Supermarket sweep: Why Egypt is clamping down on MB businesses

It started with one of Cairo’s oldest, most popular supermarket chains. All branches of Seoudi, named after its owner – alleged Muslim Brotherhood senior member Abdel Rahman al-Seoudi – were raided by police on June 15 and shut down. Zad, a relatively new, less known supermarket chain owned by Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater, faced the same fate.

The closure of the two chains, estimated to comprise a total of 40 shops, was part of a decision by a committee formed in late 2013 by the Ministry of Justice to prepare a list and seize the property of the organization, now officially labeled a terrorist group. The move has proved extremely controversial in its motivations, timing and repercussions. The state has been trying to downplay the negative impact analysts said it is bound to have.

Activist and former member of the National Council for Human Rights, Negad al-Borei, said the confiscation of the supermarkets, which he called “popularly supported insanity,” is unconstitutional. “The constitution prohibits the confiscation of private property,” he said. “Plus, nothing proves that Seoudi is related to the Muslim Brotherhood in any way.”

For activist and president of the Dahaya Center for Human Rights, Haitham Abu Khalil, the confiscation increases existing tensions. “This move intensifies political polarization and reveals a great deal of injustice, since none of this was done to leading members of the National Democratic Party and [former President Hosni] Mubarak’s clique,” he said.

The latter argument was raised by activist and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, Asmaa Mahfouz. “What about all the money of Mubarak’s businessmen? Why isn’t it back?” she asked.

A comparison was made between the closure of the supermarkets, and the nationalization policy adopted by late President Gamal Abdel Nasser following the 1952 revolution that toppled the monarchy. Borei said the confiscation of Seoudi and Zad is “much worse” than nationalization. “At least back then the state used to compensate nationalized corporation.”

Economics professor Mohamed al-Naggar said nationalization under Nasser was done in a way that benefits the economy. “Nasser nationalized parts of the private sector that harmed the state economy, yet left other parts like private agricultural companies,” he said. “Now, we only have a case of political conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the current regime.”

Ahmed Mahran, professor of law and director of the Cairo Center for Political and Legal Studies, considers the decision purely political. “The judiciary is manipulated for political purposes,” he said. “If the state feels that any private company is threatening the interests of one of its businessmen, it will confiscate this company regardless of the number of workers who would be out of jobs and the magnitude of damage to the economy.”

Mahran added that the owners of the confiscated shops will not be able to get their money back through international law: “Even if they manage to get a ruling from an international court, the Egyptian judiciary would still be the body responsible for implementing this ruling.”

Objections to the decision are not, however, confined to activists and independent analysts. Ahmed al-Wakil, president of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, said the Seoudi family has enjoyed a good reputation in the market since the establishment of the chain.

“If there had been suspicions of any wrongdoing, experts could’ve been assigned to monitor the administration of those supermarkets while business goes on as usual,” he said. “The stores shouldn’t have been confiscated and shut down right away.” Wakil added that Seoudi, who is claimed to have close ties with the Brotherhood, has not been the chain’s owner since 2008.

Similarly, the federation’s economic advisor Abdel Sattar Eshra said Zad is not actually all owned by Shater. This was confirmed by the latter’s son Hassan, who said: “According to the law, you can’t confiscate a person’s property without a court order, provided that the target person’s share in this property is at least 15%. Ours in Zad is only 5%.”

The secretary-general of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce threatened to resign from the board of directors in protest over the raiding of the two retailers. “The chamber’s board of directors will convene to discuss the reasons why the stores were raided, and whether there is a court order that permits the police to do so,” he said.

Judge Refaat al-Saeid, former head of the Cairo Criminal Court, said the confiscation of the supermarket chains is a precautionary measure based on the court ruling that designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. “Based on this ruling, a committee was formed to identify the assets of the Brotherhood, be they owned by individuals from the group or by the group itself,” he said.

“Those assets were to be confiscated so their money wouldn’t be used to destabilize Egypt’s national security,” Saeid said, adding that individuals whose assets were confiscated have the right to contest the confiscation before the committee. “The committee would then investigate whether the Brotherhood is the source of the money or not, and if it refuses the plea, this person has the right to go to court.”

Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafi denied that Seoudi and Zad would be nationalized or confiscated, saying they will instead be placed under state control. “The stores will be run by the Egyptian Company for Wholesale Trade, a subsidiary of the state-owned Food Industries Holding Company,” he said. “This will remain the case until a final court ruling is issued about their status.”

The stores, he said, will not remain closed until this takes place, and will re-open their doors to customers as soon as an inventory is completed. “That is why none of the workers, employees, or managers in those stores will be affected and they will all get their salaries,” he added. Hanafi said the two chains will operate in the same way they did before, in that Zad will continue to cater to lower-income customers.

Wahid Abdel Meguid, advisor to Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the closures were due to the state “waging a wide-ranging war against the Brotherhood on the political, economic and media levels. Closing the stores is a way of curbing the group’s influence.”

Norhan al-Sheikh, professor of political science, seconded Abdel Meguid’s opinion, saying: “The Brotherhood depends on money laundering, and that’s why its stores have to be closed as soon as possible. This happens in all countries that are in a war on terrorism like the UK and the United States.”

For economics expert Eissa Fathi, the clampdown was too late and should have taken place right after the official declaration of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. “This delay allowed the owners to take goods out and leave the stores almost empty,” he said. “There were expired products in Zad, which shows that the raid was expected.” Closing the stores will “contribute to drying up the springs of terrorism,” he added.

Does Egypt have what it takes to stop sexual harassment?

A few days after the incident that sent shockwaves across all Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the victim of sexual harassment incident that took place during the celebrations of his inauguration in downtown Cairo. She had sustained serious injuries as a result of the assault.

“I apologize to you and to every Egyptian woman,” he told the woman in her hospital bed as he presented her with a bunch of flowers. “And I promise that this will never happen again.” The visit, the first of its kind, was met with positive reactions on the part of rights organizations. For director of the Egyptian Center for Women Rights Nehad Abul Komsan, the visit heralds the beginning of “the new state,” one in which women issues will be given priority.

“I have witnessed three eras,” she said in a TV interview. “First the [Hosni] Mubarak era when we raised the issue of sexual harassment and were told to shut up, then the [Mohammad] Mursi era when harassed women were held accountable for the assaults they were subjected to. Finally, now women are beginning to have their restores.”

For Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the visit’s significance mainly lies in the president’s acknowledgment of sexual harassment as an alarming phenomenon.

“The president now admits to the danger sexual violence is posing to Egyptian society and has highlighted urgency of fighting it,” he said in a press interview. Mohamed Zarea, director of the Cairo-based Arab Penal Reform Organization, sees the visit as an initial deterrent. “Criminals have recently been escalating their assaults owing to the absence of a deterrent, but the visit is a message to them that this will no longer be the case.”

Law too lenient

However, neither the visit nor the positive reactions to it managed to assuage the concerns of a large number of activists and organizations who are still questioning whether the new sexual harassment law, officially added as an amendment to the Egyptian penal code a couple of days before the incident, will be capable of effectively curbing the phenomenon. In fact, objections to the law started well before the inauguration day incident. Mounira Sabri, a member of Egypt’s New Woman Organization, said that the law does not mention mob attacks or the use of weapons.

“The punishment stated by the law is also extremely lenient, especially that it makes it up to the judge to choose either a jail sentence or a fine as punishment,” she said. Sabri added that the law renders stalking a main component of the crime of harassment, which, she argues, is a major problem. “This will open the door for many interpretations of the action of ‘stalking’ plus harassment can be committed without following the victim at all.”

Fathi Farid, coordinator of the “I Saw Harassment” initiative, which encourages Egyptians to come forward if they spot any incidents, pointed out that one of the major problems of the law is the fact that the victim has to take the harasser with two witnesses to the police station. “The law did not also make it clear how the crime of harassment can be proven,” he said. Farid criticized the law’s failure to protect the victim properly.

Jail sentence, fine or both?

“The law mentioned nothing about the support offered to victims after the crime and nothing about specific cases like if the offender is the victim’s father or uncle,” he added. Farid also criticized the punishment, which he argued should be both a jail sentence and a fine that are determined in an ascending order in accordance with the severity of the crime. While Farid did not deny that issuing the law in itself is a step on the right path, he still questioned its ability to end sexual harassment. “It is a positive step no doubt, but it is a law for adapting to the crime rather than eliminating it.”

Mazan Hassam, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, called for dedicating an entire chapter in the Egyptian penal code to sexual assaults on women. “This chapter should be entitled ‘Crimes of sexual violence’ and should include everything related to those crimes instead of having them now scattered across three chapters.”

Following the sexual assault incident, a group of women and human rights organizations issued a joint statement underlining the shortcomings of the current sexual harassment law and demanding amendments that would guarantee stricter penalties. “We demand adding a clear definition of rape that includes oral and anal rape and rape with knives and fingers as well as a clear definition of sexual assault,” said the statement. The signatories also called for an amendment that protects victims from other forms of harassment that follow reporting the crime, especially by the families of offenders.

Ibaa al-Tamimi, a spokesman of the Harass Map initiative, argued that the problem lies in the implementation rather than the text of the law and cited the police as the major challenge. “The police often tend to sympathize with harassers or be harassers themselves,” she told the Guardian. “Even when someone manages to get to the police station to report harassment, she will still encounter resistance from police officers, who will try to deter her from going through with filing the police report.” Two policemen interviewed by the Guardian had different views on the issue.


The first, Colonel Ahmed al-Dahaby, said that the problem is not the police as much as the society. “Our traditions are what stop people from filing charges. The girls are scared—they’re too ashamed,” he said. The second, who spoke on condition of anonymity, partly blamed women for the crime of sexual harassment. “The fault is a shared one between the guy and the girl—the girls because of the way they dress,” he said.

On the other hand, the sexual assault was seen by many as part of a conspiracy to tarnish Egypt’s image and ruin the inauguration day celebration. This view was supported by head of the National Council for Women Mervat al-Tellawi who accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the incident. “Women were dancing in front of polling stations on election days and nobody harassed them so what happened on the inauguration day is suspicious,” she said in a TV interview.

Conspiracy theories

“Those criminals were paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to ruin the happiness of the people.” Tellawi supported her argument with a tweet written by the daughter of senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and which read, “Even Tahrir Square, the icon of revolution and struggle for freedom, is now the square of dancing, harassment, and vice.” Hayat al-Shimi, member of the executive bureau of the National Front of the Women of Egypt, agreed with Tellawi. “This was a conspiracy to tarnish Egypt’s image in front of the world and the culprits infiltrated the square for this purpose,” she said. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, the imam of Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square, also accused the Muslim Brotherhood. “This is a trap,” he wrote, “We have taken part in a hundred protests before and this never happened. The timing shows that this is a conspiracy to embarrass Sisi.”

Talk about a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy was scoffed at by a number of activists and groups, who expressed their indignation at the denial of a problem as pressing as sexual harassment. In response to conspiracy theories about the sex attack, writer Mai Nour prepared a report that included U.N. statistics about sexual harassment in Egypt. “According to a U.N. Women study conducted in 2013, 96.5% of Egyptian women were subjected sexual harassment and in 93% of the cases the police do not come to their rescue even when being asked by the victims,” she wrote. Nour also mentioned virginity tests conducted on female protestors in March 2011 in the military prison as a form of state-sponsored sexual harassment.

Amid grave concerns, conspiracy theories, and alarming statistics state officials stress that the new law would gradually prove its effectiveness in curbing then eventually eliminating sexual harassment.

For Ahmed al-Sergani, deputy interior minister for human rights, criminalizing sexual harassment is in itself a major step. “For the first time the word ‘sexual harassment’ is mentioned is the penal code as a crime,” he said. Sergani also said that there is a plan for supporting victims of sexual harassment.” A special fund will be established in coordination with the National Council for Women for all sorts of violence against women including forced marriages and sexual exploitation,” he explained. “We are also working on establishing special sexual violence units in police stations where trained female cops can receive the victims.”

Egypt’s new president: an incomplete victory

On June 3, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was officially declared Egypt’s president. His victory was not a surprise, but the percentage he scored, an overwhelming 96.9 percent, was.

Yet, the results, like the elections, remain controversial for while Sisi’s supporters see the number of votes he obtained as the ultimate proof of his entitlement to the presidency, his critics and several analysts prefer to look at the circumstances surrounding the results. And while the first camp views Sisi’s coming to power as a promising start to a new phase in Egypt’s political scene, the second foresees another era of state repression. Both parties, meanwhile, try to figure out the reasons and significance of such a victory.

More to Sisi’s victory

While admitting that unlike his rival Hamdeen Sabahi, Sisi did not offer a clear electoral program, former MP and political analyst Amr al-Shobki argued that there is more to Sisi’s victory than what he promised to do during his presidency and that analyzing the 2014 presidential elections through candidates’ platforms is rather unrealistic at this stage. “Egyptians overlooked the candidate who had a platform and instead voted for one who did not have one,” he wrote in part two of a series of articles entitled “Landslide victory,” which he dedicated to analyzing elections results. “Even though victory was expected, this percentage and in free and fair elections was really striking.”

According to Shobki, the slogan Sisi chose for his presidential campaign, “Long live Egypt,” although too broad, played a major role in earning him people’s support. “Many Egyptians were emotionally affected by this slogan since it came at a time when they felt that Egypt was under a real threat.” The Muslim Brotherhood, Shobki added, constituted a decisive factor in Sisi’s victory whether during their rule or after their ouster. “The fact that Sisi responded to the will of the people and ousted Mohammad Mursi made him very popular,” he explained. “The violent rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood following Mursi’s ouster enhanced this popularity and confirmed Sisi’s role as the nation’s savior.” Shobki also argues that for a large number of Egyptians, Sisi defied the United States when he ousted the Islamist regime it supported, thus creating a general sentiment of sovereignty. “Egypt had been a subordinate of the United States throughout the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule and the same happened when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, so Sisi was for Egyptians the man who defied this subordination.” The turmoil witnessed by neighboring countries, Shobki noted, made Egyptians more convinced that Sisi is the right person at this stage. “Egyptians chose to support the state because they realized that its demise would be disastrous and for them Sisi was the one capable of keeping this state afloat.”

The number of votes

For writer Emile Amin, the number of votes Sisi got, as impressive as it was, is not the most important issue when examining why his victory is not an ordinary one. According to Amin, the 2014 presidential elections constituted the first real democratic practice since the 2011 revolution. “This was an election that used neither religion nor money to blackmail the Egyptian electorate,” wrote Amin, in reference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaigning tactics in parliamentary and presidential elections. Amin explained that for the first time, Egyptians went to the polls without being manipulated by the religious discourse or bribed with money and foodstuffs. In attempting to understand the reason for Sisi’s overwhelming victory, Amin cites Syrian thinker Hashem Saleh who interprets the rise of radicalism in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the light of Hegel’s concept of “the cunning of reason” or “the cunning of history,” that is the way regressive powers play a role in introducing a progressive path. This, Amin argues, is what the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt and what eventually triggered the rise of Sisi. “The word “cunning” here is used in the positive rather than negative sense,” wrote Amin the article he called “Sisi’s victory and history’s ‘cunning’ with the Muslim Brotherhood.” “What does this mean in relation to the story of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sisi’s landslide victory? It means that history uses unexpected tools, like reactionary movements, to achieve progress and sometimes even needs those tools for higher ends and long-term plans.” Therefore, Amin explained, Egypt had to suffer from a wave of radicalism in order to pave the way for a new era of enlightenment and progress.

Sisi’s victory is also seen as a glimmer of hope for Egyptian Christians, who were subjected to waves of violence at the hands of radical Islamists during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bishop Adel Zaki, Egypt’s vicar for Latin Catholics, pointed out that Sisi’s era is expected to be one of stability for Christians. “Sisi has never said anything to show that he discriminates between Muslims and Christians and sectarian tension is not expected while he is in power,” he said in an interview. “It is well known that he is a religious man, but for him religion is a personal matter and his topmost priority is Egypt.” This was proven, Zaki added, when Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood to save the country. “Hadn’t it been for him, a civil war would have broken out and we would have become another Iraq.”

Mara Revkin, while agreeing that Sisi’s victory dealt a strong blow to the Muslim Brotherhood, does not see an end to radicalism in Egypt in the near future. In her article “Brotherly love: Why Sisi’s win is good for al-Qaeda,” published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Revkin argues that Sisi’s victory gives militant Islamist groups a pretext for stepping up their jihadist activities now that they are certain that taking part in politics, as in the example of the Muslim Brotherhood, proved a failure. “From al-Qaeda’s perspective, the election results have validated its core ideological claim that violence—rather than peaceful participation in politics—is the way to build an Islamic state,” she wrote. Revkin supports her argument through citing al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri and other jihadist leaders who blamed the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood on choosing politics over militant jihad and predicts that Sisi’s coming to power might signal a joining of forces between al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood members still at large. “That leaves thousands of disillusioned Brotherhood supporters susceptible to recruitment by radical groups… Sisi’s victory is likely to perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence and retaliation between the military and the Islamists.”

Problematic victory

Political activist and chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party Mohammad Abul Ghar sees the victory problematic in a different way. He first criticizes the way the state dealt with the electoral process especially as far as the low turnout is concerned. “The results of the elections were a foregone conclusion,” he said in his article “Sisi as president: A reading of the elections.” “That is why there was no justification for the state’s exaggerated agitation and which drove the presumably independent elections committee to extent voting for a third day, close several shopping malls, and threaten to impose a fine on boycotters.” Those measures, Abul Ghar noted, not only tarnished the image of the committee, but also revealed that extra efforts were made to attract more voters contrary to expectations. “Sisi’s campaign and others expected that at least 80 percent of registered voters would go to polling stations and vote for him and were surprised to see that less than half of them took part and that more than one million spoilt their votes in objection.”

This, Abul Ghar argued, puts into question Sisi’s popularity, which was thought to be overwhelming following his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Abul Ghar lists the problems that, from his point ofview, led more than half the voters not to support Sisi. “First, there is an obvious problem in Sisi’s relationship with the youths, who constitute 50 percent of the voters. Second, Sisi is surrounded by several figures from the Mubarak regime who think they can regain their power. Third, Sisi is totally neglecting all political powers including ones that supported him. Fourth, Sisi’s campaign was too over-confident.” Abul Ghar added that leading members in Sisi’s campaign might have been from the military and those had already proven their limited political expertise while results could have been better had the campaign been run by veteran politicians. Another obstacle that stands between Sisi and a sizable portion of Egyptians, Abul Ghar explained, is his stance on the shape of the next regime. “Many Egyptians fear the return of Mubarak’s dictatorship and Sisi did not say explicitly that he supports democracy, human rights, the constitution, and the separation of powers.” Sisi’s electoral economic plans, Abul Ghar added, are not applicable. “An economic program that depends on internal and external aid is unrealistic.” Abul Ghar also commented on the fact that Salafi factions declared full support for Sisi in the presidential elections then “stayed at home” as he put it.

In “When facts are falsified through song and dance,” Tarek Mustafa Salam saw the elections as having dealt a “fatal blow” to Sisi despite the victory. For Salam, the reaction of the media to the low turnout proves Sisi’s failure to garner the support he expected. “We saw TV presenters in different pro-Sisi satellite channels getting hysterical as they insulted Egyptians and called them unpatriotic and Muslim Brotherhood agents,” he wrote. “And we saw them giving lame excuses for the low turnout like the hot weather.” According to Salam, celebrations that swept Egyptian streets following the declaration of Sisi’s victory were only a way to cover up the failure to rally all Egyptians behind Sisi. “Only in Egypt are facts falsified through dancing and singing,” he wrote. In fact, Salam argued that the circumstances surrounding Sisi’s victory only confirm that ousted former-President Mursi is still Egypt’s legitimate leader, yet he denies being a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. “My stance does not mean that I support t Muslim Brotherhood rule… I only support justice wherever it is and democracy no matter what its results are,” he concluded.