Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—“How things change . . . can it really be that the sophisticated Zamalek district is turning into a den for smoking shisha?! God’s curse be upon those corrupting Egypt with this smoke,” exclaimed Dr. Mohamed Badrawi, a resident of the exclusive district who was also born there.
Zamalek, on Gezira Island in the Nile River, and one of the most upscale districts in the Egyptian capital, has recently been invaded by cafés and coffee houses. With the cafés on Gezira Island in the Nile Rivers have come street vendors, who only add to the clamor.
Despite the unexpected transformation in his neighborhood, Badrawi isn’t looking for a new apartment away from the raucous atmosphere of central Cairo.
Badrawi says he doesn’t want to leave the area. But he does blame what he describes as “anarchy” and “government neglect” that followed the revolution on January 25, 2011, for the influx of noisy coffee shops and street traders into the once-quiet streets.
Indeed, Zamalek was once famous for being the calmest and quietest district of Cairo. Its streets, trodden by the great and the good of Egyptian society for hundreds of years, have been graced by prime ministers such as Hassan Pasha Sabry and entertainment giants like Umm Kalthoum.
Zamalek is known for its many historic landmarks, including the Cairo Tower, the aquarium and the Egyptian Opera House, in addition to the most famous sports clubs in Egypt—not least of which is Al-Ahly—and the modern art museum. It is also home to many foreign embassies.
But Zamalek is changing, like much of Egypt. Cairene youth spend their evenings there, often stretching the entertainment into the early hours of the morning.
The proliferation of street vendors and cafés has almost become a crisis across the capital, due to the noise and garbage that usually accompany them. The situation has been exacerbated by the security vacuum that followed the 2011 revolution, but in upper-class Zamalek the affluent residents refuse to entirely surrender their district to what they call “anarchy”.
In late November, the residents of Zamalek began to denounce these shisha cafés more loudly, likely as a result of the increasing number of people they attracted from outside the district. A group calling themselves the “Zamalek Ladies Group” even went on a protest march, calling for the city council to shut down the cafés and oust the street vendors.
One Ladies Group member, Mrs. Mona Abu El-Anin, said: “These café owners have caused youths from all over the place to come to Zamalek . . . all the cafés should close and respect the residents.”
In response, the district administration removed a number of people from the area and closed many of the establishments.
But the owners of these establishments are now arguing that this contravenes their right to work and earn a living. Mohamed Al-Omda, an employee in one of the cafés, told Asharq Al-Awsat while trying to light more coal to place on the patrons’ shisha pipes: “These people [the residents] look at us like we are inferior to them, even though we are working here legally. The government jumps at all their complaints because they are the high society who should not be angered.”
The café and restaurant owners, along with hundreds of their employees, then went on a march around Zamalek Island calling for the legalization of their shops. They were holding café and restaurant equipment, symbols of their suffering at the hands of the council that has thrown them out.
Now, shisha café staff are forced to trek in and out of the district every day, carrying with them the plates, cups, tables and chairs they need to operate their businesses.
The café owners claim that their investment in Zamalek—which they estimate at 1.5 million US dollars—is helping preserve the special character of the district.
They are also calling for their staff to be allowed to work, and not to be displaced. On the march, the workers raised banners, saying, “Our displacement and the displacement of our families is not allowed . . . We reject oppression.” They also chanted, “Life, liberty, social justice.”
Omar Abu Zeid, a member of a group calling itself the “Zamalek Cafés and Restaurants Association” told Asharq Al-Awsat: “They want to throw the workers out and destroy our investments to please the ladies of Zamalek . . . The governor does not want to meet us and the district avoids us . . . and even when we went on a march like them, no one got in contact to hear our concerns.”
He added: “Contrary to the image some people have of us, we try to protect the special character of the beautiful district of Zamalek. Of course, it is not our goal to pollute the environment and disturb local residents, whom we respect. But at this time, we differ in our appreciation of this special character, which we consider to be modern and attractive to domestic and foreign tourists, and there lies our role: in building the tourism industry.”
Opponents of these cafés argue that they cause an increase in noise and litter in the streets and that they have infringed on green spaces and places to sit.
But Abu Zeid, a shy man of 35, stressed that “there must not be a contradiction between the general efforts by the state in encouraging small and medium investments and helping young people make their way in life in creative ways.”
Shadi Sherif, one of the restaurant owners, said: “We are suffering from outdated laws and decisions made to serve interests that no longer exist. . . We must open discussions with the authorities to reach a solution that suits everybody.”
He added: “We have many thoughts on expressing our legitimate demands. We intend to continue to protest peacefully and calmly to draw the attention of local residents and the authorities to our position, and our desire to modify and legalize it.”
Abbas Jamal, a member of the Zamalek Cafés and Restaurants Association, said the demands of the cafés and restaurants and the demands of the ladies of Zamalek in preserving the character of the district were not dissimilar.
He said: “We did not march just to protest, but to highlight our role in building the image of this district . . . We raised one banner emphasizing that we are also people of Zamalek, but we are the only people making sure that it remains attractive, lively, productive and useful to the national economy.”
However, Mrs Nawal, a local resident, begged to differ. She said: “Does that mean that I can open a café right in front of your house, deprive you from sleeping, walking and parking your car; and be accused of denying employment for poor people after I complain?”
But this question, and others like it, remain a point of confusion in the district, which seems to have surrendered its aristocratic dignity to the dust and the noise.