread the strict form of Wahhabi Islam prevalent in the Gulf.
Egypt has traditionally been characterized by a more moderate brand of Sunni Islam that has allowed “un-Islamic” institutions such as hotel bars to flourish in Cairo. Yet commentators say the ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamic political movement that is formally banned from parliament, has left Egyptian society susceptible to Wahhabism and its assault on “prurient” cultural pastimes.
“The people want their religious needs fulfilled but a vacuum exists because moderate Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t allowed to operate freely by the regime,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Islamic thinker and popular newspaper columnist in Egypt.