International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt
February 22 2012
CAIRO: Music hath charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak — William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride (1697). My feet are killing me — the teetering tiptoeing on high-heel skyscrapers at Cityscape this week.
Both reveal post-revolution Egypt in its true colors. The middle class is on a hell-for-leather spending spree. Crowds descended on the huge International Convention & Exhibition Center to get their name on a new home.
Crowds jigged among the juggling red-nose clowns helping to flog des. res. in Portoworld. Tourists tumbled in to take a peak at Turkey. Million pound (sterling) London mansions drew interested punters.
And Ian Marsh beamed, regaling tales of Russians splashing out in Hurghada (Sixty thousand Egyptian pounds gets them a studio apartment and escape from Vladimir Putin).
Who said there’s an economic crisis round the corner?
That’s why we’re here, a 40ish couple from Heliopolis confided. If the pound’s going to be devalued and inflation continues going through the roof, now’s the time to buy a place on the North Coast.
Buy low, sell high, a couple of investors from Alex told me. Look, Sharm’s down now. But it’s the most popular value close to Europe. Can’t go wrong getting into the market now. It’ll turn around.
Maybe. But when?
Cityscape’s a bit of a gamble. Or so you’d think post-revolution. And the exhibition’s group director Chris Speller agreed his board of directors had thought twice about facilitating such a huge gathering of real estate professionals.
All the big players are there: Amer, Al-Futtaim, Citystars, Coldwell Banker, Emaar, Kuwadico, Orascom, Palm Hills and SODIC among them. And lots of less familiar names – the moneymen who risk their shirts raising billions.
Speller said his board had left it to the Egyptian property tycoons to decide.
There was never any doubt in their minds: The show goes on, Speller said. They know the market and they wouldn’t be investing in an event like this if they weren’t sure of domestic support.
They certainly looked happy. Particularly the armies of saleswomen on their skyscraper heels – topping off their ubiquitous black business suits.
It’s a shock for those of us who catch a whiff of teargas from time to time doing our job to mingle with the mob that don’t seem to have a care in the world about the vicissitudes of revolt.
There again, history is on their side. Take a neat pair of semi-detached houses in England. In Number 36, the Jones who bought just before the war broke out in 1939 paid 600 pounds for their new home. In Number 38 the Smiths lived in an identical home they bought in 1945 when the war ended for 4,000 pounds.
Why such a disparity?
Buy land, they’re not making it anymore, said Mark Twain.
On the other hand, investor confidence from abroad has evaporated. It’s going to take a long time to convince them, according to the roundtable experts speaking at a real estate summit meeting upstairs from the main halls.
Beltone’s Angus Blair put his finger on it. For Egypt to have a real revolution, he said, there needs to be what he called a multi-polar change of attitude. Before everything else, he said, Egypt needs to reform and invest in its education system.
Which wasn’t really apparent when Sherif Oteifa, the General Authority for Investment’s (GAFI ) senior advisor wheeled out a Powerpoint presentation, which looked like a plate of warmed up GAFI stew.
Among a slurry of bullet points were old familiars: Plans to cut red tape, more transparency, build a million affordable homes in the next five years and one intriguing one: Law 4 of 2012 to have commercial disputes resolved with the government rather than in the courts.
Would that really speed things up? Does it mean tricksters won’t be given a judicial knuckle rapping? Whose government — SCAF’s?
It all sounded like instant PR, as it did to one member of the audience. He homed in on a chart of public-private-partnerships in the works. According to Dr. Oteifa there are 45 projects worth 64 billion Egyptian pounds, ranging from schools and hospitals to roads, bridges and the Metro.
It was four new hospitals costing 4.5 billion that stuck out, for one expert in the audience. The number didn’t make sense, he said. Hospitals don’t cost a billion, he informed us. (We didn’t hear whether it was too much or too little.)
The prof. didn’t have an answer. But he assured everyone the government wouldn’t be paying. Egypt would find private investors at home and from abroad to stump up the cash. That went down like a lead balloon.
Which sank even further after one chap told sad stories of Koreans and Chinese investors biting their nails to the quick waiting for gas, electricity and water to turn up. Huge projects were scuppered, he said, because the government couldn’t get the taps turned on years after the footings went in.
Back to the real action, downstairs in the exhibition halls, where the crowds had thickened, lured to each display by sweet music. It’s surprising how much thought goes into the ambience by the booth directors (yes, such careers exist).
And music works, I observed. Hyde Park’s Garden House Project lures people in with a shiny black Mercedes (16,000 a month on the drip) and the dulcet tones of elevator music wafting through their air.
The razzmatazz of the samba, with salesmen appropriately dressed in quirky white sailor suits and bright blue neckerchiefs is a riot, presumably emblematic of what you get up to in Porto.
But you’ve got to give it to La Vista for best musical effort. They hired in a quartet from the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to play Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major — Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
For a fleeting moment we could have been in the salons of Salzburg, Vienna, Paris or even Prague or Budapest. But we were in Cairo, lingering among the dreamers in the glow of longing for what might be.
The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home — Confucius
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.