/ 29 March 2024

Egyptian inflation hits Ramadan menus

Gettyimages 1252006747 2 (1)
Expensive: People eat their fast-breaking evening meal at a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt, during the holy month of Ramadan. Photo: Lobna Tarek/Getty Images

Like millions of Egyptians, Iman Ibrahim, a housewife in Cairo, traditionally buys large quantities of chicken and red meat ahead of Ramadan.

Protein-packed meals are essential after lengthy hours of fasting, especially for the children in her family of five. But this Ramadan she’s learning new cooking tricks (from the social media accounts of other housewives and content creators) to get the protein.

These tricks include “the poor kebab”, so named because it’s made from potatoes and smoked onion and “faux soup”, made from boiled onions with spices.

Cutting red meat out of kebabs, and chicken or meat stock out of soups, is the only way she can afford to get by this season. For chicken meals, she makes do with wings, heads or feet. A whole chicken costs 150 Egyptian pounds (R60) and her husband, an accountant, makes E£3  000 a month.

A severe shortage of hard currency in the import-dependent Egypt has led to several currency devaluations over the past few years, including one that came days before Ramadan. 

Food and beverage prices keep surging. The state statistics agency’s data shows that consumer prices rose by about 6% between January and February alone.

Egyptians on the street would say that the numbers don’t show even half the picture.

Nesma Anwar has taken Qamar eldin, the popular Ramadan drink, off her menu. Made of dried apricot paste, its nutritional value and natural sugars make it ideal for breaking the fast. 

But it now costs E£100 — up from E£30 last Ramadan — so she has resorted to an alternative recipe that uses artificial food colours. She suspects that turning to less nutritional food options has contributed to her son’s severe anaemia.

Sharing her husband’s E£5 000 monthly salary, Rabab Mahmoud has to make similar cuts. 

The Suhoor meal, which Ramadan observers have before sunrise to prepare for the day’s fast, used to include eggs, fava beans, and cheese.

The beans have gone from E£34 a kilogram last year to E£100. A carton of eggs has gone up from E£120 to E£150.

She said this has forced her to make cuts: “We just have cottage cheese for Suhoor.”

In this austere environment, content on economical recipes has garnered thousands of views on social media. Most of it is on cheaper alternatives to animal protein. 

In one video, a woman teaches people how to make four meals out of one chicken. Another shares her recipe of pasta and a small amount of chicken fillets that could feed up to three people for E£80.

Advice on affordable recipes is a useful intervention for some but the seams may not hold very long, analysts fear.

High food prices have often led to political instability in Egypt. During World War I, imperial Britain drove inflation up and caused food shortages in Egypt as it doubled down on extracting resources from its colonies to fund its fighting. This contributed to the 1919 Egyptian revolution. 

In 1977, students and workers protested against then-president Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat over price hikes. Food prices and shortages were also one of the factors that drove protests against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

And some people blame the government for the current situation.

Khaled Rahouma, a professor of economy at the University of Damanhour, said one dimension of the problem is the government’s lack of control over the retail market.

But for all the Egyptian state’s failings, it had little control over some major drivers of food price inflation, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the global economic downturn that followed the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the midst of this crunch, disaster capitalism struck, with grain multinationals driving food prices even higher with speculative buying and hoarding of food.

It is now a problem for Egyptian caregivers and authorities to meet.

And when hacks like cheaper recipe alternatives are not enough, the crisis spills onto the streets. 

In the four years since April 2020, when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, at least 29 of the protests that have happened in Egypt were about the cost of living, according to data from the Armed Conflict and Location Database.

Saied Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, said the demonstrations were unlikely to reach historical levels because Egyptians are disillusioned with the experience of mass protests since 2011’s Arab Spring.

They see them as events that bring chaos and little change. And the state has grown even more repressive against free expression. These bread-and-butter protests might be different from those in 1919 and 1977.

“It will be in the form of sporadic demonstrations in the suburbs that could be reined in, but not widespread protests,” said Sadek.

* The name of the author has been changed because the Egyptian government is extremely sensitive to any reporting that suggests things are not going well for people.

• This article first appeared in 

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