The decision of the Holborn branch of British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s to remove kosher products from its shelves to avoid incurring the wrath of an angry mob demonstrating against Israel brought to mind the story of the chain’s unsuccessful foray into Egypt.
The opening of that country’s first hypermarket in 2000 was an overnight success and soon dozens of new outlets appeared in Cairo. A move regarded first with outrage then by real fear by the competition.
Beating the prices was not an option.
The solution? An all-out campaign branding the newcomer as a Jewish and Zionist Trojan horse.
“Hundred percent Egyptian business” read stickers – in Arabic – on the windows of local supermarkets.
A move reminiscent of distant events in Europe. It led me to abandon my favorite store in Maadi (an affluent district in south Cairo).
In the beginning, the campaign had a limited impact and branches kept opening. Still the message filtered through. There was a wholesale outlet not far from the residence and I would do a lot of shopping there. One day I sent the driver to buy three cases of soft drinks. Since that particular brand was sold out, the driver went back to the local supermarket. The price was much higher and he indignantly asked why.
“Don’t you know that Sainsbury’s is a Jewish place?” was the reply.
The driver knew a thing or two about Jews and asked why they would sell cheaper. “They want to destroy Egypt’s economy, that’s why,” he was told.
With the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 “spontaneous protests” broke out, targeting one Sainsbury’s branch after another and generally wreaking havoc.
Muslim preachers said that buying from Sainsbury’s was sinful.
The wholesale outlet was first to close. Downtown, a class of second- graders, having heard a heated harangue by their teacher, marched to the nearest store. Surprisingly, the wholly Egyptian staff, fearing for their jobs, put up a fight and routed the little protesters. It did not help. Sainsbury’s decided to cut its losses, close its 44 branches and withdraw from Egypt, leaving thousands of workers unemployed.
The BBC report at the time was a work of art. “Many Egyptians believe Sainsbury’s has links with Israel,” it wrote in its business section on April 9, 2001, “something it has consistently denied.”
Ironically, today the largest overall shareholder is the Qatar Investment Authority which holds 25.99% of the company.
Michelle Mazel is the wife of Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel.