Could Egypt's plan to close shops early be a wise move?
It is a little after 3 AM in downtown Cairo, a stone’s throw from the Egyptian parliament as I sit and listen to the car that passes every few minutes on the main drag leading to Tahrir Square. There is a 24-hour little kiosk at the end of the street, it’s light still on, but nobody is passing by.
When I read Issandr El Amrani’s well-written and impassioned article criticizing the move by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to close retail shops and cafes and restaurants early I questioned my own belief that the presidential order would be a positive for Cairo.
The more I thought about it, however, I disagree with Amrani’s assertion that this would be bad for the economy, poor on Cairo’s image as a truly 24-hour city and a number of other issues.
The argument in my mind was that no country in the world allows cafes and restaurants to remain open at all hours of the day. How many times, I thought back to my 10 years in this city, have I walked out in the early morning, grabbed a water and then 6 and again, 15 hours later see the same employee managing the shop, market, or kiosk.
The presidential order, while certainly forcing a change in mindset to Cairo life, will at least give these individuals reprieve from the labor laws that are being flouted daily. Maybe the government should have argued this point instead of pushing the electricity “will be saved” argument.
Amrani writes: “Many also fear that enforcing strict closing times will only exacerbate the traffic problem, at least at certain times — especially since the government intends to impose the new rule without preparation.”
Can traffic get any worse in this city? Doubtful. Maybe it will add a few extra minutes to already congested streets, but without a complete overhaul of public transport and the metro system – which Amrani rightfully points out – the new law will likely not affect already dreadful traffic.
At the beginning of his article, Amrani makes a point of the history of Cairo being the true city never sleeps. “In Cairo, you’d never see an empty street in the wee hours of the morning. Taxi owners here are like airlines: they keep their vehicles humming 24 hours a day; there’s no point in letting an investment stay unproductive.”
He continues to say that Cairenes have become accustomed to heading to a doctor’s appointment at 11 PM, shopping for shoes past midnight and relaxing at a cafe at 3 AM.
He’s right on the last two, Egyptians will shop and head to a cafe at any hour of the day, or night, that suits them.
While ending this tradition might be difficult to comprehend, is it not better for society as a whole? Granted, change is always difficult and is certain to face backlashes, but seeing young toddlers, pre-teens and other children out on the streets at midnight makes me wonder if Morsi’s decision is not a positive step to force Egyptians to look inward, take a direct role in their communities and begin to find a routine.
It is certainly a complicated issue and one that is difficult to find a clear-cut solution. Like Amrani points out, is this the right time to be pushing this change to the country? Probably not. There are bigger and more important issues to be tackled, namely a constitution and a parliament.
But at the same time, Egypt’s status quo must change. If seeing an improved society and economic system that bolsters infrastructure means sacrificing a few hours after midnight where being at home is the only option, then I am all for it, but if it is simply an empty gesture that does not grant workers more time to be with their families, then it will be yet another forced change that does little to improve Egyptian society.
At the end of the day, all of those who live in Egypt, locals and expatriates, we have to view change as not necessarily a negative. Should we be going to doctor’s appointments at 11 PM at night? Not likely.
With the new order likely to go into place in the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see how people respond. Cafe owners have already threatened to protest the forced closures, but I doubt many will be angry over the move. Maybe the wealthy, who too often view the city as their special playground where they can do and be wherever they want on a daily basis.
Certainly, as Amrani points out, there is opposition to the new laws, but I feel he fails to point out where most of that antagonism is coming from: the upper-class and the establishments they run.
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