Who's for an early night?
When the government started dropping hints that in order to solve the energy crisis shops would have to close early, there was an immediate public reaction, writes Nader Habib
A few miles north of Tahrir Square in Cairo is a district with a quiet past and a bustling present, plus loads of attitude. Shobra was once a leafy suburb of agricultural farms and a smattering of royal palaces. Now, it sleeps less than New York, and likes it that way.
Some residents dream of the calming discipline of early nights, but most -- including shopkeepers -- cannot think of a future in which residents will go to bed by 10 or 11.
Since the petroleum minister, Osama Kamal, stated that power will need to be regulated, and shops will have to close at 9pm, at least part of the populace has felt cheated. The government, they argue, is wasting energy itself by leaving light bulbs burning in the middle of the day. What will happen to our sense of safety, they ask, when the streets become dim at night because the shops are closed?
Are people in the busy streets of Shobra ready to call it a night three or four hours earlier than usual? Shobra-born Mohamed El-Kholi said that if the shops were to close early, the streets would be dark and unsafe. Also, if the shops closed earlier, who would force the peddlers to go home, he asked.
El-Kholi said that the government should start by closing the shopping malls early if it wanted to save electricity. After all, most of the shops in the malls are chain stores that shouldn't mind shutting down a bit early, he said. In general, El-Kholi was not against the idea, but he warned that it would fail unless the public was also convinced.
Ramez Adel, a computer programmer, said that he would support any arrangement that would improve safety and create jobs, but this was not the likely outcome of shops closing early. In the past, the police had had street patrols, he said, so criminals had had to think twice before doing anything illegal. If the streets become dim at night, he said, there was a danger that sexual harassment could double overnight.
Suzy Murad was also worried that if businesses closed early, the livelihood of many, especially the sales personnel, would be imperiled. Shaimaa Abdel-Halim, a computer teacher, said that the government should start by turning off the streetlights during the day. She was also worried about people who worked late. Where were they going to buy their needs, if the shops were all closed, she asked.
In addition, Abdel-Halim was also concerned about sexual harassment. If the coffeehouses closed early, young men would hang out at street corners, a prospect that may not be reassuring to women pedestrians, she said. "Don't tell me that a young man who is used to going home by midnight will suddenly start coming home at 8pm. This is impossible," Adel said.
Abdel-Aziz, who has a clothes shop, said that he opened up at 11am, rearranged the merchandise till 12 noon, and then the customers started arriving. "I keep working till 9pm. Then we sort out the merchandise and close down between 10pm and midnight," he said.
If he closed early, Abdel-Aziz was afraid that the pavements would be filled with street peddlers, whom the shopkeepers are trying to keep away. Also, customers living far away could stop coming. He said that it would be difficult for him to close early, as most of his customers came from outside of Cairo.
Shopkeepers, Abdel-Aziz argued, were the ones keeping the streets safe. "We are here day and night, keeping an eye on the streets and checking to see who is an outsider and who is a customer. So we are helping with security. As for the electricity consumption, I have installed energy-saving bulbs. What else can I do," he asked.
Mariana Attia, an activist, is all for the shops closing early. She said that one of the reasons jobs were performed so shoddily in this country was that everyone was always tired from working too long and staying up too late. If people had more structure in their days, they would be happier and would work better, she said.
Attia said that she wanted the streets to be a place for people to walk in and relax, not only a place to shop. She was against the excessive consumerism that seemed to have taken the country by storm, she said. If the shops closed early, the street cleaners would be able to do a better job collecting the garbage, she added.
"I support this decision and any other decision that may have a positive impact in the long term. We are all thinking short term, and we need someone with a vision to take the lead," she remarked.
Michel Joseph agreed with her, saying that if coffeehouses and cinemas closed early, people would have time to sleep early and wake up fresh, like in the rest of the civilised world. Some services, he pointed out, should be allowed to work late, such as hospitals and police, however.
From a health point of view, Tamer, a sports coach, said that the working day should be from 7am to 7pm, and no one should work before or after these times. He also suggested a system of "rotating weekends" to increase efficiency.
Looking to developed countries, Hisham Mohamed, a computer expert, said that shops in London and other major cities closed at 8pm, which meant that people had time to spend with their families and rest. "Parents who spend more time with their children will get to know them better and help them more," he added.
Said Alameddin, a statistician, remembered that Egypt once tried closing the shops early. "This was during former president [Anwar] El-Sadat's time, and it ended with a baby boom. Also, closing early is not good for the economy," he warned.
In Tahrir Square, the coffeehouse owners were dead against the measure. "What do they mean by closing shops and coffeehouses at 9pm? I don't understand it. When a customer comes in, are we supposed to send him away," an irate coffeehouse asked.
Mentioning that similar arrangements are common in Europe only made him incensed. "In Europe, everyone makes enough money, and all the workers have rights, the coffeehouse workers too. They live like kings. Give us the same rights, then do what you want," he added.
Haj Ibrahim, the owner of a home supplies store, seemed too despondent to care. "It makes no difference whether you close at 9pm or at 12 midnight. There is no business anyway," he said. His partner, Haj Atef, had more to say. If the government is serious about saving energy, it should start by turning off the streetlamps that it leaves burning during the day.
"The government should restore security to the streets. It should control the street peddlers, who steal electricity from the light poles," he said. Haj Atef said that forcing the shops to close at 9pm would not make any difference, "especially in winter when most shops close by 10pm anyway."
So far, no one knows what the government intends to do. The new measures were initially expected to go into effect within weeks. But electricity ministry spokesman Aktham Abul-Ela said that the idea had not come from his ministry, but from the cabinet.
It has not become law and hasn't been fully discussed yet, he said.