Duke’s pub in downtown Cairo is supposed to provide a familiar slice of English comfort amid the noise and pollution of the Arab world’s biggest city. There are soft green leather furnishings and a beautifully polished oak bar, but the most essential ingredient – alcohol – is conspicuous by its absence.
Amir, the pub’s grey-haired bartender, stared disconsolately at a display of fruit syrups behind the counter. “What’s an English pub without beer?” he sighed.
Duke’s has been dry since May, when staff at the Grand Hyatt hotel complex, which houses the pub, were ordered to empty every bottle of booze on the premises into the Nile. Cases of the finest cognac and champagne in the region were among the casualties, with local press reports suggesting up to $1m (£500,000) worth of alcohol was washed away.
The man behind the move is the hotel’s owner, Saudi sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, who has decided to make all of his business interests alcohol-free. Now, the sheikh is locked in a three-way tussle with the Global Hyatt Corporation and the Egyptian tourist authorities, a skirmish that reveals much about the religious and cultural dilemmas facing modern Egypt.
The sheikh’s decision provoked a furore when it became public, dividing opinion within a society that has become ostentatiously more religious in recent decades.
Newspaper columnists condemned the move as a betrayal of Cairo’s reputation as a freewheeling capital of liberal tolerance, warning that the removal of alcohol from luxury hotels could have a catastrophic effect on Egypt’s vital tourist industry.
Supporters of the sheikh insisted that foreign visitors must respect Muslim cultural norms.
The Egyptian Tourist Federation has announced it will shortly strip the hotel of its five-star status. “It’s a clear-cut game of regulations,” a spokesperson said. “If you go dry, your rating goes down.”
The international Hyatt group, which manages the hotel, has been in furious negotiations with the sheikh. The issue has brought to the surface the simmering resentment held by many Cairenes against oil-rich Gulf Arabs who pour into their city each summer and are buying up swaths of the Egyptian entertainment sector.
Many forms of entertainment, from film studios to belly-dancers, have been snapped up by petrodollars and although the Saudi investment provides a much-needed injection of cash into the ailing Egyptian economy, critics fear that the changing cultural landscape – dancers are now covering up and films are avoiding scenes of hugging or kissing – is being used as a vehicle to spread the strict form of Wahhabi Islam prevalent in the Gulf.
Egypt has traditionally been characterised by a more moderate brand of Sunni Islam that has allowed institutions such as hotel bars to flourish in Cairo. Yet commentators say the ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamic political movement that is formally banned from parliament, has left society susceptible to Wahhabism’s assault on “prurient” cultural pastimes.
“The people want their religious needs fulfilled but a vacuum exists because moderate Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t allowed to operate freely by the regime,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Islamic thinker and popular newspaper columnist in Egypt.
Although Howeidy sees the Grand Hyatt row as an isolated incident, he warned that government attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood could undermine the liberal conception of Islam entrenched in Egyptian society which, he said, had stopped radical groups such as al-Qaida winning over large sections of the population.
“The Hyatt alcohol ban is an exceptional case,” he said, “but it should remind us that the government needs to act to prevent exceptional cases like this happening again.”
Back at the Grand Hyatt, Norwegian tourist Liv Jensen was leading her dejected husband and daughter down to the Hard Rock Cafe, the last bastion of intoxication left on the site. “Who would have thought an international hotel like this wouldn’t serve us a drink?” she said as they entered the restaurant.
Hard Rock, which is separately owned and thus not under the sheikh’s jurisdiction, has seen business boom since May.
In Duke’s bar, Amir rearranged the coffee cups and paced the deserted establishment. “We don’t get many customers any more,” he confirmed.
The 52-year-old was scathing about the influence of the Saudis. “It’s an act, just for show,” he says, referring to the religious proselytising of the sheikh and his compatriots. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve been pulling pints and mixing cocktails here for 15 years, and I’m too old now to move on.