First Published: 2006-10-31

Egypt trembles in front of made in China pharaohs

Unbeatable prices of China's products are breaking into last strongholds of Egypts local manufacturing.


Middle East Online

By Joelle Bassoul - CAIRO

Is globalisation to blame?

Figurines of King Tut, Ramses and Queen Nefertiti in Cairo's famous Khan Khalili bazaar all bear the hallmarks of pharaonic regalia, from the goats-hair beards to the golden sceptre.

But the slanting eyes framed by the ancient Egyptian rulers' trademark kohl lining betrays the statuettes' Chinese origins.

While Egypt is increasingly betting on the irresistible rise of China's economy for its own prosperity, the unbeatable prices of the Asian giant's products are breaking into the last strongholds of local manufacturing.

"Over the past two or three years, the local market has been completely overrun by Chinese imports," says Adel Meghwari, who has owned a souvenir shop in one of Khan Khalili's meandering alleyways for 22 years.

The millions of souvenirs and trinkets snatched up by the busloads of tourists flocking to the Old Cairo souk each year are mostly manufactured in China, virtually spelling the doom the local handicraft industry.

Meghwari randomly picks an object from his shelves. "The price of this Chinese painted glass is 10 pounds (less than two dollars). The same one manufactured in Egypt would fetch about 30 pounds (or more than five dollars)," he explains.

The price difference can be considerable on more expensive objects: a miniature crystal pyramid made in Egypt costs around 135 pounds (23 dollars) when a Chinese copy goes for 20 pounds (3.5 dollars).

"Not only do the Chinese copy everything, they are also innovating and we are simply not able to match them, the technology gap is too wide and their labour too cheap," says Sameh Abdel Nabi, another souvenir shop owner.

Chinese mass-produced busts of pharaonic figures and alabaster scarabs sell like hot cakes in Egypt's tourist markets, but the trained eye can still identify their country of production, shopowners say.

"The features of the statues give it away. See how this Nefertiti has slightly slanting eyes," says Mohammed Mustafa, as he displays a statuette of the legendary beauty queen.

"The secret is to always check the eye," Meghwari says. "Ours is larger and rounder."

Anatomical considerations are not likely to slow the Chinese bulldozer however, and the old craft workshops of Cairo are becoming few and far between.

"The Egyptians are left with two specialties: papyrus and seashell crafts. But we fear that it's only a matter of time before the Chinese manage to copy them too," says Hussein Ahmed, a Khan Khalili merchant.

The trend is not expected to slow anytime soon as Egypt is putting its all into boosting ties with the Asian giant that are set quickly to surpass traditional trade links with the European Union and America.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Egypt in June and several other senior officials have come to Cairo to sign bilateral agreements.

Chinese Ambassador Wu Sike said there were currently 200 Chinese projects in Cairo worth 230 million dollars in investment.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has skyrocketed in recent years, from less than a billion dollars in 2002 to almost 2.2 billion in 2005. The balance leans heavily in China's favour.

As the wisdom of an open-arms strategy towards China is being increasingly debated in Egyptian papers, economist Samir Radwan explains simply that Egyptian manufacturers will have to play by the rules of globalisation or die.

"This is globalisation, whether they like it or not. Egypt is a member of the World Trade Organisation and cannot resort to protectionism anymore," says the head of the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum.

As tourists continue to buy with little concern for the souvenirs' provenance, Khan Khalili shop owners may find confort in the growing number of Chinese visitors.

"Ironically, the most enthusiastic buyers these days have been the Chinese themselves," says Mohammed Mustafa.

Egypt, whose prime source of revenue is tourism, is hoping to tap into the 100 million Chinese tourists expected to flood the world annually by 2020.


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