Monday, February 20, 2012

The Game of Egyptian Customs

In today's connected society, shipping overseas is normally no big deal. Shipping from the US to Europe, where a letter would once take months to arrive, can now have a package delivered from the source to your door in under one week. With express air shipments and rush deliveries, this wait time is often even cut in half. In most countries you would declare the contents of your package, pay the pre-determined customs and taxes fees and be on your merry way. Egypt however, is not most countries.

I have tried my hand at shipping through the mail here only to have my package go missing. It is for this reason that when asked by people "can we mail things to you," the answer is almost always "no." The chances are high that your package will be lost in the mail, and in the event that it does reach you, you're going to have to pay close to 50 % of the value of the contents in customs. This means that when working with a rescue as I do with the Continental Rescue and Rehab, the many people who are willing to send horse supplies overseas are time and again told "sorry the Egyptian shipping customs make it too expensive." The option is usually to wait for someone travelling from the country of origin, and for them to pay excess baggage fees to transport the items back.

A single traveller transporting goods ended up not being enough for a batch of items that were scheduled to be sent to the CR&R from Switzerland. One volunteer gathered an astonishing 200 kg of items donated to be used for rescue horses in Egypt [Although the majority of these items never made it to the CR&R]. Through many telephone calls and e-mails, it was agreed upon with Swiss Air that the cargo would be delivered for a fraction of the cost, as it was intended for non-profit purposes. Not only this, but the cargo was earmarked as 'gifts and donations,' and the point of contact in Switzerland expressly stated "With this receipt of shipping you should be able to pick up the cargo from Cairo Airport and walk out."

Oh if only life in Egypt were that easy.

Now, I personally did not go to pick up the cargo. The following events are reported by my source who went to collect the items from Switzerland himself. We shall call him G (Name withheld for privacy purposes).

Upon arrival to the airport in Cairo, G asked where he should go to collect cargo items. Initially he was taken inside the airport by doorman number 1. He walks G to big-wig number 1's office. In this office, G again requests to know where he should go to collect cargo items from Swiss Air.

Big-wig proceeds to blow a lot of smoke up Gs backside, and instructs doorman number 1 to show G to doorman number 2, who will take him through to the cargo hold area. Doorman number 1 of course holds out his hand expectantly, as he obviously deserves a tip for taking G to big-wig number 1. G complies, and discreetly hands Doorman number 1 a 5 LE note.

Doorman number 2 ended up sticking to G for a significant portion of his journey. He takes him through to an office where a Swiss Air clerk is sitting. G tells the clerk that he is looking to collect a cargo sent via Swiss Air, and proceeds to hand the clerk his receipt. (Bear in mind, at this time G is only holding one piece of paper). The clerk tells him that in order to collect his cargo, they need photocopies of his ID, and a variety of other copies. Doorman number 2 interjects here and says "yes, and the photocopies themselves are 5 LE a page." To this, G turns away from doorman number 2, and asks the clerk how much he should pay. She informs him "2 LE per page." And so the system of corruption begins.

Once G has spent about 2 hours being bumped from one person to the next, he is finally taken to the cargo hold. He describes it simply as "looking like an outdoors market in downtown Cairo." There were boxes everywhere. There were people everywhere. There was no coordination, nor any clear indication of which cargo corresponded to which airline or delivery system, or which was staying in Cairo and which was being collected.

Finally inside the actual cargo bay, G is taken to big-wig number 2's office. Here, he is again asked to present copious amounts of paper. Big-wig number 2 tells G, "here is where we are going to determine the price of your customs." There was no set method of calculation. There was no percentage of the shipping that would be earmarked as customs. No, there was nothing of the sort. What there was, was a pencil-pushing accountant with a calculator, who was an "expert on assessing value of goods sent." Now, remember earlier I had mentioned that our source in Switzerland specifically stated there would be nothing to pay in Egypt? Yeah, okay thought so.

With that in mind, G keeps stressing these are gifts, these are donations, these are to help the horses. Big-wig number 2 says "Okay if these are gifts and not for sale I demand that you open all the boxes and show me everything." From what I have been told, many of the items were in such great condition that they appeared new, despite being donations of used items. The pencil-pushing accountant wanders up, takes a look at all the items in the boxes, and says "these items hold an approximate value of no less than 30,000 LE," and fair customs in their eyes can often be 25 % - 50 % of the items anticipated value.

Despite G's continued prostrations, big-wig number 2 does not want to hear any of it, and tells him "either you are going to agree to pay the customs, or we will keep your items in hold." Ahhh, and here's the catch. To keep your items in hold, you are charged the "land fee," as they politely referred to it. I should add, even if you are there, ready and waiting to collect your cargo as it arrives, you will be expected to pay this land fee.

When G inquired how much this "land fee" was, he was told "Ya3ni it depends. For the first day 100 LE, for the second day 150 LE, sometimes it is 200 LE." End all and be all, they will charge you whatever they feel is a fair land fee. [no comment needed here].

After a good few hours debating back and forth with big-wig number 2, G has at least 4 figures thrown at him for what the pencil pushing accountant sees as "fair figures" for a customs charge. Most of these figures total more than the actual cost to originally ship the items. In order to collect the items, G has to sign a receipt that also marks the cost of the customs fees. The first few figures he was thrown were not written down, merely verbally presented to him. By the last figure, big-wig number 2 grabbed the receipt, wrote down the final figure, and told G "if you want your things you will be paying us this."

Now, G had arrived to the cargo bay anticipating having to pay 'baksheesh,' but not anticipating having to pay an extortionate amount in customs fees. The closest ATM was back at the airport's main terminal, too far to walk after spending all morning on his feet. Luckily enough for him, there were taxi's roaming around ready to take him the short journey to the airport terminal. Let me make a note here, anybody who has taken a taxi into the airport knows there is an entrance fee of 5 LE. This fee, however, is a one time fee, thus meaning once the taxi is inside it does not have to pay the fee again. G's taxi tells him with a straight face, that for a 500 meter journey he wants 15 LE. Why? "Because sir I have to pay to get into the airport." After much fandangaling, G finally manages to get to the ATM and withdraws cash.

Returning to the cargo bay to collect the items, G had to provide the people who had been helping him throughout the day money "for their tea." I found this the most creative way to ask for under the table tips, that you should somehow feel obliged to pay for these boy's tea. Only in Egypt.

Once the boxes came out of the cargo bay, the madness began. Pick up trucks zoomed up to the area, with one box after the next being whisked away. G and his partner literally had to stand over their boxes to ensure that they would not get picked up in the confusion and sent somewhere else in Egypt. While they were loading their items onto the van, of course there were more boys there waiting to help in exchange for the cost of their daily tea.

When G finally had his cargo loaded onto the transport truck to deliver the things to Hurghada, he breathed a sigh of relief thankful that he could finally leave the airport. Oh if only it were really going to be that easy.

While attempting to leave through the main terminal, there were no less than 5 boys lined up, hands out, waiting for their tea money. The final obstacle was the soldier that sat at the front entrance to the terminal. As G approached, the soldier asked him "where have you been, and what have you been doing?" G explains that he's been dealing with customs for the better half of the day and is finally ready to leave. "Where is your receipt sir that proves this?" The receipt was upstairs in the administration office alongside the many other stacks of paper that had been shoved into his hand throughout the course of the day. The soldier, when realising G was not in possession of the receipt, said "if this is the case you must bring everything you just brought through customs to me, in order for me to inspect it and make sure you are really telling the truth." This is a door soldier...this guy has nothing to do with customs, it's just one more tier in the pyramid of corruption that is Cairo Airport's customs. Final result being, a folded bank note discreetly shoved into the hand of the soldier and a plea to "please just let us leave and be finished with this place."

I suppose at least that day, everyone had their tea paid for.


  1. They're a flaming joke (if it wasn't such a serious topic) total lack of coordination and hierarchical infrastructure, full of greed. They expect charity but don't give a damn when an actual charity needs things.

  2. I can so relate to this. We just arrived on January 9th. Unfortunately on an Egypt Air flight because they will only send a pet as cargo, not unaccompanied baggage. We did the same trail of back and forth through the many customs buildings. haggling over our dog, until many papers were accrued and much money was paid and they finally released the poor thing after seven hours on the ground - more than 24 hours in the cage. I I guess the same calculator guy was figuring out what we owed because they even asked how much we paid for him! I lied, of course. Purebred Boxer for $100. (Hey, he's five, I figured depreciation.) Thank God they didn't know any better. If you arrived with your pet as excess baggage, you walk out of the terminal with it, no fees at all. The cargo people are making some serious money on a daily basis. It was not a good welcome to Egypt. Fortunately, the last month has been pleasant after the shaky start.

  3. The port is no different, we import furniture from the UK for furnishing second homes in Hurgahda and Sahl Hasheesh. We have carried out many shipments and each time we are asked for different paperwork, even the banks that have to sign the papers off want something. We are used to paying 60-70% in taxes which should only be 40% however, on our last shipment the customs decided our invoices (original from our suppliers) didn't have the right amounts on them so increased by £4,000 meaning we paid 120% in taxes. This country is shocking when it comes to bringing items in. If you don't pay it they keep the containers and charge $600 a day per container as penalties!!