Drinking Alcohol Is Always an Open Secret in Egypt
Egypt has been brewing beer for 3,000 years, but the highly religious country still has an under-the-table relationship with alcohol. Even some members of the Muslim Brotherhood buy booze on the down-low.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.
"Theoretically speaking, alcohol is not present in Egypt," confessed Shaker Nawal, manager of Kouroum of the Nile, an Egyptian independent winery based in Cairo. "In practice, it is."
That apparent contradiction reflects alcohol's role in this primarily Muslim country. Egyptians have been brewing beer for the last 3,000 years, and continue to do so—but drinking it isn't so simple.
Guarded by Osiris, the god of the death, ancient Egyptians brewed a redolent beer made from rich, yeasted dough of either barley or emmer. The dough was baked, crumbled, strained with water through a sieve, fermented, and finally flavored with dates or malts. The beer was loaded with nutrients and was consumed as a staple by workers in the Giza plateau for the necessary stamina required to build a civilization.
A tall figure instructed the clerk to carry the bag of liquor into his car, in order to avoid touching the alcohol. 'Guys who say 'Alahu akbar' buy alcohol under the table in a plastic bag.'
With the Arab conquest of Egypt and the arrival of Islam came the religious prohibition against drinking. The new Muslim rulers begrudged Egyptians' fondness for alcohol, once present in various forms of artistic expression. However, alcohol was not foreign to the Arabs; prominent religious figures—like the second caliph, Omar Ibn Al Khattab—and some of the Prophet's companions were known to imbibe.
But unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, Egypt did not become a dry country. In the late 19th century, the orientalist Edward William Lane recorded the presence of "boozah"—liquor made with barley bread and sold in the streets—and Egyptian permissiveness. "Wine, and all inebriating liquors are forbidden as being the cause of more evil than profit," he wrote. "Many of the Muslims, however, in the present day, drink wine, brandy, &c., in secret; and some, thinking it no sin to indulge thus in moderation, scruple not to do so openly."
Today, Cairo's drinking culture takes multiple forms: from underground and tantalizingly haram (forbidden) to openly cosmopolitan. The city's assortment of posh restaurants, hip nightclubs, historic bars—some seedy, others flashy beacons of Westernization—and miniscule liquor shops that reveals Egypt's tumultuous relationship with alcohol.
The upscale districts of Cairo—Zamalek, Maadi, Heliopolis—relish British style pubs, bars that charge 200 EGP (US $26) covers, and air conditioned liquor shops. Buying and consuming alcohol in affluent neighborhoods is socially acceptable and effortless, unlike low- to middle-class neighborhoods like Giza and Sayeda Zeinab, where buying alcohol is dangerously similar to a drug deal.
"In Zamalek, not all customers are free," said Samman, the manager of a successful liquor shop in Zamalek. On one of the busiest days of the year, just prior to the start of Ramadan, Samman's customers left his shop with clanking bottles of wine and 24-packs of beer, with one exception: a tall figure who instructed the clerk to carry the bag of liquor into his car, in order to avoid touching the alcohol.
In stark contrast to those who unabashedly parade handfuls of liquor into the streets, "Muslim Brothers buy in boxes of water or black bags," he said. Even in a haven of affluence, "guys who say 'Alahu akbar' buy alcohol under the table in a plastic bag," he explained.
Egyptians' reservations toward alcohol are also shaped by the state's strict alcohol regulations. Egypt prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places or shops, with the exception of hotels and tourist facilities approved by the Minister of Tourism. While the law doesn't succeed in limiting the sale of alcohol exclusively to hotels, it stymies the growth of the alcohol industry. Acquiring a new liquor license is nearly impossible for the array of aspiring liquor shops, retail stores, bars, and three-star hotels.
A 1973 law prohibited the sale of alcohol to Egyptians—including the 10 percent of the population that is Christian—during Ramadan and Islamic holy days.
Bars in Egypt operate under old liquor licenses that were issued decades ago, when "it was easy," said Osama Mohamed, the manager of King Hotel in Cairo's Dokki neighborhood. "Now it's kind of impossible to get a liquor license for a three-star hotel." The convoluted and plainly mysterious process for obtaining liquor licenses prevents the alcohol industry from drenching in the Egyptian market.
Beer is the alcohol of choice in Egypt, amounting to 54 percent of local alcohol consumption. (Egyptian wine and liquors are an acquired taste that many fail to master.) The alcohol industry is monopolized by Al-Ahram Beverages, which has been in Egypt since 1897. When Al-Ahram was nationalized in 1963, the brewing company acquired the necessary production and operating licenses that makes them the biggest player in the industry today. The same is not true for Al-Ahram's sole competitor, Egyptian International Beverage Company (EIB), an independent winery and sole competitor to Al-Ahram, which struggles to expand due to problems with retail licensing. The ban on alcohol advertising makes it difficult for the industry to change the stigma attached to drinking, as is the case with EIB.
"In the 70s, [the industry] started to get a bit restrictive and laws were issued to restrict the renewal of licenses, issuing new licenses, and banning advertising," explained Shams Eweiss, head of media at Al-Ahram Beverages. By the time Al-Ahram returned to private hands in the 80s, the company adapted to the country's conservative stance toward alcohol by launching a non-alcoholic drink. Despite Al-Ahram's clear advantage in the market, "we are still restricted in terms of the licenses, compared to the 40s and 50s, when alcohol was part of the culture," Eweiss said.
The shift to conservatism that began under the rule of President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s is apparent in the 1973 law prohibiting the sale of alcohol to Egyptians—including the 10 percent of the population that is Christian—during Ramadan and Islamic holy days.
Karim Abhar, a 26-year-old Muslim manager of the Carlton Hotel, claims the law has no religious basis. "Christians are Egyptian," he said, ashing his cigarette. "What goes for me goes for you … were born in the same country with the same traditions. It is law, not religion."
As a minority group, Christians abstain from food and drink in public when their Muslim compatriots are fasting, without the need for a law to motivate them. However, the state saw fit to implement a magisterial decision to prohibit Christians from consuming alcohol out of respect for Muslims. Foreigners, including the thousands of Gulf tourists that visit the country, are not asked to show such sensibility to Islam, even if they are Muslims themselves.
Modern-day Egypt is in constant transformation and growth, with one eye set on the past and the other on the future. Egyptian society is endlessly diverse, creating fertile ground for contradiction—be it a cup of tea spiked with whiskey in a street café, home delivery from your local liquor shop during Ramadan, a middle-aged woman who hides her drinking from her family, Muslim men donning a galabeya sharing a beer in a smoky bar, or a government that stalls reforming a booming alcohol industry while doubling alcohol taxes.
A beer in Egypt hasn't ceased to be a cherished commodity. It is still a scandalous act of defiance, and a pleasant surprise, served ice-cold.