Cairo's barflies wait for Brotherhood's take on beer

A view of mosques in Cairo as the sun sets

This was the first Ramadan marked by Egyptians in the post-Mubarak era and with the country now ruled by an Islamist president, some are speculating whether some of Cairo's more secular ways will go.

It is the eve of Ramadan and I am sitting in one of Cairo's thriving downtown bars a stone's throw away from Tahrir Square, drinking what I fear is my last ice-cold bottle of Egyptian beer for at least a month.

It is loud, smoky, hot and crowded.

Around me the clientele, a mix of old Christian men, liberal Muslims, self-styled revolutionaries and ex-pat journalists, crowd round square tables that are too small to hold the dozens of beer bottles piling up on them, or accommodate the ever-increasing circles of drinkers on rickety wooden chairs.

Meanwhile, the typically surly barman stomps up and down carrying armfuls of beer, thrusting the green bottles into any outstretched hand he sees. He pops the metal tops off with one swift, well-practised movement.

There is not much drinking time left.

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Even in cosmopolitan Cairo it is impossible to ignore how at odds the bar scene feels with Egypt's strong Islamic culture”

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Tomorrow will be the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and in an hour the bar, like many others across the across the city, will close its doors in accordance with Egyptian law.

In Egypt, Ramadan means 30 days of fasting, praying, late night feasts, television soap operas and no alcohol.

That is nothing new. In past decades the country's military leaders have tried to appease Islamists by closing the bars during the holy month, while tolerating them for the rest of the year.

But now things are different.

When Egyptians chose the Muslim Brotherhood's Muhammad Mursi as their new president last month, they put an Islamist in charge for the first time in their history.

As the night draws to an end, and the drinkers pay their bills and file out into the still-sweltering night, many are wondering how long it will be until Cairo's bars will be forced to close for good.

As a rule, it is not difficult to get a drink in Cairo.

Beer bottles Egypt has a long history of brewing beer

As well as the tourist hotels and restaurants, there are at least a dozen small local bars, existing on alcohol licences dating back to the 1950s and 1960s and attracting local Egyptians with cheap beer and even cheaper decor.

If you do not want to leave the house, a chain of off-licences, appropriately called Drinkies, will deliver beer, wine and spirits direct to your door on the back of a moped.

Nor is alcohol a recent foreign import. Stella, the most famous Egyptian brand, proudly reminds its drinkers on its bottles that it has been brewed and sold here for the last 115 years - that, one bar owner is keen to point out, makes Stella 30 years older than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even the ancient Egyptians were partial to a drink. According to an Egyptian proverb dating from 2200 BC "The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer".

But even in cosmopolitan Cairo it is impossible to ignore how at odds the bar scene feels with Egypt's strong Islamic culture.

From Our Own Correspondent

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Egypt is simply a religiously conservative place.

The mosques not only dominate the Cairo skyline, they are on every street corner, wedged between shops and cafes, under flyovers and in the basements of buildings. Islam is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

"When people drink alcohol they lose their minds and make problems on the streets," says Ahmed, a quietly spoken man in his late twenties.

He is neither a Brotherhood supporter nor a Salafi, but his prayer callus - a dark bruise on his forehead caused by repeatedly pressing it to the ground during prayer - shows that he is serious about his religion.

"People should be free to drink as they chose in their own homes," he adds, "but eventually they should close the bars."

He, like many other Egyptians, thinks that President Mursi, frankly, has bigger fish to fry than worrying about alcohol laws.

The economy for one needs desperate attention, then there is the enormous task of overseeing Egypt's seemingly endless transition of power from military to civilian rule.

Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi President Mursi's '100 day' plan focuses on bread, rubbish, fuel, security and traffic

The Brotherhood itself is also keen to promote its economic and political plans, rather than its views on social issues like beer or bikinis.

But for secularists, the attitude of the Islamists towards alcohol is at least an indicator of how far they want to push their religious agenda.

A few days later and it seems my fears of a Ramadan beer drought were misplaced, as I find myself again drinking beer in a downtown bar that has simply relocated to a discreet backstreet with a "members only" sign at the door.

My friend Hassan, a 22-year-old secularly-minded Muslim is there.

He says that for him beer laws are not about getting drunk, they are about freedom of choice.

"I don't like people telling me what I can and can't do," he says, as the late Ramadan night merges into early morning. "That's not the kind of country I want to live in."

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