Managing in Egypt
Working in a Country in Flux
When you think of Egypt, you'll likely imagine ancient pyramids and pharaohs, bustling markets, and thriving tourist resorts such as Sharm el-Sheik. However, it's also a country run by a military government, where tensions and the risk of terrorism are high.
Egypt has the third-largest population in Africa, with over 95 million inhabitants. It's a region of stunning natural beauty and magnificent history, and it boasts busy cities, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, and Port Said, alongside sweeping desert landscapes.
In this article, we'll explore how to live and work successfully in Egypt, whether you're relocating or managing a team remotely.
This article is intended as a general guide only. The different groups of people you'll meet will likely have different outlooks and cultural expectations. So, use your own best judgment and be flexible while managing here.
Egypt is a predominantly hot and dry desert country, which links North Africa with the Middle East. It is bisected by the River Nile, which remains one of its main commercial thoroughfares. Egypt is bordered by Libya, Sudan and Israel, and it has Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts.
Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim, with Coptic Christians making up around 10 percent of the population.
Egypt has experienced significant political and social unrest in the last decade, including several violent demonstrations and the arrest of its first democratically elected president.
E.U. and U.S. citizens can enter Egypt briefly without a visa (15 days or fewer), but may only visit the resort areas of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba, or Taba. You'll require a visa for longer stays, or to work in the country.
Egypt is bisected by the River Nile, which remains one of country's main commercial thoroughfares. It is bordered by Libya, Sudan and Israel, and it has Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts.
Egypt's primary language is Egyptian Arabic, although English is widely spoken (Egypt was a British Empire "protectorate") and French and Italian are also common languages.
A common greeting is "Es salam alekum" (peace be with you), pronounced "as sa-laam alaay-kum," and the standard reply is "Wa alekum es salam" (and upon you be peace), pronounced "wah alaay-kum as sa-laam."
|Hello||Ahlan wa sahlan||AH-lan wah saH-lan|
|How are you?||Izayak? (m)
|My name is...||Ismi...||Iz-mee|
|Good morning||Sabah el-khair||SabaaH al-khayr|
Egyptians are entitled to 21 days' paid annual leave, which rises to 30 days for people aged over 50 or who have been with an organization for more than 10 years.
In addition, Egyptians are entitled to the following public holidays:
- Christmas (according to the Coptic Christian calendar) – January 7.
- Revolution Day or National Police Day – January 25.
- Sinai Liberation Day – April 25.
- Labor Day – May 1.
- Ramadan – Dates change each year (begins May 15 in 2018, for around one month).
- Eid al-Fitr – Dates change each year (July 14-15 in 2018).
- Revolution Day – July 23.
- Eid al-Adha – Dates change each year (August 22 in 2018).
- Armed Forces Day – October 6.
Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, and its date varies depending on the phases of the moon. It concludes with Eid al-Fitr, when most stores and public buildings will close.
During this time, Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, and are only permitted to work for six hours per day. So, workflow will likely drop during this time, and clients and colleagues may be harder to communicate with. You won't be required to fast over Ramadan, but be aware that it's illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours.
Getting the Most From Your People
In Egypt, management styles are generally hierarchical, and consultation and discussion will only take place between managers during the decision-making process. Relationships between managers and team members are strictly respectful, and people are expected to take action without question.
As a manager, your team members will likely expect you to be decisive and use a task-based leadership approach. People may also prefer to work with you and receive regular feedback, rather than working independently.
Egypt has certain cultural expectations, values and etiquette, and it's important to be aware of them during meetings or negotiations. For example, in Arab countries, it is socially acceptable for men to be tactile, hold hands, or sit closely together. Read our article on cross-cultural faux pas to help you understand these differences.
Egypt has a reputation for haggling, particularly in local bazaars and markets, and negotiation is particularly important in the workplace. Doing business in Egypt can be frustratingly slow and bureaucratic, so be patient with relationship building and small talk, which will often take place over strong coffee, tea or cake. Bear in mind that Egyptian hospitality is often generous – even if time is short!
Egypt is more secular than some Muslim countries, and is gradually becoming more progressive. However, it's still relatively conservative, and women are expected to cover their hair and skin (except for their hands and face).
The Role of Religion
Religion plays an important role in people's professional and personal lives in Egypt, and organizations are generally categorized as Islamic or non-Islamic.
For example, companies owned by Coptic Christians may promote women to more prominent positions, while Islamic organizations will likely observe some form of Sharia law, and may have a religious supervisory board that monitors its compliance. This might include ensuring that people can stop work for daily prayers.
Learn more about this before working with Egyptians, so that you can approach different people and situations with tact and respect.
Terrorism and Safety
It's important to recognize that terrorism and personal safety are big concerns in Egypt. The U.S. State Department has extensive guidance on traveling within Egypt, and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) rates the country as being at "high" risk of terrorism. This includes avoiding areas such as North and South Sinai, although the Sharm el-Sheik resort area is now considered well-protected, despite a high-profile terrorist attack in 2005.
Terrorists have also targeted security facilities and government buildings, and have attacked a number of international businesses and commercial premises in Cairo and Alexandria. Be aware that there is also an ongoing threat of kidnapping, particularly in remote desert areas.
Women should be particularly vigilant and avoid violent protests, marches and demonstrations, which are common across Egypt and often take place on Fridays. Westerners have been assaulted and killed at these events.
Be sensible and vigilant when working in Egypt, particularly if you visit government or other potentially sensitive buildings. Be highly respectful of local customs and dress codes, be careful when taking photographs (especially around demonstrations), and leave an area if you feel unsafe.
- Be aware of seating hierarchies. In Egypt, people may be seated according to seniority. So, at the start of any meeting or negotiation, wait to be offered a seat before you sit down.
- Eat with your right hand. While dining, only use your right hand to eat and pass food, as the left hand is generally considered unclean in Egyptian culture.
- Take off your shoes. It's considered polite to take off your shoes before entering a person's home. Make sure that your socks are presentable!
- Small gifts are a common currency. Giving small gifts is commonplace in Egypt. However, be aware that Muslims don't consume alcohol or eat pork, and that flowers are often associated with weddings or funerals. So, avoid giving these gifts, including perfumes that may contain alcohol.
See our article on Gifts in the Workplace for things to be careful of when giving gifts. In particular, take care to understand anti-corruption laws, and to respect your company's policies on the subject.
Egypt is a modern, cultured and relatively secular Muslim country that is still recovering from political unrest. However, it remains somewhat conservative and traditional, and Egyptian workplaces are often bureaucratic and hierarchical.
Manage your Egyptian team by cultivating personal relationships, working to understand cultural differences and the role of religion, and being aware of the serious, ongoing security and terrorism issues that the country faces.