CAIRO — Hold the martini, please.
With fanfare and cheers from Islamists, the first nonalcoholic hotel in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Hurghada has opened, a testament to a new political culture, which seeks at the very least a veneer of piety in a nation caught in the fury of upheaval.
Egypt is mired in political and economic problems. It drifts from crisis to crisis and is headed for a dangerous summer of power outages and gas shortages. Such temporal annoyances, however, have not dissuaded conservative Islamists from trying to bring the nation in closer sync with the Koran.
Les Rois Hotel is marbled, polished and alcohol-free. It has a women-only floor to prevent the commingling of the sexes. The hotel, which speaks to Islamist ideals suppressed for decades by a secular police state, aims to be chaste and profitable during the volatile regional reinvention that has followed the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The hotel has been promoted as an innovative twist on tourism, playing on virtue in an era of uncertainty. Social media reacted with praise, disdain and satire after an opening ceremony this week in which the hotel’s staff emptied bottles of liquor onto the pavement amid background chants of “God is great.”
One tweet read, “Excellent step!” Another ventured, “The signs of the revolution are starting to appear in Egypt.”
Others were less thrilled. “A hotel without liquor? Definitely a silly achievement for the president,” one man wrote.
President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the government, are contending with earthly problems while navigating the spiritual designs of more ultraconservative Salafis. The Salafis, not liberals or secularists, are the Brotherhood’s most potent opposition in the struggle for the country’s character.
The hotel’s opening comes as the tourism industry, which accounts for about 20% of Egypt’s foreign currency, is suffering. Protests and political chaos have kept Westerners and other foreigners away. It is unlikely that Les Rois will make up the shortfall from the loss of legions of Europeans who once kept bartenders busy.
What’s emerging is a question of balance and, ultimately, the nation’s identity.
The pragmatic among the Brotherhood speak of an Egypt that welcomes both the bikini (in designated places, to be sure) and the burka. They say their brand of political Islam will be tolerant and democratic. The Salafis make no such promises, leading in recent years to the emigration of thousands of Coptic Christians.
The manager of Les Rois appeared careful not to send the wrong message. Moments before his staff emptied and broke the bottles of liquor, he spoke of unity: “Muslim, Christian, at the end of the day you are Egyptian.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.