It is a hot and busy summer afternoon in Cairo, and Mahmoud, a 55-year-old taxi driver, is acting irritably. He is yelling at other drivers while complaining about “not having had a cigarette since this morning”.
“My head will split. This is too much. I have been trying to buy a pack of cigarettes since the morning, but things have been insane,” he said.
Mahmoud has been having trouble buying his usual two packs of Cleopatra Super, the 94 mm 20-cigarette soft pack that he usually consumes over half a week now that he has reduced his intake of nicotine on doctor’s orders following a diagnosis with Covid-19 a couple of years ago.
It has been 40 years since Mahmoud picked up smoking from friends at school, and ever since it has been mostly Cleopatra cigarettes that he has smoked.
“It was an affordable cigarette when we were young, so we could buy four or five cigarettes a day,” he said. “It was also the cigarette that our parents smoked, so we used to steal one or two from their packs every once in a while, until we would get caught that is,” he added with a big smile.
Over the years, Mahmoud has been introduced to other types of cigarettes, both cheaper and more expensive. He liked some of the more expensive ones, “but just for special occasions.”
“I never abandoned Cleopatra, as you know that smoking is mostly an acquired taste,” he added.
Today, Mahmoud finds it really annoying that he cannot find his regular brand of cigarettes. During an hour of driving from eastern to northern Cairo, he stopped at every kiosk on the road to try to buy “at least one cigarette”.
“A smoker who is deprived of cigarettes for a long time is bound to be in a foul mood, and I already have to put up with traffic jams,” he said.
Just as Mahmoud was getting desperate, his mobile phone beeped. “Someone at Bab Al-Bahr found me two packs at a reasonable price, only five pounds more than the regular price,” he said.
“The prices of cigarettes have been going up over and over again during the past five years. Everything has become a lot more expensive,” he lamented, as he dialled the number of the person to inform them that he would head straight to Bab Al-Bahr, also in northern Cairo, in a few minutes.
Located about a quarter of an hour’s drive from the Railway Station in Ramses Square, Bab Al-Bahr is a wholesale market for cigarettes. However, over the past few months, with an acute crisis in the availability of cigarettes, both local and international brands, it has become a meeting point for agents and dealers who will provide machine-rolled cylinders of tobacco for those who are willing to pay the price.
This is decided per pack and varies from one brand to another. According to smokers who have frequented Bab Al-Bahr, either independently or through contact, it depends on the quantity requested and the profile of the purchaser.
“It really depends. If you are buying a sealed package of 10 packs, for example, you are more likely to pay a higher price because this indicates that you are in a decent financial situation and a heavy smoker dependent on a pack a day at least,” said Nagi, a pharmacist who gets his cigarettes from Bab Al-Bahr through a contact.
Nagi himself does not go to Bab Al-Bahr. Instead, he knows someone who goes there to get cigarettes for a group of people in a messaging group. “Every week, each of us places our requests. He makes individual replies with the expected price but doesn’t commit to it as things can change fast,” Nagi said.
Once he has the packs, there are two ways to deliver. The most common is for the contact to send someone to deliver them and give the price as finally indicated in a private message plus the contact’s rate, usually five to 10 per cent of the parcel’s cost plus a tip for the delivery person at “a flat rate of LE50”.
All this can take the price of a pack of cigarettes to over 90 per cent above its official price.
For this group of mostly well-off people, it is worth their while given that their contact, unlike those of some other groups, has never failed to deliver the required brands in the required quantities.
“Obviously this means he pays his way through the black market,” Nagi said.
Maher, a Cairo banker, has had to replace his daily intake of one pack of a famous US brand with another brand produced by a mostly Japanese-owned company.
“It is odd that there are specific brands that are suffering the most from shortages. These include Cleopatra, the most famous Egyptian cigarette, and some other brands that are very popular in Egypt and that are produced through the same company,” he said.
According to Maher, it is equally odd that the increased prices include brands that are not particularly popular among Egyptian smokers and are consumed as substitutes for preferred brands.
“The prices go up and down and then up again. Since the crisis started a few months ago, they have kept saying that the prices will stabilise, but this has never happened,” he said.
For Maher, Nagi, Mahmoud and other smokers who shared their woes on the cigarette crisis, there is also something odd about this happening in a country that has had a cigarette industry for a very long time.
It was sometime in the early decades of the 17th century that tobacco first found its way to Egypt, and the planting of tobacco was established in the country by the early 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali.
Later, the khedive Tawfik decided to suspend its planting, since this had never really produced prime-quality tobacco due to the climate, to allow for the expansion of cotton. However, by that time there was already an established industry of cigarette-making that was dominated by Armenians and Greeks living in Egypt.
It took a while for smoking cigarettes to pick up with Egyptians, but by the late 19th century it was a habit adopted by many. King Fouad ordered the launch of the Eastern Company for Cigarettes and Tobacco in July 1920, and this eventually brought together several manufacturers.