Egypt's presidential palace clashes take toll on local businesses

Bassem Abo Alabass, Monday 4 Feb 2013

Owners of shops and restaurants near Presidential Palace – Egypt's newest protest venue – say recent anti-govt rallies in area have severely impacted their once-thriving businesses

presidential palace
Protesters throw fireworks at police during clashes in front of the presidential palace in Cairo February 1, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Once a thriving retail neighbourhood teeming with shops, restaurants and cafes serving patrons well into the evening, the area surrounding Egypt's Presidential Palace in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis district now looks like a ghost town.

Last Friday, the area saw renewed clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces, with the former hurling Molotov cocktails at the palace and the latter caught on video beating a demonstrator. While such ugly scenes serve to hurt economic activity nationwide, businesses in the immediate vicinity of the palace have, naturally, been most severely affected.

While the violence has since abated, businesses in the area remain closed for the most part, with local entrepreneurs voicing pessimism regarding the neighbourhood's short- and medium-term business prospects.

(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Most of the shops located on the corner across from the Presidential Palace have been colossally impacted. But the lack of customers is not the only serious problem facing local businesses.

"I have to pay my employees LE120 per day even though there isn't any business," said restaurant owner Adel Hashim. "On Friday, for instance, I was only open for two hours."

"What's more," he added, "only two of my four employees have shown up to work in the last couple days because of the recent violence."

"From December to February, my restaurant has probably been closed for a total of 30 days owing to the frequent demonstrations and clashes," said Hashim.

He went on to point out that restaurants on the far side of the Presidential Palace appeared to be doing just fine. "They always have customers since they're not subject to frequent rock-throwing, birdshot and teargas," he said.

Hashim also noted that street vendors – unlike shop owners –appeared to benefit from the turbulence. "They find their market amid the instability and clashes, hawking 'Black Bloc' masks, cigarettes, snacks and laser pointers," he said.

"I'm considering starting a delivery service since customers are finding it difficult to come to the restaurant," he added.

Hashim has until now carefully avoided taking sides in the conflicts that have erupted outside the Presidential Palace.

"On Saturday, two thuggish-looking protesters asked me to light their Molotov cocktails," Hashim recalled. "Since I refused, I was afraid they might take revenge on me the following day."

(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Ayman Saber, a barber who has worked near the palace for 16 years, told Ahram Online that recent disturbances in the area –which has been traditionally known for its relative tranquillity – were unprecedented.

"My shop was working well; I was making good money because of the area's high-income clientele," he said. "But since the election of President Morsi, the area has become a flashpoint protest venue – fuelled largely by the media – that has partially paralysed local business and trade."

Saber told this reporter: "You're the first one to come into my place for five days, and you're not even a customer."

He went on to stress that he was not "anti-protest" per se. "On the contrary," he said, "I've participated in several demonstrations. But, that being said, all forms of protest must remain peaceful nature."

(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Mohamed, who works at sporting goods shop in the area, voiced similar complaints.

He said that the shop's monthly revenue had been cut in half since disturbances outside the palace began in early December.

"Under normal circumstances, we would make about LE50,000 a month because of our proximity to the nearby Heliopolis Club," he said. "Now we can expect to pull in about half that."

The shop, Mohamed went on to point out, had also sustained physical damage during recent protests and clashes.

"The shop's glass façade was smashed by a teargas canister during the demonstrations last Friday," he said. "Fortunately, fearing looters, we removed all the goods the day before."

(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Sameh Atteya, a worker at a clothing shop in the area, told a similar story.

"Since December, the shop has been shut most of the time," he said. "Even the few times it was open, no one came in – even to say hello."

"I've had to borrow more than LE2,000 in the last two months, because I've received no commissions, no tips," Atteya said. "And this is because there has been no selling amid all the recent demonstrations and street fighting."

He added that the owner of the shop was seriously considering moving his business out of the troubled district.

According to Ahmed Hassan, a colleague of Atteya's, business at the shop had declined by some 90 per cent within the last three months.

Hassan also expressed fear that the area around the Presidential Palace was set to become a permanent venue for political protest actions.

"Even if the protesters accomplish their aim and manage to topple President Morsi, Egypt's next president will face similar protests outside the palace," he said.

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