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Doing Business in Egypt

by: Amer Bitar, Associate Partner of Hofstede Insights


Egypt brings to mind an ancient civilization with grand temples and pyramids, the Sphinx, and mummies. For many foreigners, it is little more than the exotic land of pharaohs. And, indeed, ancient Egypt is one of the cradles of human civilization, being closely tied to the Levant and Mesopotamia. This heritage traces back to the sixth millennium BCE, when Neolithic cultures developed independently in Upper (i.e., southern) and Lower (i.e., northern) Egypt. The two regions were first united under a single kingdom around 3150 BCE, inaugurating a series of dynasties that ruled for the next three millennia.

Egypt is a transcontinental country, connecting Africa to Eurasia through the Sinai Peninsula. The Mediterranean Sea marks its northern boundary and the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the Red Sea its eastern border, with Sudan to the south and Libya to the west. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus aptly called Egypt the “gift of the Nile,” for the river that flows through the surrounding desert from the south all the way to the Mediterranean Sea brings life and prosperity to the country. With a population of greater than 100 million, Egypt is the most populous of the “MENA” (Middle Eastern and North African) nations and the third most populous African nation (after Nigeria and Ethiopia).

Arabic is Egypt’s official language and Islam its official religion. Sunni Muslims account for around 85% of the population and Coptic Christians around 10%, with other religions and sects accounting for most of the remaining 5%. Cairo, the nation’s capital, is also its largest city and the largest urban area in Africa and the Middle East, with an estimated population of around 20 million within a greater urban area of 1,709 square kilometers. 

Egypt declared itself a republic after the revolution of 1952 and briefly merged with Syria in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic, which dissolved just three years later. In the mid-20th century, the country endured social and political instability punctuated by a series of armed conflicts with Israel (in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973). The signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978 then ushered in a long period of political stability that came to an end in January 2011 in a revolution associated with the Arab Spring movement fueled by demands for economic and political reform. After several years of uncertainty, the political situation seems to have stabilized in recent years. Egypt currently enjoys economic prosperity and political stability that position the country to be an economic leader in Africa and the Middle East.

Despite its excellent geographical position linking Africa, Asia, and Europe and vast human resources, Egypt remains an underdeveloped country, with a per capita GDP of US$5,500. Its economy is still the second-largest in Africa, though, with a total GDP nearing $400 billion. Recently, the government has been modernizing the infrastructure as part of efforts to ensure that Egypt realizes its economic and human potential as a competitive business environment in the MENA region.

The current economy depends heavily on three sectors: tourism, agriculture, and tolls on transit through the Suez Canal, which serves as a conduit for some 7.5% of the global sea trade. In February 2016, the government launched Egypt Vision 2030, an ambitious plan for sustainable economic and social reform. Accordingly, over the coming decade, improvements are expected in the quality of life throughout the country in terms of reducing poverty, managing population growth, empowering women and young people, building a knowledge economy, and encouraging entrepreneurship through small and medium enterprises. The strategy for achieving these goals is to leverage Egypt’s assets, increase the involvement of the private sector and civil society in national projects, and attract foreign investment in the targeted economic sectors. [1]

The government has set a target for annual economic growth of 6-7% over the next few years as part of a new round of structural reforms. To achieve this goal, the focus has been on developing the manufacturing, agriculture, and information technology sectors. Currently, Egypt’s economic outlook is fairly positive; thus, it was the only MENA country to post growth in 2020 amid the global pandemic. Projections are for real GDP growth of 3.3% in 2020-2021 and 5.6% in 2021-2022. [2]

Egypt represents a very dynamic market with great investment potential. The “Where to Invest in Africa 2021” report identified the country as the most robust market for investment in Africa. [3] Most capital investment has been in the energy, construction, and transportation sectors. Much of this investment has been directed to mega projects such as the new 44-square-kilometer Administrative Capital (with an estimated cost of US$ 1.2 billion for the first phase), the third phase of the Cairo metro and the city’s first sky train, and the development of the Zohr gas field, the largest natural gas deposit yet discovered in the Mediterranean area.


The four points to keep in mind when doing business in Egypt

  1. The pervasiveness of religion
    Religion, specifically Islam, plays a central role in Egyptian culture and society since nearly 90% of the population are Muslims. Muslim Egyptians consider the Holy Quran the source of their values, morals, customs, and laws. The sizable minority of Coptic Egyptians is similarly sensitive about respect for the Christian faith and the social norms associated with it. Though Egyptians are religious by nature, they are open to other faiths, tolerant, and progressive in their thinking. 

  2. The strength of the social class structure
    Social class determines access to power in Egypt. Thus, members of the upper class enjoy preferential access to education and dominate the country’s influential positions in government, industry, and society. Conversely, most Egyptians belong to the lower class and receive relatively little education and low wages.

  3. The central role of the family
    Life in Egypt revolves around the family, and family relations are considered more significant than business relations. Most Egyptians maintain strong ties to their close and more distant relatives alike.

  4. The importance of honor
    Honor in this context refers to respect, admiration, and esteem for others. Building on the previous point, family honor is especially important in Egyptian life. Indeed, an individual’s standing in society is inseparable from that of his or her family. Accordingly, an individual’s behavior contributes to, or detracts from, the family reputation. 

What to look for in an Egyptian business partner

When doing business in Egypt, it is crucial to choose a local partner with whom you can build a trusting and lasting relationship. Such a partner must not only have a good understanding of Egyptian culture but also share your firm’s values, mission, and goals. More specifically, look for the following fundamental attributes in an Egyptian partner.

  • Strong connections: Egyptian society is highly collective and built on relationships and personal loyalty. Therefore, you need a partner who is already well-established and respected in the Egyptian business community and can leverage longstanding ties to facilitate your business in Egypt. Simply put, without access to an Egyptian’s personal network, your venture is likely to fail. 

  • Reliability: You need to be able to depend on your partner’s expertise and judgment as you navigate a new market and culture.

  • Trustworthiness: Since the strength of a relationship with an Egyptian is in large part based on familiarity, you need to begin developing a mutual trust with your partner from your first meeting.

  • Experience: Your Egyptian partner should have years of experience working with government agencies and private firms and specific knowledge of the decision-making processes in the organizations with which you seek to do business. Your partner must also understand how to expedite processes in a heavily bureaucratic system.

Business culture and etiquette 

  • The use of titles is an important aspect of Egyptian social life. It is considered impolite to address business associates using only their first names; rather, use the appropriate title followed by the first name. Address women—who do not change their last name when they marry—formally with “Ms.” or “Mrs.” followed by the first name. 

  • Handshaking is a key gesture during introductions and business meetings. Only the right hand should be used as the left hand is considered unclean in Egyptian culture. When a man greets a woman, he only extends his hand if the woman does so first.

  • Egypt has a high power distance culture [6]; thus, the structure of a business is hierarchical. In business meetings, the highest-ranking person leads the discussion and makes the final decisions. 

  • English is widely spoken in the business community. Almost every business enterprise has employees or officers who are prepared to conduct their meetings in English. 

  • The concept of time in Egypt differs from that in Western countries: in general, punctuality is relatively unimportant to Egyptians. Thus, attendees may arrive late for a meeting or ask for a last-minute delay without meaning any disrespect to those who have organized it.

  • Egyptians tend to dress more formally for most occasions than Westerners. Female visitors to Egypt should take care to dress conservatively as well as formally.

  • Egyptians are very expressive, passionate, and emotive, and they stand quite close when they converse. For this reason, it may seem to outsiders that they are shouting at one another or invading others’ personal space. Egyptians also like to use indirect communication, often rephrasing questions so that the other party won’t have to reply with a direct “no.” 

  • Avoid crossing your legs when sitting to avoid showing the bottom of your feet to anyone since doing so is considered offensive.

  • Hospitality is a prominent feature of Egyptian social life, and “welcome” is a word that visitors hear everywhere in Egypt. It is common to be invited to a family meal or to share a cup of coffee or tea even by individuals with whom you are not well acquainted. Customarily, only men pay the bill for a shared meal at a restaurant. These traditions of hospitality trace back to the ancient Bedouin practice of offering food and shelter to travelers across the vast desert. [4]

  • Giving gifts in business contexts is not expected, but doing so can be a welcome gesture, especially when first meeting with a potential Egyptian business partner or when invited to an Egyptian’s home for lunch or dinner. An appropriate gift is often a souvenir from a visitor’s home country, pastries, or sweets. Always avoid giving alcohol or food containing it, since most Muslims do not drink. Also, avoid giving flowers, which are considered suitable only for special occasions such as weddings and visiting someone who is ailing. Always wrap a gift and present it using your right hand or both hands, the left hand again being considered unclean.

  • An informal but polite form of address, and a sign of friendship, for people with children is Abu, meaning “father of,” for men and Umm, meaning “mother of,” for women. Abu and Umm are followed by the oldest son’s name—for instance, Abu Mohamed and Umm Mohamed for the parents of a son named Mohamed. As Egyptian society is characterized by strong family ties, Egyptians consider it important to be identified as a father or mother. In most cases, the identification is with sons rather than daughters because Egyptian society is highly patriarchal.  


Be especially careful with

  1. Maintaining face in Egypt is crucial, so never confront an Egyptian publicly. If it is necessary to correct misinformation or settle a misunderstanding, do so privately and with utmost politeness.

  2. Discussions without results: Egyptians are known among other Arab peoples for their sense of humor and are great storytellers in general.  In business discussions, there can be a tendency to promise things without necessarily being able to deliver on them. For this reason, you need to partner with reliable people that you can count on to achieve your plans.

  3. Negotiations: Egyptians are keen negotiators, so be cautious when closing a deal with an Egyptian businessperson and plan ahead what you hope to achieve.

  4. Offhand comments: When in Egypt, avoid critical comments about Egyptian politics, which can be interpreted as insulting. In general, avoid expressing opinions about Egyptian society, Islam, and other religions or making off-color comments or jokes.

  5. Corruption: Egypt is ranked high in corruption according to the Transparency International Annual Corruption Perception Index 2020 [5]. In fact, corruption was among the primary reasons for the January 2011 revolution that brought the masses out into the streets demanding reform. Corruption manifests in multiple ways in the country, from preferential treatment for certain businesses and people to outright bribery. This widespread culture of corruption leaves businesses reliant on middlemen who are well-connected and are able to obtain certain benefits that would not otherwise be available through what is called in Arabic wasta, literally, “connection” or “intercession.” Another aspect of the wasta system is the frequent practice of hiring relatives and friends. Recently, there have been many attempts by the Egyptian government to arrest public figures accused of various forms of corruption.

  6. Interpersonal interactions: Egyptian society is highly collectivist, and built on relationships and personal loyalties. This is another reason to partner with a well-connected Egyptian business person to ensure that your venture will be successful.

Case Study: Family Patronage 


Ed Ellison is the Head of International Franchising at Glowing Dough, a US-based pizza chain. Recently, Ed signed a three-year master franchising deal with Mohamed Salem & Sons to bring Glowing Dough to Egypt. He has conducted the negotiations with Ezzat Salem, the eldest son of the founder Mohamed Salem and the firm’s CEO. Ezzat lived in Houston, Texas for more than four years while earning an MBA from Rice University and speaks fluent English. He has submitted to Ed an ambitious plan to open 20 franchises across Egypt.

Ed now visits Egypt for the first time to meet Ezzat and hold a two-day training seminar for the franchising team. Before he leaves the US, he shares the schedule and relevant information with the attendees. By the end of the two days, though, Ed is becoming frustrated that the members of the team are consistently late to the sessions and do not seem to act in a professional manner, in particular, making what seem to him exaggerated displays of respect toward himself and the senior members of the Salem & Sons team. In addition, it bothers Ed that Ezzat is practicing nepotism, peopling his team with relatives and close friends irrespective of their qualifications or experience. Soon, Ed begins to have doubts about the franchising deal.


Ed needs to understand the behaviors of Ezzat and his team from the Egyptian cultural perspective. A reflection on cultural dimensions [6] informs us that Egyptian culture is highly collectivist and has a relatively large power distance. 

  • Individualism: Egypt scores 25 in this cultural dimension, making it a highly collectivist society where ‘losing face’ is highly undesirable. Therefore, Ed should speak with Ezzat privately and voice his concerns politely. This way, Ezzat will not feel concerned about ‘losing face’ in front of his subordinates, and Ed can strengthen his business relationship with Ezzat by offering expertise crucial for growing Glowing Dough’s business in Egypt.

  • Individualism: Typically perceived negatively in Western cultures, nepotism is a natural outcome of a highly collectivist society. On the positive side, hiring relatives and friends lowers recruiting costs and employee turnover rates and can create a loyal environment characterized by trust and strong organizational morale. 

  • Power Distance: Egypt scores 70 in this dimension, indicating that its culture is very hierarchical. Thus, titles are important and showing respect toward and special treatment for superiors are fundamental aspects of team behavior. 

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References and useful links

[1] Green Growth Knowledge. Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030. (

[2] Reuters. Egypt economy forecast to grow 5.1%. (

[3] The Africa Report. Africa: Egypt Leads as Most Attractive Investment Market. (

[4] Bitar, A. (2020). Bedouin Visual Leadership in the Middle East: The Power of Aesthetics and Practical Implications. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] Transparency International (2020). Corruptions Perception Index 2020. Retrieved from 

[6] Hofstede Insights. Country Comparison Tool. (

[6] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind (3rd edition). New York: McGraw Hill.


Last updated: 01.04.2022 - 15:02
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