By Philip Whitfield
Before conniptions consume, inhale the acronyms. FAG: (For/Against Government), IMP: the British Imperial Tobacco Group the world’s fourth-largest ciggie peddler flogging 320bn cigarettes a year (Davidoff in Egypt) after PMI: Philip Morris International (Marlboros / Merit), BAT British American Tobacco (Rothmans/Dunhill) and arriving on the 1 July JT Japan Tobacco (Winston/Salem). And they’re going to see if Egyptians will smoke a Camel!
Chain-smoking 68-year-old Youssef Mansour has switched brands. The Alexandrian, who jets between Cairo, London and Cannes, has declared war – rousting the largest companies in Britain, the USA, and Japan to do battle in Egypt.
At stake? The world’s biggest ashtray – 86bn smokes a year with a payday of $100bn. Raking in $4.5bn taxes on fags is the government’s biggest money spinner, (EGP 42bn), second only to the $5.5bn Suez Canal revenues; now tourism’s been guillotined.
The ‘til-now-affable Mansour has signed a distribution agreement with IMP, earning a seat on the board. Why’s the recently ailing Youssef Mansour spurred from his hammock?
He’s mad as a March hare that PMI welched on their long-term distributor deal with him. PMI’s chairman tore a strip off his former chum, offering what appeared to be loose change for a man worth $2.3bn. On the reverse side of the coin PMI fancied footsie with a Gulfie who’s settling for less commission than Mansour.
Madder Mansour is, too, that an upstart Emirates tycoon Majid Al Futtaim (worth $4.8bn) offered a paltry $300m to take Metro Markets off Mansour’s hands and pass it to Carrefour. That deal was jinxed, too, leaving Mr Mansour to manage the consequences.
Sisi? He’s no dope. Putin, megalomania metastasising, is trying to seduce him into hooking Egyptians onto Russian cigarillos. He’s offering Sisi tanks, banks and bazookas to join the babushkas in his Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) alongside Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
If you resist Putin, you stand to get a Ukraine-Crimea haircut. Vlad told Ab to edit out the i in Egyptian and re-gender the mother of mankind Stan – Egypstan.
The EU (IMP and PMI) is perplexed, puffing through plenteous packs. Their Eurocrats are wagering the Wigan Warrior Baroness Cathy Ashton to seize Sisi in a Kodji Clutch when they match up in Cairo next week. US Foreign Secretary John Kerry (aka the Heinz Beans Kid) can’t get hold of an invitation for love nor money. He can pout, not bout, barred by Barack from Bulak bugaboos.
Why should Sisi get involved? Apart from cocking a snoot at the US and the EU, the government owns Eastern, the biggest tobacco outfit in Africa and one of the world’s largest. Every flake, shisha rock and slither of paper goes through Eastern’s grubby mits. Eastern is a hangout for 16,000. Under proper control 14,000 would be sent packing.
Pirated by Nasser from BAT in 1957 it’s become a neglected mausoleum, even tobacco machine repairmen from Nottingham describe as disgusting. Yet the world’s most featherbedded tobacco outfit continues churning out Cleopatras, the Middle East’s bestseller.
Sisi, end the charade. Singing the Grand Old Duke of York (he had 10,000 men) march the pillocks to the top of a hillock, dump 9,000 and march 1,000 down again.
Sell this disgrace. Mansour has a plant the government gave him permission to build in the Alexandria Free Zone to make cigs. Then they blew smoke in his face. Now Eastern loses money hand over fist weighed down by peccant corruption. Put Health and Safety on the case. Smokers will hack and spit less.
Me? I go for pipes. They puff more profusely. Have done for years courtesy of the Danish Pipe Shop in Copenhagen who’re repairing the shank on a favourite, a vintage Canadian-style briar with a billiard bowl beloved by the likes of Sadat.
I started smoking when my neighbour John Lennon offered me a drag on a Turkish flat fag he’d won playing poker behind the Quarry Bank bike sheds. They were popular the world over, manufactured by Nestor Gianaclis, whose plant at the Khairy Pasha Palace in Tahrir Square, has been the AUC since 1920.
I was seven. By the time we’d puffed our way through dimps sneaked from Dad’s ashtray we’d honed our plans to leave Liverpool and discover the world. Yoko encouraged John to quit. I don’t remember Paul as a smoker. Ringo did. George Harrison slid back, growing pot in his greenhouse. He died from lung cancer.
Walking across to the Shahab Street branch of Sultana on balmy Thursday evening for mint, mango, vanilla and fudge chocolate ice cream with my new girlfriend, nine-year-old Soraya, I received information about Imperial Tobacco signing a distribution agreement with Mansour.
I passed the info on to a not-disinterested couple contemplating dim sum and crème brûlée in a lily pond setting. Didn’t take them five minutes to absorb, figure out a plan and resume the fine cuisine.
Phillip Morris? Those dunderheads didn’t believe me when I passed them exclusive intel at their international HQ outside Geneva forecasting a revolution was in the works six months prior to its debut on 25th January 2011.
I enquired what the knowledge I’d brought to them – chapter and verse activities planned. How much can you save, I asked? The paper pushers huddled then pronounced: Millions and millions. Then again, one said, who cares if someone else takes over from Mubarak? One’s the same as another, aye? Fat lot they cared. They did nothing then as now.
They’re selling less real Marlboros made at Eastern than the counterfeits bootleggers smuggle in to give nicotine rushes to 26 million Egyptians. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate their families spend EGP 8bn on smokes – 22% of their monthly pay packet – while the family spends 5% on health care.
At a discreet smokers’ table overlooking calm waters at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza on Wednesday, after the non-smoking Ashraf Al-Banna spoke at Cityscape, I ordered what I guessed former gasper and Four Seasons habitué Hosni Mubarak and his boys might be chomping down from the same kitchen: – Takeout to Tora: Roast duck and peppered steak with a shrimp side, creamed spuds and asparagus and chocolate cake for afters.
Banna, vice chairman of the Talaat Mostafa Group made a great presentation, focusing on the benefits of mixed-use developments (the change Egypt needs): “We are the richest society in terms of our cultural heritage, patriotism and love of family,” Banna said. “We are conquering our poorest – managing the abundance of resources we possess – millions of young people striving to achieve their dreams.”
Dreams? Hope is the physician of misery. Hoping to quit is my cherished dream. If the Brotherhood and its insurrectionist ilk want to discomfort Sisi, wise up. Quit now.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.