Egyptians taking summer vacations at home have for years quietly followed well-trodden routes to the coast that mirror their social status.
Like clockwork, the wealthy headed to a Mediterranean coastal strip north-west of Cairo called “Sahel”, while the less fortunate sojourn at Alexandria or a string of lesser known and somewhat austere cities mostly to the east, such as Ras El Bar, Gamasah and Balteem.
No one seemed to give much thought to where others were going or how much it was costing them to go there.
Television talk show hosts, social media influencers and satirists have in recent weeks focused on calling out, defending or ridiculing the extravagant lifestyle of the country’s rich minority who summer in Sahel, a 300-kilometre stretch of coastline dotted with heavily-guarded gated communities with exclusive access to some of the country’s best beaches.
Their interest in what goes on there has seeped into the national conversation at a time when the country is sagging under the weight of an economic crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.
It has touched on everything from the astronomical prices of holiday homes and rents in Sahel to the prohibitive cost of dining out, the extravagant beach parties and concerts, and the eyebrow-raising fashion sense among the area’s night revellers.
But like almost everything else in Egypt, the conversation has its funny side, including a flurry of TikTok videos and memes about the shock of ordinary folks at Sahel prices and the swift and undignified expulsion of outsiders caught trying to sneak into the walled compounds.
The newly coined phrase “the good Sahel, the evil Sahel” surfaced this summer and became an instant hit. It is casually used now to respectively refer to the old and somewhat modest part of Sahel closer to Alexandria and the area farther west that is home to newer and much more expensive compounds.
The seriousness of the debate, however, cannot be exaggerated. The conversation frames the complexity of Egyptian society and its entrenched class structure, laying bare the vast and growing economic discrepancy between the small moneyed minority and the poor and limited-income majority among Egypt’s 103 million people.
“Sahel has always been that enclave of extravagant lifestyles, but somehow it got out of hand this summer and made its way into the headlines and talk shows,” said Mohammed, a 45-year-old businessman who has spent his summers in Sahel since childhood and asked to be identified only by his first name.
“You will have to thank the nouveau riche for that.”
The average apartment or house in one of the high-end Sahel compounds can fetch anywhere between $250,000 and $2 million, depending on size and location. A week’s rent for a house in one of these compounds is anywhere between 100,000 pounds ($5,200) and 200,000 pounds.
A 1.6-litre bottle of mineral water sold on the beach costs 100 pounds — 20 times its supermarket price. A simple pizza at a restaurant will set you back 1,000 pounds, and a coffee 100 pounds. The charge for a drop-in group workout session complete with a sea view can cost up to 450 pounds.
“Vacationing in the evil Sahel now costs a small fortune,” said a 45-year-old mother of two whose family and her sister’s returned in late August from a two-week break in an upscale Sahel compound. “We took a lot of supplies with us from Cairo so we don’t buy too many things at Sahel.”
The Sahel conversation grew heated and drew nationwide attention when a high-end developer in August sold homes ranging in price from $500,000 for small apartments to $5m for seafront villas. Photos shared online of buyers, or their representatives, clamouring to snap up the new units caused a backlash and led to closer scrutiny of the life of the country’s rich and powerful.
Commentators were divided on how to interpret the rush to buy the units — the developer reportedly sold more than $400m worth of units in a matter of days. Some, not entirely convincingly, hailed it as evidence of a healthy investment climate.
They said about 35 per cent of the units were bought by non-Egyptians.
“This is what Egypt is like. Some talk about the price of cooking oil, inquire about the price of tomatoes or complain about the soaring price of eggs while someone else is buying a villa for 118 million pounds,” mused talk show host Ahmed Moussa, a staunch government supporter. “This is Egypt in all its glory,” he declared.
But Mustafa Bakry, an outspoken legislator who also supports the government, saw the matter in an entirely different light. He admonished the rich for being socially insensitive by flaunting their wealth and pleaded that they do more to help the poor cope with the recent spike in prices.
Speaking on his own TV talk show, Mr Bakry said: “The folks in Sahel should stop provoking people so much. To them I say, ‘don’t just live for yourselves, live for others, too.’ What they are doing is impacting on an already difficult and painful social situation.”
Amr Adeeb, arguably the Arab world’s most popular talk show host, took a “take it or leave it” approach to Sahel.
He has dismissed as irrelevant and reckless the notion that the heavily publicised sale of the multimillion-dollar villas would sow the seeds of hatred between Egypt’s poor and the rich.
“I am so sorry that I am telling you this now, but our world includes both rich people and not-rich people since time immemorial,” he said. “It’s supply and demand.
There is a tendency to look at Sahel from the perspective of classism, but it’s simply a place where people from a certain economic level live.”
Adeeb also admonished Sahel holidaymakers for complaining about the high prices there, saying they should exercise their right to choose where to spend their money.
“People are posting online their restaurant receipts. Did you expect to get free food?” he asked in a recent episode of his programme El Hekaya, or "The Story", on MBC Egypt. “If the food is that expensive, then just get up and walk away. But if you want to dine with celebrities, then just cough up the money.”
Sahel has not always been the summer destination of Egypt's wealthy.
For most of the 20th century, the rich and powerful spent their summers in Alexandria. When the city became too crowded, they shifted to the Al Agami area just to the west. They moved further west in search of pristine seas and golden beaches in the 1980s, and again over the past 20 years ― buying up properties in developments with catchy names like Hacienda Red, Hacienda Bay, La Vista, Bianchi and Caesar Bay.
The latest expansions inch closer to the city of Marsa Matrouh, with new compounds springing up over the past five years near virgin beaches in once-remote areas of the coastline such as Almaza and Sidi Heneesh.
As the years went by, vacationing in Sahel, especially in the “evil” part, has become ingrained in the collective psyche of the rich; a must-have social badge that ensures a place in high society.
“You can buy a decent holiday home in Spain or Greece and use it all year round with the money you pay for a home in Sahel, which you only use in July and August,” said a corporate real estate executive who did not wish to be named because he was not authorised by his employers to speak to the media.
“Buying in Sahel is driven by the community of the super-rich. You are not seen as a member of the elite if you don’t have a place of your own there.
“Come to think about it, you also cannot marry well in Egypt these days if you don’t have a Sahel home on your resume.”