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For Egypt's rich, a touch of irrational exuberance

While the overall economic picture for Egypt is a gloomy one, a tiny, fabulously wealthy class remains that continues to prosper despite the grimmest economic conditions in decades.

By Staff writer / April 3, 2013


Down a leafy side street in Zamalek, a fashionable Cairo neighborhood on an island in the Nile, and behind a heavy oak door lies an old reliable Lebanese restaurant with quilted burgundy-leather banquettes, tiny lamps on the tables, and a steady, but aging, clientele.

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If you squint, the overall effect is an Arabized version of one of the joints where the "Goodfellas" gangsters hung out. And it stays open late and is never crowded.

Or at least, that used to be the case. On a recent evening after midnight, the oak door swung open to reveal a bouncer. And after a hard stare, a second inner door swung open, letting out a deafening blast of Arabic pop music and exposing a slightly faded 1970s hideaway that's been transformed into a playground for Egypt's very rich and very trendy: The place was wall-to-wall with scantily clad women, grinning men in $1,000 suits, and a waitstaff run ragged as the crowd brayed for more drinks.

Not exactly the Muslim Brotherhood's Egypt, is it?

While the overall economic picture for Egypt is a gloomy one, a tiny, fabulously wealthy class remains that continues to prosper despite the grimmest economic conditions in the country for decades.

While there's been plenty of capital flight, particularly after Coptic Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris was targeted in a politically motivated blasphemy case last year, a lot of the Egyptian rich have been driving a spending boom in Zamalek and one or two other enclaves deemed safe from the country's turmoil.

In many ways, the collapse of state authority that has so many Egyptians fearful of crime is helping the Zamalek boom. In years past, local businesspeople would complain of the dizzying array of bribes and permits they needed to open up something as simple as a restaurant.

Now folks are just going ahead without worrying about the state bureaucracy or the police. And for people with a little money set aside, opening a new small business makes sense, given concerns over the stability of the banking system.

High-end burger bars have now taken the place of dirt-floored shops that sold cigarettes and candy. At least four "gourmet" cupcake shops have opened practically within spitting distance of one another, and the old hangouts for the wealthy are jammed. It feels like a fin de siècle bout of hedonism.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brothers have been making tiny steps toward banning alcohol, and many wonder if requiring head scarves for women isn't far behind.

At the lower end of society, sidewalk cafes in the neighborhood have expanded, taking over whole streets at night, allowing Egyptians to chatter over tea into the early hours.

Police demanding permits and papers? Nowhere to be seen.

Is Egypt in economic trouble?

Yes, and pretty big trouble at that. But there's also entrepreneurial exuberance and hope, mixed with anxiety.


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