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The Wanton Bishops

A Zamalek Divided

Zamalek business owners and their employees marched to protest the government's unwillingness to provide them with the correct licenses, and the consequent raids and shut-downs they've suffered. Eihab Boraie gets both sides of the story...

Zamalek is an island that is as divided as the country of Egypt. To some, it is coolest cultural hub in Cairo, to others it is simply a place called home, but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that it is unsustainable and bridging on being barely liveable.

Zamalek's problems begin in the early 90s when a decision was made not to allow any new commercial licenses in Zamalak. That meant that any shop with a license be it for a clothing, phones, or food store, would have to remain as such forever. For example, if a shoe shop is unsuccessful and has to close it's doors, it can only reopened, be it different owners, as a shoe shop.

This decision was for the most part upheld with only few business owners taking the gamble of opening up shops without proper licenses. However, after the events of January 25th, a slew of business owners decided to take the bet that the government was too preoccupied with fixing the state than concerning themselves with businesses having proper licenses.

This gamble was paying off until recently, when the government decided to crackdown on these businesses, launching police raids. Unfortunately, there are so many businesses with improper licenses that places like Wel3a, who have all the required licenses, are being roped in with the others and may also become a casualty. According to Amro el-Fiky, owner of Wel3a “We are standing in solidarity with cafés that don't have licenses, because we believe if we don't stop the police now, then the next step will be us.”

Fearing permanent shutdown, Zamalek business owners gathered a couple hundred concerned employees and marched through the streets of the district, in hopes of bringing awareness to their plight. Although public support is mixed, it seemed that many the business owners and employees, who, it is important to note, are not living in Zamalek were upset by raids, while residents of Zamalak were appeased that someone was finally listening to their complaints. However, one concerned, Zamalek resident that I spoke to believes that “If these cafes are forced to leave, then Zamalak would lose its spark.” This statement was in sharp contrast to the other residents who I spoke to, who requested to remain anonymous but explained “Most of these cafés provide terrible food, cramped seating, taking up most of the sidewalk, and add to traffic that is ruining Zamalek.”

The most interesting part of the march was the struggle to keep politics out of their cause, as a few people looked to hijack the marches in the name of Raba'a. However, the aim of this march was strictly business, so we'll leave that to be discussed in another article. 

The good news is that both business owners and residents agree that there needs to be a comprise and hopefully, with an open dialogue, a solution can be reached. One of the active, concerned Zamalek residents explained it simply: “Zamalek in supposed to be a residential area, it does not need 160 cafes...with all the clients, cars, noise. Had these cafe had civilised opening and closing times, then perhaps we could have a debate.” Obviously, the shutdown of these cafés will cause a lot of people to lose their jobs but very few of them live in Zamalek, so it is difficult for them to understand why local residents have felt the need to lodge complaints. 

There is still a lot to debate, but one thing both sides can agree on is that currently, Zamalek is unsustainable. It should neither be strictly residential or strictly commercial. What Zamalak really needs is a review of its licensing laws and, perhaps by establishing proper guidelines that dictate operating hours and weed out businesses that don't deserve licenses, a brighter harmonious Zamalek can emerge. Check out some of our interviews and footage from the march below:


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