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In Cairo megamall, shopping mixes with politics

Shopping patterns at high-end malls are not immune to Egypt's ongoing political crisis

Dina Ezzat, Friday 13 Sep 2013
City Stars
Cairo's City Stars Mall (Photo: City Stars' Facebook page)
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At City Stars, a huge shopping mall in Cairo’s Nasr City, Haniyah, a woman in her late forties, is shopping with a group of friends.

“It is a relatively quiet day because the curfew starts at seven. Fridays are usually more happening at City Stars but there is a certain sense of fear looming all over Nasr City, given the explosion,” said Haniyah. Only half an hour’s drive from the mall is the street where a bomb exploded last week. The mall is also close to Rabaa Al-Adawiya, the site of a protest camp that was violently dispersed by security forces in August.

With huge numbers of shops, including some high-end shopping brands, as well as food courts, cinemas, and adjoining five star hotels, the inauguration of City Stars in 2004 was part of an attempt to gain a new political and economic identity for Egypt: further economic liberalisation and a better lifestyle for those who can afford it.

It was the year of the appointment of a new cabinet under prime minister Ahmed Nazif, which was promised to be the government that would take Egypt forward to economic prosperity and political development.

But the Nazif government proved to be a disappointment and was promptly removed as the 2011 revolution got under way.  

City Stars, however, did not fail its promise. The expansion of its stores and hotels slowed slightly but the mall never lost its customers, who range from high-budget shoppers to strict window shoppers, from weekend moviegoers to grocery shoppers who come just to visit one of the largest supermarket spaces in Cairo on the ground floor of the mall.

Gulf-Brotherhood tensions

Built with money from Saudi and United Arab Emirates investors, City Stars resisted in the face of economic decline and political upheavals – just as the relations of Egypt with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE resisted the attempts of Qatar, mostly successful, to be the major Arab Gulf partner to Egypt during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi which started on 30 June 2012 and ended prematurely on 3 July 2013.

The negative sentiments that developed during the last year between the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and both Riyadh and Abu Dahbi have left an imprint on the ground floor of this mega mall – the venue of grocery shopping.

A manager at the supermarket told Ahram Online that his clients are complaining a lot about the shortage of goods seen on many shelves. “We are not being allowed to bring many goods into the supermarket and the owners seem to want to end our presence here; some of the shelves are practically empty.”

Two explanations are offered for why this is happening: some sources suggest that it is a dispute over the rent which the owners want to increase, while others are arguing that a recent and unannounced partnership with a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure has prompted the unease of the owners.

The management of the ground floor supermarket at City Stars has always been keen to disassociate itself publicly with any Muslim Brotherhood connection. It argues that the empty shelves of the supermarket have nothing to do with the row between the Muslim Brotherhood and the mall’s Gulf owners.

According to a Cairo-based member of an Arab Gulf embassy, the Muslim Brotherhood went “far too far” in antagonising both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. “It is no secret that we never liked the fact that Mubarak was removed and that we never liked the fact that he was thrown in jail like a criminal,” the Arab diplomat explained. “But we could have lived with this; what we could not accept was the attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood to expand their presence in our countries and to challenge our rulers.”

The hostility was formally announced a few months prior to the ouster of Morsi when the head of UAE intelligence openly attacked president Morsi. Following that, Abu Dhabi announced the arrest of a number of Egyptians for allegedly trying to “recruit” UAE nationals to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since then it has been a war of words, with Muslim Brotherhood leaders openly accusing UAE intelligence of working with the remnants of the Mubarak regime to pave the way for the ouster of the Brotherhood president. The accusation was consolidated with the hospitality shown by the UAE to members of the Mubarak regime, including Ahmed Shafiq, who ran against Morsi in the second round of presidential elections in the summer of 2012.

“Egypt’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been so well-rooted during the rule of Mubarak, and also during the rule of Sadat; there are so many joint strategic interests,” said one Egyptian diplomatic source.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are particularly keen to see Egypt, the leading Arab country when all is said and done, refraining from opening up to Iran and using the influence of Al-Azhar to curb the currents of the Shia sect which these governments are trying to contain within their own countries.

Enthusiastic about the fall of the Brotherhood-affiliated president on 3 July, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE immediately pledged billions of dollars in loans, grants and fuel shipments to Egypt. In two recent top-level visits to Cairo, the UAE said it was ready to inject investments to help restructure whole sectors in the Egyptian economy, including energy, spinning and weaving, and steel.

The Egyptian government, for its part, has devised an ambitious “stimulus plan” that will be mainly funded by the inflex of Arab aid.

Cairo, Ankara and Damascus

The empty shelves of the ground floor supermarket are not the only sign of how far politics is taking a toll on the economy. An empty men’s wear store which is associated with senior Brotherhood figures Khairat El-Shater and Hassan Malek is further evidence.

“No, I would not want to go inside that shop; it is owned by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turks. I am boycotting both and I don’t care for the exceptional sale they are doing; they both insulted us,” said Tamer, a banker in his fifties.

Tamer, who is a resident of Nasr City, said that he has been boycotting Muslim Brotherhood stores, especially the “supermarkets of Khairat El-Shater that are all over Nasr City and that have excellent offers,” for over six months.

“I am willing to forgive the group because obviously they had terrible leaders who took them and the entire country into this situation where we stand today,” Tamer said. “But I cannot forgive the Turkish prime minister for his attack on the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a very prominent Egyptian figure of whom we are all very proud.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been publicly critical of the ouster of Morsi, the dispersal of the sit-in of Rabiaa Al-Adawiya and the positions of the Grand Imam on both matters. The dispute led to both Cairo and Ankara summoning the other country’s ambassador.

On Wednesday, however, the Turkish ambassador returned to Cairo and made statements suggesting that what interests Turkey ultimately is for Egyptian to find prosperity and peace.

Cairo diplomats, however, say that the return of the Turkish ambassador would not necessarily prompt the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Cairo. “We still need to see Ankara showing more respect for the choices of the Egyptian people. We did not pick up the fight and we were very patient; we did not rush to pull back our ambassador for consultations but now we would need to see Turkey acting in a different way towards and talking in a different tone about Egypt before we decide to resend the ambassador,” said one.

Nadiyah, the manager of a lingerie store at City Stars, said that some of her clients are turning their backs on Turkish items in favour of made-in-China selections. “But some are still buying because they like the style and the prices; and at the end of the day most of the items I sell come from Turkey.”

Syrian refugees in Egypt, who fled the civil war in their hundreds of thousands, are also suffering from an unexpected backlash.

“Some go away when they know I am Syrian but some do buy,” said Bassel, who sells inexpensive dried fruit from a mobile kiosk in City Stars.

“We realise that the arrest of some Syrians in relation to the demonstrations supporting Morsi gave the impression that all Syrian refugees in Egypt are here to defend Morsi,” he said. “We are just refugees; we hope to go back home soon.”

Bassel laments the participation of any Syrian in internal political affairs. “Egyptians used to be very kind to us; they truly welcomed us. But now we are all being punished for the mistakes of a few,” he said.

 ‘An inevitable toll’

Socio-political researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Zeyad Akl said that it would take a while, maybe a long while, before the public mood of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and anything associated with them starts to recede.

According to Akl, it was inevitable that some show of dislike would be manifested by the consumers against the Muslim Brotherhood and some of their allies.

Today, Akl argued, is a moment of retreat for the Islamists and all those associated with them. He argues that the political exclusion shown in the face of Islamists by the state and by a large part of society is manifesting itself in the “decline of having business partners or family friends of Islamist association.”

Amal, a veiled sales assistant at one of the women’s wear chains at City Stars, says she was asked to remove her veil for the same reason.

“The administration asked me if I could remove the veil because they noticed a growing dislike of veiled sales assistants. It is true, actually, I've noticed it myself. Some of my clients have removed the veil, but I choose not to. My veil has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the administration agreed. I think it will be a while before things go back to normal.”

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