By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
CAIRO -- Diners in the revolving restaurant on the 41st floor of Cairo's Grand Hyatt once could count on a certain order to things: As surely as the torpid Nile coursed below and the Pyramids loomed in the distance, the whiskey, beer and wine flowed for hotel guests.
Then a Saudi sheik bought the Grand Hyatt, one of the city's leading luxury hotels. On visiting his new holding in April, Abdel Aziz Ibrahim declared the hotel dry and ordered managers to destroy its alcohol. Hotel workers poured out the bottles into drains running into the Nile, according to news reports at the time.
Ibrahim's imposition of prohibition reflects the disdain that some Muslims maintain for what they see as the libertine ways of Cairo. His action has sparked a five-star tussle with the Hyatt chain, which wants to restore liquor to the hotel, and has revived a debate over tolerance in Egypt.
Amid the wrangling, the Hyatt's thirsty have found refuge a few steps away in a dark bar that is also under Saudi ownership. Hassan bin Laden, half brother of Osama, is a prominent shareholder of the Hard Rock Cafe in the Grand Hyatt complex.
Vatche Yacoubian, general manager of Cairo Hard Rock, said business has jumped since the hotel went dry. The bar has a liquor license and intends to keep using it, he said.
He offered an Arab proverb to explain how two Saudi businessmen could be in such a standoff: "Even the five fingers on your hand aren't the same, are they?"
The sheik's supporters applaud him for his forcefulness in upholding Islamic prohibitions on alcohol, and started an online petition on his behalf.
Detractors see the declaration of temperance at the Grand Hyatt as another instance of wealthy Saudis imposing their religious views on the rest of the Muslim world.
The alcohol ban will only feed the perception of "terrorism and fanaticism," said Ahmed el-Nazer, secretary general of Egypt's Chamber of Tourist Establishments.
Ibrahim "deprived foreign guests from finding the alcoholic beverage which they wanted, and forced it upon the Muslim fish of the Nile," added Ezzat al-Qamhawi, one of several columnists in Cairo who wrote against the ban.
The religious law is clear: The Koran says Muslims should neither drink alcohol nor associate themselves with it. While many of Egypt's Muslim majority are devout, the government and most Egyptians look the other way when it comes to foreigners -- 11 million of whom visited the country last year.
Cairo swells each summer with tourists from the Arabian peninsula, many of them seeking respite from their countries' religious codes.
Hotel bars fill with Gulf men who cast weighty glances over the top of their mobile phones and make dates by Bluetooth with elaborately made-up women, for whom hotel lounges seem to be a summertime workplace.
Temporary marriages flourish between rich Gulf men and Egyptian women and girls. While these urfi marriages are technically legal under Islam, critics say they can amount to prostitution and give no protection to children born of such unions.
For Cairo residents uncomfortable with the capital's reputation as a Middle East Sin City, the Hyatt's ban was welcome.
Ahmed el-Shehat, attending a trade show at the hotel with his 10-year-old relative late one recent Thursday night, said it was a relief to come to the Hyatt with his family without worrying that they might see people drinking.
Assem, 10, said he had never seen people drink but knew what happened when they did. "They can steal," he said. "And maybe they might kill each other."
When the trade show ended, the Hyatt lobby emptied of all but quiet clusters of vacationing women from the Gulf, plunging forks into towering slices of chocolate cake.
The alcohol ban has been hard on the Hyatt's business, according to travel agents, who reported hundreds of cancellations. The Hyatt chain is negotiating with Ibrahim on restoring alcohol, Malene Rydahl, spokeswoman for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, said in an e-mail. The chain declined to comment on whether business has suffered.
Up on the 41st floor that same Thursday night, the revolving restaurant circled high above the brightly lit Nile. Clinks and scrapes emerged faintly through the piano-playing.
Nigerian businessman Chris Agibe, two Nigerian business colleagues, and their Egyptian host were cutting into steaks in the otherwise deserted restaurant.
It really didn't matter to foreigners whether they had alcohol or not, the Egyptian host said.
But Agibe smiled when he learned of the Hard Rock. "Thank you for the information," he said. "I will be finding my seat there."
Other refugees from the Hyatt had already made it to the Hard Rock.
"If it keeps going like this, he'll be out of business in a year or two," said Alia al-Raddami, 23, of the United Arab Emirates, wearing crystal heels and upswept hair.
Neither Ibrahim nor bin Laden could be reached for this article. Hyatt and Hard Rock officials, respectively, declined to provide contact information for them.
Whereas Osama bin Laden built for himself a life devoted to destroying Western civilization, Hassan has nurtured a fondness for vintage cars and rock-and-roll. In 1996, he celebrated the opening of the Beirut Hard Rock with fireworks.
Waiters at the Cairo Hard Rock like to try to impress female customers by telling them a bearded man at some table or the other is the owner, bin Laden. In fact, other club employees said, he hasn't been by in about a year.
After midnight the disco is loud, and the gifts of steroids and silicone are everywhere in evidence. Men with shoulders out to here smile at women with necklines down to there.
At the door, German clubgoer Michael Thomas took in news of bin Laden's role in the Hard Rock. He laughed before heading back inside. "That's great," he said. "I love it. I love it."