These days, Egypt is not an auspicious place to be running a boutique hotel that caters to foreigners. Americans are being chased out of Tahrir Square and blamed for both backing the coup and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to reverse it; large swaths of Cairo have been repeatedly shut down by massive protests; more than 270 people have been killed in the past month; sexual harassment has become increasingly prevalent and violent, especially in Tahrir; and populist currents are sweeping the multitudes. Many Egyptians have thrown their full support behind Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and more than a few are suspicious of foreigners.
But that doesn’t faze Hebba Bakri, managing director of Longchamps Hotel, which she inherited from her German mother. When Sisi called for the masses to come out on July 26 and give him a “mandate” to crack down on violence, she marched down to Tahrir that night with sandwiches she had made and served them to hungry protesters as part of an Egyptian tourism initiative. At a time when even seasoned female foreign correspondents were avoiding Tahrir after dark, she made her way through the crowds alone and walked the half-hour back to the hotel to boot. As a guest at her hotel, that made me curious, so I decided to find out more.
Ms. Bakri, who is half Egyptian and has lived in Cairo on and off for decades, may seem unflappable behind her leopard-print glasses and fine pearls. But she is well aware of the deep undercurrents convulsing Egyptian society, and strives to balance her staff’s needs with hers as the head of a meticulously maintained hotel.
“It’s a hard school with me,” she says, admitting to a firm managing style. “Yes, it has to be a tight ship. If it’s not a tight ship, it doesn’t go.”
But she also feels a responsibility to help those on the front lines of Egypt’s difficult transition period keep their heads above the waves. She recounts how one worker, who had saved up enough money to get his own apartment so that he could finally marry, had recently had to open his doors to his parents and siblings when his father suffered financial problems and lost the family apartment.
“This is very important to be generous with him,” says Ms. Bakri, who gave the worker 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($145) to prevent his father from going to jail.
“I am asking him to be good. How can he be good if he doesn’t know anything else good?”
On another occasion, she noticed a worker kept writing incorrect bills, charging people 98 pounds instead of 86, for example. Eventually she realized it was due to poor eyesight, and trotted him down to get operations on both eyes at her own expense.
“I think if I don’t help, I don’t deserve to have those good people working here,” says Bakri, who also has been hosting biweekly meetings on the political situation since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. "I try to give them a little bit of a push, so we concentrate on our work and not sit in front of the local TV ... and I want to see how they think."
But it’s not a charity organization; it’s a well-oiled business, with carefully appointed rooms and a steady flow of customers. Early on, Bakri realized that tourists alone would not sustain the place – or help her keep her staff employed – so she targeted other types of guests as well, including experts, European Union officials, or journalists like myself.
“This is also very important, to have such a niche of guests,” she says, putting on lipstick before getting back to work.