Pepsi out, local brands in as Egyptian soft drinks get a political flavour

Wholesalers are stuck with stocks of western brands they cannot sell because of anger over the companies' perceived support for Israel

Egyptians are boycotting western soft-drink brands over their perceived support for Israel. Getty Images
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In the Cairo neighbourhood of El Korba, an affluent sector of the larger Heliopolis district, Ali Hussein, 59, waits for a delivery of soft drinks for his grocery shop.

His shop, like many others in the area, has a small Palestinian flag displayed in the window as a mark of support during the Israel-Gaza war.

For the third week in a row, he has refused discounted offers from wholesalers for any drinks made by Pepsi or Coca-Cola, companies whose products have fallen out of favour with some Egyptian consumers over accusations by rights organisations that they support Israel.

Since the start of Israel's war in Gaza, many Egyptians appear to be boycotting western-made products and franchises over their perceived support for Israel.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola, usually popular choices for thirsty Egyptians, are among the products being criticised.

In my 40 years in the business, I haven’t seen people this committed to a boycott
Ali Hussein, Cairo shopkeeper

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a Palestinian-led campaign against Israeli products, has denounced Coca-Cola for operating a factory in the Israeli settlement of Atarot in the occupied West Bank.

Pepsi also came under fire from Palestinians rights activists over its 2018 acquisition of SodaStream, an Israeli-based soft drinks manufacturer. BDS called for a boycott of its products the same year.

Shopkeepers told The National that their sales of Pepsi and Coca-Cola have plummeted, while sales of locally made alternatives such as Spiro Spathis soared since the Israel-Gaza war began on October 7.

“There have been many other boycotts of various imported products over the years,” Mr Hussein says. “A few years ago, people boycotted Danish products. But in my 40 years in the business, I haven’t seen people this committed to a boycott.”

Cairo's Syrian restaurants, many of them established by Syrians who settled in Egypt since the civil war broke out in 2011, are among those who have dropped western products.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi products are less visible in Cairo's lower-income neighbourhoods, but outlets in affluent neighbourhoods like New Cairo and Sheikh Zayed have continued to offer them to customers, one observer said.

“In Downtown Cairo, there isn’t a can of Pepsi or Coca-Cola in sight. But I was at a restaurant in Sheikh Zayed recently and there was a fridge full of both and there were some customers drinking it,” said Farida Ibrahim, a Heliopolis resident.

“But to be fair, I have also sensed that restaurants who offer Pepsi or Coca-Cola are feeling a certain shame over it and they display it on a bottom shelf or out of sight,” she said.

The country's drink wholesalers have suffered financially from the boycott, one told The National, explaining that many have amassed stocks of Coca-Cola and Pepsi that they had bought before the war broke out and are now unable to resell.

“All the sellers we deal with are asking for local alternatives like Spiro Spathis or Oso Blanco and nobody wants Coca-Cola or Pepsi,” said Rashid Al Zayat, a soft drinks wholesaler.

“I have tried to explain to sellers that they are not hurting Israel by not buying our wares, they are hurting us, and we are Arabs, not Israelis.”

Wholesalers faced with a drop in profits have begun to mandate that for every carton of local drink a seller purchases, they must also buy a Coca-Cola or Pepsi, Mahmoud Mohamed, 62, the owner of grocery shops in Greater Cairo, told The National.

“They can’t really force us to do that, but they have been pushing us hard,” Mr Mohamed said.

While some grocery shops and restaurants have switched to local soft drink manufacturers, others have joined a new trend of mixing their own in-house carbonated drinks.

Spiro Spathis announced earlier this week that its sales have increased by 500 per cent since October 7.

Since the start of the Israel-Gaza war, the company's owners have adopted a pro-Palestinian narrative in media interviews and launched a patriotic social media campaign.

The company was launched by Spiro Spathis, a Greek immigrant to Cairo in 1920, and in 1998 was acquired by Sabsa, a small producer of beverages.

Its owners said that their grandfather was forced to shut down his business in the economic downtown after Egypt's 1967 defeat by Israel, and linked their current upturn in fortune to patriotism during the current Israel-Gaza war.

"The 1967 defeat changed our company's course and the Gaza war has given us the kiss of life," three members of the Morcos family told local outlet Al Masry Al Youm on October 31.

Although it started out selling the drink at eight Egyptian pounds ($0.25) per bottle – the same price as Coca-Cola and Pepsi products – the company has begun raising its prices to retailers as demand has increased, Mr Mohamed said.

At the same time, the company has continued to advertise its products as costing only eight pounds.

“I have stopped dealing with Spiro Spathis after they raised their prices. I find something unsettling about the way the company is exploiting the boycott to make as much profit as possible, at the expense of sellers like me who can’t raise prices on customers and have to carry the loss out of pocket,” Mr Mohamed said.

“I think what people were expecting was that the businesses expressing solidarity with Palestine on social media would suddenly reorient themselves to value justice over profit, and that is just not how business works, especially now with everything getting so expensive,” he added.

“The boycott over Gaza was the best advertising campaign Spiro Spathis could have hoped for. It came at a perfect time and they didn’t have to pay a penny, they merely had to position themselves right to massively increase sales.”

The rejection of Pepsi and Coca-Cola in Egypt is in line with a regional trend.

Arabs across the region are boycotting western businesses, particularly American ones, reflecting anger over the US support for Israel in the Gaza war.

Updated: November 17, 2023, 6:00 PM