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Egypt’s Oldest Companies: An Economic History You Never Knew We Had

Al Ahly Al Ahram Al Ahram Beverages Al Ahram Newspaper Banque Misr Corona Corona Chocolate Egypt Air Egypt Post Suez Canal Suez Canal Authority Tala'at Harb Telecom Egypt We
Egypt’s Oldest Companies: An Economic History You Never Knew We Had
written by
Mohamed Raafat

It would be wrong to think that Egypt’s history is all about the Pharoah’s. We do have some of the world’s oldest monuments, we even have some of the most important sites in the history of the Arab conquests, but few would believe Egypt has a rich economic history too.  Egypt is full of companies that not only shaped our country, but had a significant impact on the region, and some even, the world.  

Banque Misr (1920)

Egypt’s first truly locally owned Egyptian bank was founded by none other than pioneering Arab economist Mohamed Tala’at Pasha Harb early in the 20 century.  In 1920, he established Banque Misr, the first bank in Egypt to be owned by Egyptian shareholders, staffed by Egyptian citizens, and the first bank to use Arabic as the primary language of communication. Talaat Harb went on to open Banque Misr across the region in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen. Banque Misr is so significant in Egypt’s history that it is responsible, almost single-handedly, for the 20th-century boom in sectors like textiles, shipping, publishing, movie making, insurance, and even aviation (they funded the establishment of Egypt Air in the 1930s).  In 2005, they even launched The Banque Misr Museum, established in downtown Cairo to tell the rich economic history of the institution.  

Suez Canal Authority (1858)

Arguably one of the most disputed waterways in the world, and definitely a solid contender for the most important waterway title, the Suez Canal Company was formed in 1858, with the canal itself opening 11 years later in 1869. The opening of the canal was a world event, with dignitaries, kings, and queens flocking to Egypt for the spectacle of the first ships saving over 4,500 miles by sailing through the desert canal.  In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser shocked the world by announcing the nationalisation of the canal, which led to the tripartite aggression; an alliance formed by Britain, France, and Israel to restore ownership of the canal, which Egypt defended successfully.  Aside from being of extreme importance to the global economy as it nearly halves the trip time between Asia and Europe, the Suez Canal is one of Egypt’s main sources of income and foreign currency. In 2020, The Suez Canal generated USD 5.6 billion in revenue.

Al Ahram Beverages (1897)

The story of one of Egypt’s oldest beverage companies started back in 1897 when the Crown Brewery Company began its operation in Alexandria. In 1963, in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era, the company was nationalised, and then 22 years later, the company’s name was changed to the name we all know today, Al Ahram Beverages Company.  Currently, the company is owned and managed by the Dutch-based alcoholic beverages giant, Heineken, and is responsible for producing nine different beers, including Stella, Sakara, Desperados, Heineken, and more. The company also makes non-alcoholic quintessentially Egyptian beverages like Birell and Fayrouz.

Corona (1919)

The Alexandrian Confectionery & Chocolate Company, better known as Corona, was founded by Greek confectioner and Alexandria native Tommy Christo in 1919, and is thought to be the oldest surviving confectionary company in the Middle East. The iconic brand is a household name, and its company logo has made its way into popular culture (it appears on everything from t-shirts and coasters to notebooks) and has an interesting story behind it. Legend has it that when the factory was first built, it had a field nearby where the workers used to play football. A gazelle used to visit this field frequently, and over time, was befriended by all workers. Sadly, one day, according to the company’s website, during a particularly heated game, a player struck the gazelle so hard with the ball (accidentally) it killed the poor animal instantly.  Apparently, Mr Christo was so devastated he decided to honour the friendly gazelle by commemorating it in his company logo, and even mounted a statue of the gazelle at the entrance, which, we are told, still stands today.

Egypt Post (1865)

Believe it or not, ancient Egyptians had a postal service almost 2000 years ago, but it wasn’t until 1821 that today’s contemporary version, Egypt Post, was formed by a gentleman named Carlo Meratti, an Italian living in Alexandria.  After several transfers of ownership within his extended family, the company was eventually sold to Khedive Ismail in 1865. He realised the importance of having a national postal service owned and operated by Egyptians. To celebrate the occasion, the Khedive declared 2nd January 1865 National Post Day (unfortunately, it isn’t a real holiday), and he also went on to issue the first-ever postage stamp issued by an Arab country in that same year.  Established in 1934, we also have the oldest postage museum in the Middle East, which includes private correspondence of some of our most important leaders and public figures, including the royal family.

Telecom Egypt (1881)

The inception of the Egyptian telecom industry was in 1854 when an Egyptian government initiative enlisted the British Telegraph Company to connect Cairo and Alexandria by telegraph line.  In 1881, this was upgraded to a telephone line, and Telecom Egypt was born.  It went through a series of catchy names first, such as Eastern Telephone Company, the Telephone and Telegraph Authority, the Wire and Wireless Communications Authority, the Arab Republic of Egypt National Telecommunications Organization, before becoming the company we all know today.  While it isn’t the most exciting company we have on this list, it is undoubtedly one with the most historical significance as an instrument of its time.  Egypt Telecom carried calls during the British Administration of the then Sultanate of Egypt, and it witnessed calls of palace intrigue during the time of King Fouad I, as well as King Farouk. It carried the plans for the coup of 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser and was used during negotiations for the historic Camp David Accords between Anwar El Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin, the beginning of Egyptian-Israeli peace.  We forget how vital fixed telephone lines are in our modern hyper-connected world; back then, you had a single provider for all communications.

Al Ahram (1875)

Al Ahram Newspaper was founded in Alexandria in 1875 by two Lebanese brothers, Salīm and Bishārah Taqlā.  The newspaper has one of the largest daily circulations of any newspaper worldwide, distributing more than 1.2 million copies across the country.  To put that into perspective, that is more than the New York and London Times combined, with most Western newspapers barely reaching half Al Ahram’s daily figures. The newspaper also has a pan-Arab edition called Al Ahram Al Arabiya, which is either printed or distributed in every single Arab country in the region.  Considering the variety you normally find in the Arabic language, the sheer dominance of Al Ahram for Arab news makes it the most influential source of Arabic language and writing for over 100 years.  Throughout its history, Al Ahram has had a host of notable writers and editors grace its pages, including Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the Egyptian journalist and lead commentator of Arab affairs until his removal as editor of the paper in 1974; Naguib Mahfouz, the world-famous Nobel prize-winning author; Taha Hussein, the so-called Dean of Arabic Literature, Edward Said the cultural commentator and Arab author of the Orientalism; and Ahdaf Soueif, the prolific contemporary novelist.

Al Ahly (1907)

Al Ahly Sporting Club, as it is formally known, was formed in 1907 and is considered the world’s most successful football club in terms of trophies won. It has, to date, 42 national league titles, 37 cup titles, 11 super cup titles, and a record 23 other continental titles such as the CAF Champions League and various African and Arab FIFA organised cup events.  Interestingly, Al Ahly began as a sporting club for the National High School Students Club, which was essentially a political organisation.  The president of the student club, Omar Lotfy, thought it would be a great idea to have a place for all these students to keep fit. The establishment of the club was funded by the National Bank of Egypt (another member of this list of companies), and the first honorary president of Al Ahly was Saad Zaghloul, the then Minister of Education, and future Egyptian Prime Minister and renowned nationalist.  Since its early days, Al Ahly has always dominated Egypt’s football, and it is no wonder it holds and breaks records at Arab, African, and international levels.

Honourable Mention

There are a few companies out there we were, in fact, surprised are less than 100 years old and disappointed we couldn’t include them in our list as they have a reputation for being pioneers in Egypt’s rich history. None more so than Egyptair.  Egyptair is the seventh-oldest airline carrier in the world and became the first-ever carrier outside Europe and the Americas. The company was established in 1932 and predates famous airlines like British Airways, Delta, and Aeroflot.