Blue light special

Philip Whitfield

April 23 2012

ASSUIT: K-Mart introduced the phrase to a generation of Americans — the moment when a flashing police lamp announces a surprise special offer in a store, entering the lexicon in films such as Troop Beverlyå Hills, Beetlejuice and Dawn of the Dead.

Egypt’s blue light special moment came the day before the sandstorm hit. Thousands and thousands of shoppers engulfed a phenomenon that opened its doors in downtown Assuit. They came from miles around, professors and students from the two universities nearby, moms and dads, some pushing strollers, generations led by grannies. Singles, all out for fun on the town.

The object of their ecstasy? A grocery store that’s become a cult in Egypt  — Kheir Zaman, Metro’s discount store chain that offers 25 percent savings on food basics such as rice, pasta, eggs and milk, all own-brands that are shaking up the nation’s food-purchasing marketplace.

The spacious store is the 33rd Kheir Zaman in Egypt and is breaking all records. Within a few hours the tills had registered more than LE 100,000, beating well-entrenched Metro stores in places such as Mohandessin by a long chalk.

By 10 pm there were 800 pouring over the shelves. At Midnight a new crowd surged in and stayed on shopping until 3 am. Operations manager Ahmed Fouad sent out an SOS to the central bakery for more dough to bake more batches of bread in the two-deck over upstairs.

The company’s president Mohanad Adly hopped on to the next plane to Assuit, which turned out to be the last one to leave the sand clouded runway. He was reading a printout: LE 8,049.97 at 10 pm. Another 204 customers at 11 pm spending LE 22,846. By 3 am 2,100 shopping baskets and about 8,000 people in all, had passed through the checkouts registering LE 92,000 and change.

By the time Adly arrived another LE 36,000 had been rung up. Never seen anything like it before, he said congratulating 90 new members of staff, almost all of them local university graduates, picked by the ineffable Hanan Houseen, the staff services manager, who had waded through 700 applications and interviewed 400 with Aliaa Salama from the HR department.

They’re absolutely the best you could find anywhere in the world, they said.

It wouldn’t be Egypt if SCAF and officialdom hadn’t engaged in skullduggery. Adly had picked the spot for his second store in Upper Egypt three years ago — the first to open was in Luxor.

The owner of these coveted 1,200 square meters, Dr. Ali Sabra, a doctor whose family runs a well-known chain of pharmacies in Cairo, said when the previous governor of Assuit heard about such a prestigious company coming, he asked for a LE 3 million donation to grease his political campaign. Sabra refused.

Incensed by being asked to pay a bribe to sell toiletries and groceries, Adly dashed off letters, one to Hosni Mubarak. He heard nothing, until a few nights later, watching a TV interview, he saw Mubarak being asked if he’d like to say Hello to anyone? Mubarak responded: I’d like to say Hello to the Governor of Assuit.

I knew the store was nixed, he told me. We pulled the equipment out and put the plan on hold.

With Mubarak on trial and a change of governor, word came that the store would be bribe-free. Dr. Sabra was inundated with offers to take it. I said Kheir Zaman should have the first option and they came back, he said. We paid the normal fees for permits, about LE 315,000, and everything was fine. No bribes. No baksheesh whatsoever.

The shenanigans, which were kept secret, doesn’t explain the phenomenal crowds flocking to the store since last Tuesday’s soft opening and the official opening in the sandstorm next day.

Dr. Osama Nadifi, from Assuit, was filling a trolley. We’ve never had such fresh food at such low prices in such a hygienic environment, he said. For example the other butchers in town sell frozen Brazilian beef, which you can get here as well. But on top of that you can get fresh lamb and veal as well as beef…that’s a big draw.

Also it’s the first food and household items supermarket in town.

Mahmoud Saif brought his wife and their new four-month-old baby to shop. They were impressed. Ouama Nafidi, a big wig in the local community, shopping with her pals, was full of praise.

Dr. Sabra said about 4 million people shop in Assuit. They have to be careful with their money. Nobody expected these incredible scenes, he said. Assuit is a quiet place. But not today. We’re celebrating something very special, the opportunity to enjoy quality and prices the rest if the country has.

Not quite the rest of the country. Metro and Kheir Zaman are in 11 of the 27 governorates. Kheir Zaman now has 33 stores in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Port Said, Mansoura, Hurghada, Luxor and Assiut

Together, Metro and Kheir Zaman will have 92 stores before the end of the year, 8,000 employees having built the largest food retail network in Egypt. We’ll be here for the next generation and the ones after that, Adly says, proud of his staff’s accomplishments.

We’re in Egypt for the long haul. I’ve letters from all over the country asking for stores in their towns and cities.

Growth is not without some shady deals by competitors. Apparently with lax security and blind eyes at the customs, dodgy food is turning up even on some of the nation’s prestigious brand-name stores.

Cans of tuna for example. These products don’t carry the white labels in Arabic that prove the products have been authenticated and tested at Egyptian government labs. Some of the stuff being sold by our competitors is rubbish, he says. You have no idea what you’re eating. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot barge pole.

On the other hand, he says, when I was in our new Metro store in Giza I saw a tin of tuna selling for LE 49 alongside the regular tuna that retails around LE 6 to LE 7, so I bought it for my own family. Turned out to be pure white tuna fish. Delicious.

Discriminating Arab diplomats have marked out the Giza Metro, opposite the zoo, for late night shopping. Spotting the shelves being loaded up for the opening, one Arab ambassador took his entourage on a Harrods-style spree, spending LE 5,000 piling up a train of baskets at the checkout.

Seems blue light specials are popular with everyone, no matter how much housekeeping’s in the budget.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


The Arab Spring’s summersault

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 30  2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Take stock. Egypt’s democratic dream hangs by a thread. Libya’s death throes and Syria’s killing fields are civil war nightmares. Yemen is a chimera, Bahrain has been bludgeoning and Tunisia is a memory. Scorching rays overwhelm the Arab spring’s refreshing breezes. Which way should we look for the revolution’s resolution?

Are we in an interregnum, a temporary freedom, or an antebellum, a period preceding more bloodshed? The raging undercurrent swirls groping for an identity that responds to a sense of Islamic belonging while respecting other faiths and global concerns. Pluralism necessitates compromises, which riles zealots, branded bigots.

Take a wider view. The G8 Summit in Deauville last week offered Egypt respite if promises to democratize are fulfilled. Others weighed in with billion-dollar boons. The International Monetary Fund said MENA’s non-oil countries need $160 billion injected in the next three years. The region needs to prepare for a fundamental transformation of its economic model.

Egypt could become the breadbasket of the Middle East, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Jonathan Charles said. The woefully undeveloped agricultural industry employing 30 percent of the population only yields 16 percent of production. Agriculture is ripe for reconstruction.

Take heart. History’s lantern illuminates visionaries’ solutions. Let’s look closer at Europe, remembering that World War II took 60 million lives, ended uncertainly and yet today reaches accord on baffling, discordant matters.

Who would have thought it? European nations tried to shuck off their suzerains in the 19th century. The French turfed out Louis Philippe. Germany, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Spain, Romania, and Belgium underwent revolutions.

But, as the historian A.J.P. Taylor reflected, history reached a turning point and failed to turn. The revolutions mostly failed. In Italy, the monarchy returned. The French ended up with a dictator, Louis-Napoleon after a coup d’état in 1851. German states’ unity failed. Austria returned to rule Hungary. Other revolutions lost their luster and died out.

A hundred years later after World War II culminated in 60 million deaths, Europe was ready to begin an arduous journey to resolve their differences amicably. Their thinking was based on ideas promulgated by Count Richard Nikolaus Graf Coudenhove-Kalergi the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat and a Japanese mother.

He’d mooted Pan-Europa, political, economic and social cooperation, arguing that the constitution of a wide market with a stable currency was the vehicle for Europe to reconstruct its potential. He, like Jean Monet, the father of European unity, never sought public office.

Monet’s vision of European cooperation was based on a new economic order. During a meeting in Algiers in 1943 Money declared: There will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty. The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states should constitute themselves into a federation, Monet said.

France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 making it practically impossible for France and Germany to go to war.

Production of coal and steel as a whole was placed under a common authority. No more fighting over the rich Ruhr region. The benefits enjoyed by one part of Europe would be distributed across the whole.

The treaty establishing the European Economic Community followed six years later. Since then eight treaties have expanded the renamed European Union’s governance, the last at Lisbon in 2007, affirming the EU’s three pillars of cooperation over economic, social and foreign policy.

These monumental agreements have grown an economy to $18 trillion by the 500 million people in 27 countries of the EU, bigger than the USA’s 307 million people’s $14 trillion and compares with MENA’s 460 million people’s meager $2 trillion – the latter in spite of holding about a third of the world’s energy resources.

Visionaries aren’t guiding the pacesetters in the rerum mutatio, the hiatus between revolution and new order. Pragmatic tinkerers hold the line. Where is the bold, valiant sage with the farsightedness to unite the Middle East in a modern Khilafah, unified in one polity? The region shares history, culture, and language. The same or similar books, newspapers and magazines are read. Mostly they watch the same TV programs and movies.

Since 1945 the more than 20 members of the Arab League, at least on paper, recognize each is a part of an Arab nation, the Ummah Arabiyyah. Yet they remain divided politically and economically. The Middle East economies are more competitive than complementary.

Dr. Hani Fakhouri, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, says practicing dangerous demagoguery has led the Arab League in particular and the political leaderships of the Arab world nowhere. Over six decades of agreements covering the Arab economic market, defense, employment, education and water and food security have yielded not one result of significance, he says. Free trade among Arab states amounts to only 5 percent of all Arab states’ trades.

Authoritarian, corrupt regimes in the Arab world are the obstacles to meaningful, constructive progress that will enable the region to catch up with the rest of the world, Fakhouri says.

The three great ancient civilizations: the Chinese Qing dynasty, the Indian Mughal empire and the Ottoman empire in the Middle East were overtaken by European hegemony. The resurgence of China and India is apparent. Unfortunately the Middle East languishes in unfulfilled aspiration more than half a century after achieving independence.

None of the countries embroiled in revolution and those contemplating change can expect to emerge into a successful new era without unseating the tyrants. But that’s only half the job. To satisfy the revolutionary calls across the region, a new union is required that demolishes borders to permit the free movement of people, goods and capital and the bureaucracies that thrive on nitpicking national regulations.

That will radically reduce the cost of goods and services, eliminate the hundreds of thousands of officials pickpocketing the public’s purse and entice global investment into the region rather than scatterings of consumers.

The 1.4 million-strong militias in the region’s 22 countries need streamlining into a force whose mission exceeds protecting themselves from themselves.

Above all, leaders should spend their time developing the potential of its young people rather than finagling ways to choke the craving for manumission, freedom from servitude.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.