Since the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, patriotic spirit and political agenda in Egypt has been very much about reclaiming the country, in spite of its current state, and restoring it to its former glory.
The restoration of the iconic retail megastore Omar Effendi to the public sector is particularly symbolic of the zeitgeist of the times. As the country seeks justice for all the wrongdoings of the previous regime, including cheaply and illegally selling the business to foreign investors, taking back an enterprise as culturally iconic as Omar Effendi seems perfectly fitting.
Omar Effendi, originally established in 1856 and nationalized in 1957, has stood as a cultural landmark to the Egyptian people for more than 100 years, often being likened to the UK department store chain Marks & Spencer.
“My parents used to buy all their china and home accessories from there,” recalls Waguida al-Kahal, now a mother and long-time customer of Omar Effendi. “Going there used to mean that you were well-off and in touch with the latest trends. Celebrities used to go there, and they would have red carpets laid out at all their events.”
Over the years, and especially during the Mubarak era, the quality of the store began to lose its luster. Some contend that this degradation and neglect was a deliberate strategy of the old regime – allowing them to cheaply sell off businesses to private investors in order to, ironically, keep them out of the corrupted public sector.
“I remember going there with my parents and running around the store laughing as they did their shopping,” remembers Ali Mokhtar, 26. “Just happy thoughts. But my parents would always be talking about how beautiful it used to be and I would always feel sad that I was never able to really experience that.”
In 2006, the Omar Effendi department stores were privatized and sold to the Anwal United Trading Company of Saudi Arabia (Anwal) for approximately LE504 million. Yahya Hussein, former board member and champion of the business, at the time had placed the chain's true value at around LE1 billion. Nonetheless, he was ultimately forced by the Ministry of Investment to sign documents approving the sale without knowing the government had sold it for half its estimated value.
“No one had a say in this sale,” claims a branch manager (who wished to remain anonymous) of 23 years at one of the store's flagship locations. “The government forcefully took something that belonged to the country and sold it off to people who cared little about its 150-year-old cultural significance.”
The fact that the Mubarak regime would allow something as culturally symbolic to Egypt as Omar Effendi to decline in quality and be sold off cheaply to foreign investors inherently expresses the regime’s national philosophy – take something meaningful to the people, allow it to degrade into shame and then sell it off for cheap without consulting the public.
“Omar Effendi provided a service to the Egyptian people for many years and on so many different levels,” the branch manager said. “All the money from sales used to go back to the country, and many workers used to rely on us for their uniforms, which we sometimes used to give out for free. Selling that off to people who have nothing to do with Egypt really shocked us all and completely destroyed all employees’ spirits – the store really meant so much to so many different people on so many different levels.”
After purchasing the run-down stores, Anwal made many changes to its branding, marketing and management that shocked many of the company’s employees, such as removing all the old marble and replacing it with cheap paints, a new logo and store equipment that looked like it had been taken from the American chain K-Mart.
“Sure they gave it a face lift, but they renovated it for the worse, fixing it in a way that was intended only for their profit,” states Medhat Ibrahim, a supervisor at Omar Effendi department stores for the past 18 years. “I’ve been coming to these stores since I was a little kid, and what they did was the same as someone selling the pyramids to people who would paint them gold.”
The sale of the business drew a lot of scrutiny because of its nationalistic presence, public familiarity and accusations that the Mubarak regime sold it too cheaply. And so on 7 May, almost three months after Mubarak's resignation, an investment dispute department of the administrative court annulled the 2006 deal, returning its ownership to the public sector.
The details of the annulment, and Egypt's legal right to repossess Omar Effendi based on claims the initial sale was illegal, are still unclear, as is the future of the store.
“We don’t care if its run down, or torn up or destroyed,” states Ibrahim. “That’s not our fault, that’s the old regime’s fault. Regardless of its state, it is ours and we are thrilled to have it back – my only hope is that now after the revolution and the new spirit that is in the air, Omar Effendi’s beauty and significance can be revived by a sympathetic government.”