Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

Delivering optimism despite the latest violence in Cairo

Ahmed Sobh's deliverymen risked their lives last Wednesday driving lorry loads of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and other groceries all over the greater Cairo region.
Ahmed Sobh's deliverymen risked their lives last Wednesday driving lorry loads of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and other groceries all over the greater Cairo region.

Despite the blockades and armed skirmishes, most were allowed to go about their business unencumbered. As were thousands of other ordinary working folk in and around Cairo not significant enough to warrant the attention of the media.

It is always the case that life of some sort goes on while events of historic magnitude unfold. But having spoken to owners of several businesses in Egypt this week, one of whom was Mr Sobh, I was astonished at how well most seem to be functioning and how they seem to be taking these momentous events in their stride.

This fact was particularly surprising given the starting point for my inquiries.

Last Thursday a host of international companies announced they were pulling their staff out of Egypt and closing operations at least until the violence abates.

Car makers like America's General Motors and Toyota of Japan were among the first to close their factories sending thousands of workers home and ending production in some of the region's most important manufacturing hubs.

Electrolux, the world's second largest maker of household products, was quick to follow suit, as was Royal Dutch Shell, the oil and gas giant.

Nissan, meanwhile, had already closed its factory for routine maintenance when the violence broke out and was evaluating whether or not it should reopen this week.

But this retreat seems to be an entirely foreign phenomenon.

The business people I spoke to, all members of a group calling itself the Egypt Junior Business Council, were much more optimistic about the country's economic prospects in the immediate future and saw no need to close down or keep workers at home.

Mr Sobh, whose main concern is providing cold storage and transportation for the food industry, told me he stopped work for a short period last Wednesday but very quickly resumed. The people of Cairo have to eat after all, and whether they buy their food in restaurants or from the supermarket, perishables need to be shipped from the warehouse to the city.

Significantly, international franchise companies like KFC and McDonald's, which are among Sobh's biggest clients, have told him that they expect business to continue as usual in the near to medium term.

In fact, Mr Sobh says he is much more optimistic about the future for a free market and is looking for the resources to fund a wholesale expansion of his business across the country.

For this he hopes Egypt's friends in the GCC, whose members have already pledged some $12 billion in aid, will be on hand with more support in the future.

It is not all roses, of course. The night-time curfew imposed by the military has been a problem since it was enforced last week. Getting to and from work is a problem under such conditions, finding adequate supplies, and persuading those from other districts to come to Cairo have all been difficult.

Mr Sobh is one of the lucky ones. Certain vital trades - such as food delivery - are exempt from the curfew. His storage business is based out on October 6th City, an industrial zone where many international manufacturers are based. It is a bit quieter these days since so many foreign businesses have pulled down the shutters.

Ghada Darwish runs an industrial supply business which is much closer to the action. Her company, Piza Industrial Supplies, is headquartered just off Tahrir Square and supplies heavy machinery and equipment to the sugar and fertilizer industries.

Like Mr Sobh, she too was celebrating the end of the Muslim Brotherhood's short time in power but her reasons were altogether more personal. As a woman in business she was worried that the religious party would severely limit her prospects.

Ms Darwish recognises Egypt has an urgent need for more foreign direct investment and the involvement of foreign clients and partners.

Her business has slowed markedly in the past week as many of her equipment providers are based in Europe and normally send technical experts along with the machinery to assist and advise on installation.

But since the violence returned they have understandably stayed away.

She believes, though, that this will be a temporary problem that will be resolved in a couple of months.

Perhaps Mr Sobh, Ms Darwish and many more like them in the Cairo business community are overly optimistic, perhaps politically naive, or perhaps just living in hope of a brighter more liberal future.

I suspect a little of all three and I applaud them for it.

The international business community must take a leaf out of the GCC's book and stand squarely behind them and support their entrepreneurial efforts. The prosperity they are working tirelessly to achieve is Egypt's only hope.



Updated: August 22, 2013 04:00 AM