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THE RISE AND FALL OF ALEXANDRIA'S COTTON EXCHANGE

Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, November 1, 1997
extended version in "The Egyptian Bourse" published by Zeitouna 2010

ALEXANDRIA'S FUTURES MARKET is one of the oldest in the world. The first locally recorded cotton transaction took place in 1865 in Alexandria's Café de l'Europe on Place des Consuls which was later renamed Mohammed Ali Square. It was there that cotton merchants met and cut deals based on supply and demand for the long staple Karnak and Menouf or the short to medium staple Ashmouni, Giza and Zagora. Over the years, deals extended to cotton seed varieties such as Hull, Afifi and Sakellaridis.

The first cotton dealmakers eagerly waited for the weekly arrival of the news-sheets from Europe to guide future operations. Reputation counted for everything. Cotton growers who delivered on time were courted by exporters and received large orders the following season. Timing and reliability was of the essence if profits were to be made.

From Café de l'Europe cotton dealmakers moved to a nearby building. As business grew, the Association Cottoniere d'Alexandrie (later the Alexandria General Produce Association or AGPA) was created for the purpose of trading in cotton, cotton seeds and cereals in the spot and future markets.

In 1899, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, AGPA moved to an imposing new building henceforth called The Bourse. Situated on Mohammed Ali Square the Alexandria Bourse quickly became a city landmark featured on postcards, books and city guides. In more ways than one, the bourse was the focal point of the city's financial community. The Association's old premises meanwhile, was transformed into a bank, and later on into the Top Hat night club.

In 1909 cotton forward contracts were legalized so as to coincide with Egypt's recovery from a massive economic slump brought on by the financial crash of 1907 when banking and real estate institutions collapsed due to excessive speculation. So far, government intervention had been practically absent. On the other hand, the spot market of Minet al-Bassal was left alone until 1931.

Of the 35 registered cotton brokers in 1950, only two were Egyptian. Likewise, the directors of the Alexandria bourse were an uneven mixture of Egyptians, Levantines and Jews. It's veteran president was Jules Klat Bey from Syria. Despite its ethnic mixture AGPA had come a long way from when Britons controlled it through two of Alexandria's largest cotton exporters, the Carver and Moss families. And when a Carver scion married the Moss heiress, they held an even stronger grip on this lucrative export market. Similarly, cotton ginning mills were controlled in great part by foreigners foremost among them were Selig Kusel from Manchester, the Plantas from Liverpool, the Lindemann's from Prague and Dresden, and the Choremi-Benachi-Salvagos representing the Greek Connection.

Up until the 1950's most of the trading was done with the Liverpool Cotton Exchange evidencing Egypt's strong ties with the waning British Empire. The powerful Manchester trade relied heavily on this staple which was responsible for untold fortunes made in the UK. Not unlike oil today, Egyptian cotton trade was politicized during the interwar period figuring as a clause in most of Egypt's international agreements. It had become a major bargaining tool used as collateral for Egypt's currency.

There were also the Joint Egyptian Cotton Committee and the Cotton Institute, two highly respected institutions affiliated with the International Cotton Congress. With time, more and more Egyptians entered the trade once the jealously guarded preserve of the Finneys, the Rheinharts, the Rolos, the Cicurels and Pintos. Newcomers included Talaat Harb Pasha, a founder of the Banque Misr group of companies, and Mohammed Farghaly Pasha, president of the Alexandria Cotton Exporters Association. On the expert side, there was Ahmed Abdel Wahab Pasha, a former minister of finance, and Fouad Abaza Pasha the director of the Royal Agricultural Society.

Just as the native intelligentsia was to have its turn at the helm, agricultural trade was brought within the aegis of the state through a series of 1950s agrarian reform laws. Henceforth, the agricultural sector mutated into unprofitable small holdings and bureaucratic cooperatives. A few years later, the bourse itself was nationalized by Egypt's rising strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Capitalism went into rigor mortis and soon enough King Cotton suffered the same fate.

Ironically it would be from the parapet of the Alexandria Bourse that Nasser first grabbed international media attention. This took place in July 1956 during his epoch making speech when he announced to the world that he had nationalized the Suez Canal Company. For a brief period, the Alexandria bourse building had become more that a definitive symbol of Egypt's thriving cotton-based capitalism.

Fourty one years later, King Cotton is being painfully resurrected.

articles posted on egy.com were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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