Alcohol Along the Nile

by Keily Miller:

There is nothing subtle about Bling Bling Disco. The immense dance floor, expensive gadgets, state-of-the-art sound system, and flat-screen televisions attract the nation’s most prominent deejays, spinning Akon and Usher to crowds of urban youth. Professional bartenders mix drinks from a vast display of imported liquor, and by the early morning, the walls still pulse with movement from Saturday night crowds. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Cairo.

In Egypt, a country of 75 million Muslims, alcohol abounds. There is no law prohibiting the substance; in fact, the Egyptian government encourages its wide accessibility in an effort to promote tourism. The tourism industry, a cornerstone of the national economy, raked in more than $11 billion in 2008 alone. And with the majority of tourists streaming in from the habitually intoxicated populations of Western and Southern Europe, the availability of alcohol is a visitor’s imperative. When Grand Hyatt Cairo owner Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Ibrahim decided in 2008 to prohibit the sale of alcohol in his lavish hotel, the Egyptian government was outraged. After Ibrahim stood by his decision and ordered vast stores of expensive imported liquors poured down the drain, the Ministry of Tourism threatened to replace the hotel’s five-star status with a meager two stars.

Yet a contradiction remains. Despite the appearance of acceptability generated by upscale bars and clubs, drinking is a taboo subject among most Egyptians. While the Egyptian government encourages alcohol sales, the country maintains the largest dry population in the Arab world.

Common theory posits a direct relationship between drinking patterns and Islamic religiosity in the Middle East, but a closer look reveals this proposal to be flawed. Egypt is less religiously conservative and more religiously diverse than the Gulf States — many of which have outlawed the sale of alcohol — yet the incidence of alcohol use is much lower in Egypt. Select statistics and interactions with Egyptians who embrace neither absolute secularism nor religious fanaticism reveal common theory to be based on exaggerated claims about history, religion, political affiliation, and class. Beneath the quick characterizations lies a complex combination of factors leading some Egyptians to drink.

Beyond the Caricatures

There is a mistaken notion, common among both foreigners and Egyptians, that alcohol is a Western import. Yet in ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was believed to be the inventor of beer, a staple part of the diet, and Muslim chemists in the eighth century were responsible for advancing distillation technology. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic term al-kuhul, meaning “essence,” and bouza, a type of beer with an extremely high alcohol content, is a traditional Egyptian beverage.

Over the past few decades, a caricature of alcohol consumption in the Middle East has emerged. According to this depiction, the Egyptian patrons of the tourism-fueled nightclubs who reject the veil and clamor for democracy are responsible for the growth of the domestic alcohol market. Meanwhile, those who turn to Islam for the universal solution — politically frustrated men dressed in the galibiya and women hidden behind the niqab — are society’s abstainers and guardians of public virtue.

If only it were that simple.

As 27-year-old receptionist Fatima Laroui finished brushing her teeth in the bathroom of Crazy House, an out-of-the-way nightclub in Alexandria, she pinned her hijab tight around her hair and covered her short-shorts with a long skirt. Without a trace of vodka remaining on her breath, she looked just as she did when she entered through the club’s wooden doors four hours earlier. She was preparing to make her exit.

“I am not a sharib,” insisted Laroui, using a term that literally means “drinker,” but speaks more to the character than to the action. “You can pray five times a day and follow all the rituals and still not be a Muslim. And I can drink five times a day and still not be a sharib.”

More than an Import

There is little reliable up-to-date literature on patterns of alcohol consumption among Egyptians, and there are large discrepancies in the data that can be found. Official national reports are scarce and often distorted, as proof of alcohol consumption by the Egyptian people would reflect poorly on the government. Critics of the regime in power, including Hussein Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, already accuse the government of compromising Islamic values in the interest of money. To the dismay of Islamic conservatives, there is no legal punishment for drinking under President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Any further impression of condoning alcohol could conceivably place the state in a compromising position, animating the voices of Islamist opposition and jeopardizing the regime’s authority.

Mubarak’s policies on alcohol are aimed at fostering tourism, yet the influx of Westerners for whom drinking is a cultural norm certainly impacts the way Egyptians view alcohol. “They’re at a restaurant, they see a beautiful woman with a glass in her hand … What do you think they are going to order, milk?” said Yale University lecturer Sameh El-Naggar, a Muslim and a lifetime abstainer.

Fortunately for the regime, tourists and expatriates still compose the majority of alcohol consumers. The fact that most Egyptians are self-avowed abstainers saves the regime a great deal of embarrassment.

The most recent survey by the World Health Organization, collected in 2001, estimated that 99.5 percent of the Egyptian population above the age of 18 abstained — an estimate inflated by the controversial nature of a survey based on self-reported drinking. In comparison with Western countries, the number of drinkers in Egypt is persistently low. However, the discrepancy between public appearance and private practices belies a growing domestic market for alcohol. This unmeasured market almost certainly serves more than 0.5 percent of the Egyptian population.

“A lot of Egyptians can be very hypocritical,” explained medical researcher Ahmed Abdelaziz. “A lot of them go out and drink, just never in the public eye, and then condemn it in the workplace. It’s like they’re leading a double life.”

The more revealing and reliable data lies not in Egyptians reporting to be drinkers (a survey always skewed by social pressures) but rather in domestic alcohol purchases. These rates show drastic fluctuations in recent history, fluctuations which correspond neither to shifts in population nor to variations in levels of inbound tourism. According to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism, the number of tourists reached a record high in 2002. That same year, the level of alcohol consumption among Egyptians, which had reached its record decades earlier, was near its all-time low.

The Religious Position

With the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasing dominance on the Egyptian street, public Islamic religiosity has been on the rise in Egypt. According to government statistics, in 1986 there was one mosque for approximately every 6,000 Egyptians; in less than two decades, with a population that had almost doubled, there was one mosque for every 745 people. This growing public religiosity, however, has not affected the country’s alcohol policy. Parliamentary bloc spokesman Hussein Ibrahim and other members of parliament affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood annually propose legislation to authorize a punishment of 40 lashes for those in possession of alcohol. Fortunately for Egypt’s bar flies, though, the flogging proposals meet annual rejection, and the penalty remains a practice reserved for the more conservative Islamic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The official religious position in Egypt is subject to constant revision by Islamic leaders in the country — an inconvenience attributable to the absence of a single religious authority to issue fatwas, or religious rulings, with full jurisdiction. Confusion over the issue of alcohol consumption is augmented by the diffusion and even delegitimization of religious authority in the form of populist-style sheikhs and internet fatwas. Popular sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently issued a fatwa stating that beverages and foods with a low alcohol content — a level of 0.5 percent — are permissible in Islam. The statement sparked enormous controversy and uncertainty among Muslims.

There is a misconception that Islam is unique among religions in forbidding alcohol, yet Egypt alone disproves this claim. The Coptic Church bans spirits, made by distillation, and does not tolerate the misuse of alcohol. Coptic Christians account for 9 percent of the population in Egypt. Habib Lawandy, 25, stated: “I don’t drink because it is against my religion.” Lawandy is a bikini shop owner in Sharm al- Sheikh — a favorite destination for Russian tourists located on the Red Sea — and a Coptic Christian.

There are even varying stances based on type of alcohol. For Coptic Christians, wine is permitted but not in excess. In Islam, the existence of direct prophetic traditions prohibiting grape wine allows no justification for its consumption by even the loosest interpreters of Islamic law. “Beer in general is less ‘evil’ and less ‘demonic,’ unlike wine, which is totally forbidden,” said Shady Nasser, a lecturer at Yale University and Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University.

No one religious scripture or statement can fully explain Egyptians’ choice to drink.

The Status Myth

If not religious factors, then what determines Egyptian alcohol consumption? A prevailing opinion, disseminated through the Egyptian press, points to another characteristic: social class. In the English- language magazine Egypt Today, for example, Nadine El Sayed, writing critically about drinking and partying, explained, “This trend is associated with the upper-middle class.” In her interpretation of alcohol use, El Sayed displays an all-too-familiar tendency to attribute a cultural misstep to the disaffected offspring of Egypt’s elite.

But Marc Busain, CEO of Al Ahram Beverages Co. (ABC), reported to the magazine Business Today Egypt in 2006: “Our mainstream spirits that cater to a market that wants the less expensive stuff are doing much better than the premium quality spirits.” ABC held a monopoly on alcohol production in Egypt until recently, when Egyptian International Beverage Co. (EIBCO) resurrected a company that ABC had bought out years earlier.

The relationship between class and consumption seems implausible in light of the popularity of cheap, lower-quality alcohol. A study conducted in 1992 by renowned Egyptian psychiatrist M.I. Soueif found that industrial workers, who face difficult physical and economic conditions, were almost equally as likely as male university students to consume alcohol rather than other common, less anathema substances such as cigarettes.

The only variable for which Soueif found a marked difference in alcohol consumption, in fact, was gender: Alcohol consumption is significantly male-dominated. According to Soueif’s study, neither age nor class had any significant impact at all.

The Middle-Ground Abstainers

The Egyptian in tight jeans downing a Long Island iced tea at Aquarius Discotheque in Alexandria may seem to have more in common with a New Yorker than with the niqab-wearer down the street who has never touched an intoxicant. Still, the majority of the population identifies with neither of the two extremes. When did drinking become a synonym for democracy and progress and abstention a decision reserved for proponents of a Shariah-based state? Where are the voices of the millions who do not tie the decision to abstain to a particular political or religious project? Where does the quiet majority stand?

“I would be kicked out of my house if I drank alcohol,” explained Fadil Assharif, a first-year student at Cairo University. “My father would beat me and everyone would know my shame. But why would I ever do it?”

Why indeed. The social stigma Assharif would carry and the marginalization he would face at the hands of society are the strongest of deterrents. Placed within this context, the act of drinking alcohol becomes an act of noncompliance: By drinking, Assharif disobeys his family, his sheikh, and his community. Although he is devout, in his explanation for abstention, he did not mention God.

Contrast this with the fact that Lawandy — a Christian — cites God as his only deterrent. He cares little about what the rest of Egyp tian society thinks of him. Though last in a long line of Lawandys born and raised in the country, he does not consider himself Egyptian but rather embraces a Coptic identity allegedly descended from the Pharaohs. He shares few of Assharif’s societal concerns.

Numerous disincentives are cited by abstainers: physical health, honor, strength of character, cultural values, and many other reasons that one might find in any country anywhere in the world.

So why and when, given the large and varied costs, do Egyptians choose to drink?

Political Patterns
Explanations based on common perceptions of Western influence, religion, and class in Egypt are insufficient. Trends of drinking are not solely contingent upon tourists or on Egypt’s secularist Anglo- Francophiles. An alternative explanation links patterns of drinking to a force that affects every Egyptian: the nation’s politics.

A 2003 study on World Drink Trends by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations mapped adult per capita consumption of alcohol in Egypt from 1961 to 2003. The results are intriguing.

A comparison of the patterns in the types of alcohol being consumed is revealing in itself. The consumption of wine remained fairly constant over the 40-year span. Wine consumption levels are so insignificant — consistently under 0.05 liters per capita — that they hardly merit analysis. EIBCO attributes this to a production deficit, and not to the Islamic prohibition of the drink.

According to the UN study, beer consumption, like wine consumption, maintained relative uniformity, though at levels higher than wine and lower than spirits. Only spirits faced serious fluctuations in levels of consumption. This makes sense: Beer is part of the national history, whereas spirits are not. As products of the outside world, their reception by Egyptian society is subject to outside factors greater than the alcohol itself.

According to the UN survey, total consumption of alcohol faced a steady decrease from 1961, the first year measured, until 1975, a year in which the level of consumption dropped dramatically. It is useful to analyze the political significance of these dates. The period from 1961 to 1975, during which time total consumption steeply declined, was Egypt’s most secular period in history. It was the period of Gamal Abdul Nasser, of the United Arab Republic, of socialism and of nationalist fervor. Greek and British companies were forced out of the country in the 1950s and 60s, which likely explains alcohol’s increasing invisibility. This decline challenges the commonly held notion that alcohol becomes less prevalent as religious conservatism rises on the political stage.

The period from 1975 to 1996 saw a steady increase in total consumption, as the political scene in Egypt faced a transformation of its own. In 1975 — two years after the October War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states — the United States began a multi-billion dollar aid program to the country. That same year, the Suez Canal was reopened and Anwar Sadat became the first Egyptian president to pay an official visit to the United States. With money pouring in, the quantity of disposable income increased, and alcohol became more easily accessible. With the money coming from the West and relations with the United States improving, the term “Western” became less pejorative in nature, and the common perception of spirits as a part of a Western cultural tradition no longer seemed as problematic.

In 1996, total consumption dropped drastically: nearly a 400 percent drop over the course of one year. That same year was a landmark moment for Islamist insurgency and violence. Muslim militants attacked a group of Greek tourists in front of the Europa hotel, leaving 18 people dead and 14 wounded. The government arrested 240 people linked to Kotbioun, the violent branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that had been outlawed by the government. For the next four years, inbound tourism faced a severe decline, which inspired a reduction in the production of alcohol. With less alcohol available, fewer nightclubs in business, and diminished social interactions between Egyptians and their European associates, the level of total alcohol consumption remained at its all-time low.

Today, with Islamism on the rise, a new administration in place in the United States, and a clamoring for political change in Egypt, shifts in the political landscape have the potential to alter the nation’s approach to drinking once again.

Like all theories on this taboo topic, the impact of politics on Egyptians’ alcohol consumption is hard to prove — but the correlation is compelling. Nationwide political changes take into account social and cultural influences, challenging one-dimensional interpretations of why Egyptians choose to drink or not drink. In Egypt, picking up a glass — in private or in public — is neither a toast to the West nor an assault to Islamists. Such stale caricatures veil the complexities of a heterogeneous society.

“No one would guess what goes on underneath this hijab,” laughed Fatima Laroui, finally making her way out of Crazy House. The call to prayer was just beginning to sound.

Keily Miller is a sophomore Modern Middle East Studies major in Branford College.