The decision of the Holborn branch of British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s to remove Kosher products from its shelves in order not to incur 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 on Pyramids Road in 2000 was an overnight success and soon dozens of new outlets appeared in Cairo; a development regarded first with outrage and then 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” blared 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.
In the beginning, the campaign had only a limited impact and new branches kept on 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 asked indignantly why.
“Don’t you know that Sainsbury’s is a Jewish place?” was the reply. Well, the driver knew a thing or two about the Jews and he 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 the other and generally wreaking havoc. Muslim preachers said that buying at Sainsbury’s was sinful.
The wholesale outlet was the first to close. Downtown, a class of second-graders, having heard a heated harangue from their teacher, “decided” to march to the nearest store. Surprisingly, the wholly Egyptian staff, fearing for their jobs, put up a fight and routed the small protesters. It did not help.
Sainsbury’s decided to cut its losses, close its 44 branches and withdraw from Egypt, leaving thousands of workers without a job.
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 sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, the Qatar Investment Authority, which holds 25.999% of the company.The author is the wife of former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel.