Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Behind the Asian Knockoff Scene

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which is possible for some of you), you can’t help but notice the Asian influx coming onto the Cairo scene.

I feel like the Chinese government monitors the entire world with satellites set up to sound off an alert when turmoil is striking an area, country or region. So with the Arab Spring, it would only be fitting to see Chinese companies piling in to continue their standard business model: high-risk investments.

Most recently, I’ve started speaking with a Chinese woman who has lived in Cairo on/off for three years. She moved here with her boyfriend who was hired at a marble company, and has two other Chinese flat mates who venture downtown every day to sell mobile phones. The phones range in price from the cheapest being LE 150 to the most expensive running between LE 600-800 (around $21 to $112 at an exchange of 7.15), which is mostly based on how well you can negotiate. These phones include Samsung and Nokia knockoffs, and you can find them located in a flea market near Attaba.

Attaba is the area within Cairo that is well known for its electronics. You can literally find anything there as well as jail breaking various electronic devices. Even Cairo 360 is dubbing this place the “Egyptian Chinatown”. The website describes the particular area within Attaba, Abdel Aziz Street, known for its mobile phones and electronics. I have been to this area a time or two, and I have to say, I’m not itching to get back. I went with a friend looking for a reasonably-priced television and I’ve also been to get my phone unlocked. As Cairo 360 points out, since the area is considered a “main supplier to all electronic retailers in Cairo, prices are cheaper.” However, if you are obviously foreign, it may not always work out in your favor. And one other point of interest from the article: “Also, be advised against buying a second-hand mobile phone here, as some items on sale are likely to have been stolen or are faulty.

A segment of the Chinese community have a system set up. They head to this area everyday with their working hours usually teetering around 10 am until 7 pm. They get many of the phones for wholesale around LE 100 ($7.15), and usually at least try to pull in a LE 50 profit ($6.99). Lin* told me that her roommates make more than three times here by selling these phones than they would back in the mainland. She said, “It’s not easy to find a job in China, and difficult to find a good salary.” She went on to say that the average salary with a degree plus speaking English is about ¥3,000 a month (or around LE 3,490 or $488). Without an education or skills, the average salary is ¥1,800 (LE 2,094 or $293).

Like many others, Lin’s roommates are here on one-month visas, which cost ¥1,100 (LE 1,249 or $175) and are valid for 30 days. The roommates’ visas are currently expired, but the risk does not stop them from continuing their daily black market sales. I asked Lin what would happen if they were caught. She told me that one friend had been caught by police selling the items. Because he wasn’t able to pay the bribe (backsheesh), the police sent him to the Chinese embassy and he was deported. Another friend traveled to Israel via the desert and undetected. Upon arriving in Israel, he was captured by police and promptly deported. These “illegals” never had to pay a fine, their airline ticket nor receive any backlash from the Chinese government upon return. Lin added that she had another friend that had stayed illegally in Egypt for seven years. When she went to leave the airport, Egyptian officials only made her pay a fine of LE 300 ($42) which is crazy considering that even just three months past your visa expiration date, officials charge LE 200 ($28).

But what has to be the craziest part of all of this: Chinese nationals who are deported for illegal actions such as selling knockoff mobile phones can return back to Egypt after 15 days.

*name changed 


By the way, for those of you that didn’t get a chance to grab CSA’s Oasis magazine to read my “Cairo Cabbin” article, I’ll update this with the link (or you can head over to CSA, grab a coffee from Greco and get your free issue). Also, see an updated blog (hyperlinked) as the article was completed prior to the fuel subsidy decrease which affected the price of taxis. As always, please feel free to message me should you have any questions or comments.

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