Burgers, neighbourhoods and Egypt’s non-system

With new restaurants opening every week in Cairo it may appear that the government has been promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship and facilitating the opening of new restaurants and cafes in some parts of the city as a way to stimulate the local economy towards recovery. While the revolution seems to have been nearly all but suffocated three years after it started in January 2011, Cairo has been experiencing something of a food and beverage revolution that is looking up more and more.

Since 2011 tens of new cafes and restaurants have opened in each of the city’s bourgeois pockets with some areas such as Zamalek literally swallowed by the rise of these new spaces of consumption; the island is becoming the city’s food court prompting some residents to call for the food encroachment to stop. In 2010 if you wanted to eat a burger in Cairo the options were clear: either the 90LE burger at the Marriot or a 15LE burger from a fast food chain with few or no options in between. Today Zamalek alone boasts half a dozen excellent burger shops each with its own character and taste with an average cost for a meal of 30LE. So what is happening here?

Burgers are no laughing matter; almost every American political race will involve a photo opportunity by a candidate in a small family-owned restaurant or café to send the message that small business is an important part of the economy. Indeed, small businesses and entrepreneurs can play an important role in a city’s development and economic growth but policy and municipal vision need to be established in order to harness the maximum return for the city from these small ventures and to guarantee certain stability to the city particularly at the neighborhood level. At the same time clear regulations and procedures must be in place in order for investors to know that their effort will not be vulnerable to municipal corruption and personal relations. What we’re seeing in Cairo over the past few years is on one hand a sign of the potential for small and medium investment to enter the Egyptian market and compete if given the chance to do so. On the other hand this explosion in small/medium private investment in the food and beverage sector is not a result of a municipal policy. Rather, it is the result of the absence of a clear vision and the corruption of local municipal councils and other state institutions. Nearly all the new restaurants and cafés have no license to work.

Having no permits or licenses however doesn’t mean that these new establishments are illegal. Legality in Cairo is a very slippery concept difficult to grasp. To illustrate what I mean here is an example. A friend opened an ice cream shop in a posh part of Maadi. The procedures were not clearly established and in order to jump all the hoops and hurdles put in place by municipal officials many pockets had to be lined with cash, making something as simple as opening an ice-cream shop take a drastic turn into becoming part of the corrupt system of governance that has become the status quo in Egypt. Corruption is now structured into the system with loop holes designed specifically to allow for the widespread of corruption, money exchanging hands under the table, and to give power to local officials (who are appointed not elected, pay allegiance to the ruling regime not the neighborhoods they serve and are often retired military and police officers) to abuse for their own benefit. Take for example the requirement in official procedures for every shop to have a hose long enough to reach the nearest fire hydrant. When was the last time you saw a fire hydrant while walking in Cairo? They nearly don’t exist in reality but they do on the municipal maps. So a shop owner is essentially required to play an absurd game and to provide a hose long enough to reach the non-existent fire hydrant in order to satisfy this particular requirement. Otherwise the shop is vulnerable to being reported and fined by the fire department. What this means is that unless you develop friendly relations with local officials and the various state institutions, and developing those relations means providing certain amounts of cash to various officials, a kind of invisible tax, those very institutions can use these structured loop holes in the system to shut you down. Insecurity is the name of the game and the result is a collapsing state structure that is best described as a non-system.

A non-system is very different from no system. In Egypt’s municipal non-system there are steps and procedures, there are state institutions, there are lawyers and contracts, there is a lot of paperwork, there are thousands of state employees most of whom are not there to make your life as a citizen or someone opening a small shop any easier; there are many signatures and stamps that must be granted and there is a lot of handshaking to do. It appears to be a system but it isn’t merely dysfunctional, it is actually designed to make the lives of everyone involved difficult. To open a new small business you have to follow the rules, file the papers, get insurance, get the fire hose to the invisible fire hydrant, even pay taxes, yet your file will sit in limbo forever never fully processed through the system because that will keep you subservient to every employee in that system who may pass by your shop to get a little baksheesh or if you sell ice cream take a free cake for his child’s birthday (true story). Members of the police and security apparatus with its army of plain-clothed informants can go to your shop and have free food; if you have a small hotel or hostel they might even sleep for free. Is this a way to run a city? Is this a way to run a country?


While the recent growth of the food and beverage sector is evidence of the city’s entrepreneurial potential it should also be seen as one of the ways the city and its residents are resilient to the structured corruption. These are not the outcome of a government program aiming to recover the economy, to the contrary. However, there are negative side effects to the phenomenon in some areas that also result from this non-system where the investors with the biggest pockets can buy their way into doing whatever they want, in some cases taking over entire sidewalks or blocking the entrances of residential buildings with tables and chairs. Heavy weight investors with access to Egypt’s ruling class of military generals might even get a piece of the otherwise inaccessible Nile waterfront to establish restaurants and cafes.

So what should/could a good city government do to harness the potential in these kinds of small/medium investments while safeguarding neighborhoods and the rights of residents?

First of all the governorate (municipality) needs to provide a streamlined system to ensure that the city’s small business have easy access to information and easy to follow steps to register. It is also the responsibility of the municipality and the state to guarantee that business owners have certain rights and are protected from the corruption of state employees. See for example New York City’s Business Owner’s Bill of Rights:


  1. Courteous and professional treatment by our employees.
  2. Inspectors who are polite, professionally dressed, and properly identified.
  3. Information about how long inspections will take and the cost of all related fees.
  4. Knowledgeable inspector
    s who enforce agency rules uniformly
  5. Receive information about agency rules from inspectors or other employees.
  6. Contest a violation through a hearing, trial or other relevant process
  7. Request a review of inspection results or re-inspection as soon as possible.
  8. Receive explanation from inspectors (if requested) on violation details and instructions for viewing inspection results
  9. Access information in languages other than English (In Cairo it would be Arabic and English as a second option).
  10. Comment, anonymously and without fear of retribution, on the performance or conduct of our employees.

The municipality should make it easier for businesses in Cairo to be established and to find ways for small business to foster the development of neighborhoods and to become an important part of the city’s economy. Small business is also where much of the city’s workforce will find jobs.

Residents of Zamalek called for a protest on November 2 against the corruption and bribery of local officials which has led to some of the district’s new cafes to take over certain streets while there has been no improvement in municipal services such as street cleaning and garbage collection.

The city has a responsibility to provide municipal services such as street cleaning, paving sidewalks uniformly across the city, and protecting neighborhoods from the encroachment of small business onto public amenities such as public space and walking paths. Improvements to the streetscape are an important aspect of this equation; this is why small businesses pay taxes, part of which should be spent by the municipality on the maintenance of the street, which benefits the shops and the neighborhood in general. Road 9 in Maadi has seen an exponential growth in the number of new cafes and restaurants, for example, but not a penny has been spent on the maintenance of the sidewalks and the street, which is in rather poor condition. The shops are paying money, it is just not going into the system and being reflected onto the city and that needs to be fixed.

New, good quality, non-fast-food, street level (not in malls) restaurants are a much needed development in Cairo. Some have been exciting additions to their neighborhoods and some have even been exciting adventures with Egyptian cuisine. However, there needs to be a balance between promoting small businesses such as these and the rights of local residents to having a say in their neighborhoods so that the highest bidders don’t pay their way into blocking streets, crowding sidewalks, and taking over parking spots allocated to residents. The answer to this issue partly lies in the need for real participatory democratic municipal government where residents can have a say in their neighborhood’s development. If residents of the posh and relatively privileged district of Zamalek have no say over what happens in their neighborhood then consider how disempowered the country’s impoverished majority must be when it comes to their neighborhoods. At the same time, small businesses can be powerful engines for neighborhood development if the corruption in the existing municipal system is eliminated and the process is streamlined so that those who want to play the restaurant game can focus on the product and service they offer rather than waste time, money and energy negotiating the city’s non-system.


Cairobserver was founded in April 2011 and is edited by Mohamed Elshahed.  Mohamed Elshahed is a Cairo-based scholar and researcher currently completing his doctoral dissertation in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. His dissertation, Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967, focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt during the period of political transition around the 1952 coup d’etat. Mohamed has a Bachelor of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from MIT.


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