Monday, July 14, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Alcohol Licenses under New Government

Between continuous raids confiscating alcohol from various popular expat hangouts and other restaurants discontinuing their libation services (TGI Fridays and Fish Market), places where you could grab a cold one after a long day of work seemed to dwindle once Mohamed Morsi was elected president. But now with Sisi in power, it appears to be easier to acquire licensing for alcohol sales.

The first thing that you need to understand about Egypt is that everything is paid via bribes or the local term, backsheesh. This has not changed since Mubarak’s era, going into Morsi’s brief stint and now into Sisi’s rule. What did change was that by paying Mubarak’s cronies under the table, places were still “mostly” secure from being swindled for more funds. However, with Morsi in power, police would conduct raids, confiscate imported spirits and impose a hefty fine. Sounds perfectly legal – and that part is. What is not so legal is that after paying the fine, if you wanted the alcohol back, the police would determine how much per bottle. Once you paid that and alcohol was returned (or you were allowed to purchase more), you were raided again. Repeat process until you run out of money. There are other intricacies involved, but I’m trying to keep it short(er).

Now often times the places selling imported spirits (e.g. Jack Daniels, Absolut Vodka, Jim Beam, etc) were acquiring these bottles from the black market so it isn’t as though they were completely following the rules themselves.

Wait, there are rules in Egypt? I digress.

The alcohol black market consists of people working at various Duty Frees (DFs) throughout the country. When you first arrive, you are allowed four bottles from the airport DF or three outside the airport. Officials keep track of how many people opt not to use their DF, and those are the bottles sold on the black market. Jack Daniels is arguably one of the most popular types of spirits in Egypt, and if you’ll notice, it’s been hard to get Jack at DFs for over a year.

When I first arrived in 2008, you could contact certain people to deliver a bottle of imported spirits, including right to the front door of a nightclub (talk about top-notch service). The cost for a one-liter bottle of Jack at that time was LE 250 (exchange from back then would have been about $42). I hear current day costs is upwards to LE 400 or around $58 (running around $25 at DF). Black market spirits were also available in various places, but mostly kept hush hush. For instance, another place if you were desperate was a Christian deli that had bottles in a back room, but they only sold to foreigners.

New places are cropping up all over Cairo, and one particular restaurant that just opened in Maadi told me that after Ramadan they would allow alcohol. I asked if they had received the license and they said, “Yes, but only to allow people to bring in their own bottles. We will not supply for now.” This particular restaurant hasn’t even been open a month, but already has the license to allow others to bring in their own bottles – which, by the way, most people opt to do when going to nightclubs because a) no one really wants local booze and b) it’s much cheaper.

I inquired as to how they were able to get this license so quickly. The manager told me, “Of course we had to pay [insert hand gesture signifying cash].” He told me that they paid somewhere between LE 40,000 to LE 45,000 ($5,715 to $6,430). 

So fear not, things are going back to pre-revolution times – well, as far as alcohol (and as far as this one restaurant) is concerned.

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