I’ll be speaking about Egypt to a group of business majoring students at Capilano University. Having searched for articles that fit my topic, and not found any to my liking, and having found articles that focused on do’s and don’ts only, I decided to write my own blog post on the social side of conducting business in Egypt.
Egypt has had its share of influences. Turks, British, Arabs, Romans, and many more have passed through Egypt. The Hyksos, Napoleon, and Alexander, the Great, all invaded Egypt, too. Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Syrians, and Palestinians all immigrated to Egypt at one point or another and became part of the society. This makes Egypt quite accepting of and adjusting to foreign ways. And with a population hitting almost 90 million, it is indeed an untapped market ready to accept business deals from everywhere.
If you plan on doing business in Egypt, or even accepting a short contract, you will most probably be heading to Cairo, one of the most congested cities in the world. Traffic will leave you dumbstruck. Vehicles of all sizes and shapes, donkey-pulled carts, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians all mingle together to form one chaotic entity. This has left Cairenes no other choice but to plan their goings and comings with traffic in mind—heading out an hour early or lingering for an hour in the evening helps with the commute; Friday morning is best for getting stuff done, Saturday is good, too; early evening, surprisingly is the worst.
Traffic is almost always horrendous; and most Egyptians don’t really follow the set traffic: they dash quickly before the signal turns red, ignore set lanes, honk their horns all the time, avoid buckling their seatbelts, and speed dangerously if given a chance—a chaotic commute is a usual commute. I’ve had my car hit from behind; then the other driver stormed out of his car to shout, “Why did you stop?” Hmmm, I was at a traffic light? Not a good enough reason to stop?
I would not make the effort to drive—this will make your stay in Egypt unnecessarily tense. Cabs are inexpensive and available everywhere. I’d avoid the public transportation, too.
In addition to the traffic, Cairo is also a hustling and bustling city with street vendors everywhere calling on you to view their products: clothes hanging off carts; and chopped, diced and peeled vegetables for your pick—an informal economy working furiously along the formal one. Though chaotic, it also has a lively, mesmerizing, and vibrant atmosphere about it, too.
And because of the mayhem on the streets, two anomalies have emerged—tardiness and deliveries. It is quite usual for Egyptians not to arrive on time or not at all; please don’t be offended—punctuality is something that can’t be fulfilled easily. And maybe the meeting will be set for 10 p.m.; that’s very appropriate, too.
As for deliveries, and again because of how difficult it is to get to places or find a parking spot, it seems that just about anything can be delivered to your doorstep: any food concoction, prescription drugs, groceries, wine and beer, and cleaned laundry. Then again spa beauticians, barbers and hair stylists, lab technicians, and doctors do home visits, too. Need to get your cholesterol tested? Call the lab and a technician will show up at your doorstep bright and early, and then deliver the results, too.
As far as weather is concerned, Cairo is usually very hot but dry. I’d avoid being there from June to September. Winters are beautiful though: the forecast—20 and sunny. Head to Cairo between October and March if you can arrange your timing or your stay is short. The Khamaseen, fifty days of possible windy sand storms, begins in late March. And then the heat arrives making late afternoons the least productive hours of the day.
As for Egyptians themselves, they are hospitable, friendly, distinctly loud, and very humorous. After a business transaction is completed, expect to be invited to your host’s home where a splendid array of scrumptious foods will be presented. You may find the spread too grand, but that’s OK. It’s the Egyptian way.
You will enjoy being with Egyptians because of their friendliness. You will find them easy going and down to earth. Lots of hugging and kissing happen amongst men, and the same goes amongst women. Loud, vociferous laughs will dominate all meetings even while negotiating million-dollar deals.
The volume in Cairo seems to have been set on a louder-than-usual setting. It is easy to recognize this once you arrive at Cairo’s airport. It is clearly an innate Egyptian trait, that even if they try to overcome, they never succeed. Accept it! Believe me they are not shouting at you; that’s their way.
Then the concept of noise pollution is non-existent, and people are totally oblivious of the raucous. They yell and talk to one another from across halls and offices. They maintain conversations across the streets or from balconies. Street peddlers shout their products as they roam any neighborhood. And since intersections don’t have stop signs, drivers honk to warn the cars crossing. If you are susceptible to noise, you may resort to earplugs when you need to do some deep thinking. Otherwise, go along; soon you’ll consider it white noise.
And Egyptians honk their cars to call one another down from five-story buildings. Ahmed has his own three-beep honk, which Aly from the fifth floor knows quite well, so when he hears that distinct honk, he looks down from his fifth—floor balcony and shouts to Ahmed, “I’ll be down in a second.” This has changed somewhat after the arrival of cell phones, a blessing from this perspective.
Which brings us to cell phones—no one else uses cell phones as much as Egyptians. Even eight and nine year olds own cellphones. And since Egyptians tend to talk on the phone incessantly, they may continue to do so during a business meeting; they’d answer a call, rather apologetically, but talk to the caller nonetheless: “Hello Mona, how are you? Yes, I can’t talk to you right now. I’ll call you once it’s over. (a pause to listen…) OK, see you at 7 p.m. then.”
It’s only with humour that Egyptians have managed to overcome their hurdles and challenges. Egyptians laugh through their sorrows and pains. They make jokes about themselves and laugh their crises off. It is part and parcel of how Egyptians live. Posters in Tahrir, amidst the life-changing revolution, read: “Please go soon [to their soon-to-be-toppled president]; my arms are hurting,” and “These happenings will be on the history mid-term, so make it brief.” Enjoy the easygoingness and laugh along.
Egyptians don’t follow rules and guidelines, their lives casual and informal. If you are doing business with Egyptians, set the guidelines straight from the first meeting. Negotiate your deal clearly and have it in writing. Communication will not be an issue since most Egyptians speak some form of English or French. Don’t get me wrong; they want your business; however, for your comfort and sanity, do it your way.
Egypt is a conservative society. People dress conservatively though brightly and lavishly. Accessories are acceptable and jewelry often jingles. Though they are very friendly, I’d take the cue from my business partner for how I should react. Especially in today’s Egypt, the range between what is acceptable and what isn’t is wide. In Egypt, though unusual, a woman may hug an acquaintance, while another may opt not to shake his hands.
And in spite of all this, or because of all this, Egypt is an enjoyable place and a truly great place to visit. Turn a blind eye to the chaos, the noise, and pollution, and you will have a blast. Take in the warmth of the people and weather, and enjoy the splendor of the Nile, the sand dunes, and the pristine seacoast along both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And leave time to visit the historical sites, too.