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This Ramadan, food prices change Egypt's longstanding Iftar customs

Surging food prices force Egyptians to strictly stick to the basics ahead of Ramadan.
People buy traditional lanterns and foodstuff ahead of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan at the market Sayyida Zeinab district, Cairo, Egypt, March 12, 2023.

CAIRO — Life is no longer the same for cattle trader Bahaa Mahmud. When the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approached in the previous years, Mahmud put together large amounts of food in preparation for his charity iftars —the evening meal following a day of fasting from sunrise to sunset—.

Mahmud would erect a tent outside his shop in Giza province, place dozens of chairs around the tables inside the tent lit with colorful lights and wait for the poor to arrive and break their fast.

"These charity iftars offered people respite from their poverty during Ramadan," Mahmud told Al-Monitor. "Many of those coming would request takeaway meals for their children and family members at home."

Charity iftars — a basic feature of Ramadan in predominantly Muslim Egypt, the most populous Arab nation — were Mahmud's way to please God during the most sacred month of the year for Muslims.  

The iftars are organized by the rich for the poor in public places, to attract passersby and those in need. They are a symbol of solidarity between the rich and the poor at a time of the year when Muslims have to abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk.

Mahmud used to cherish this experience every year, donating the necessary financial resources to organize the iftars together with some of his fellow traders.  

This year, however, skyrocketing food prices are depriving him of this experience.

"I will need three times more money to organize the same iftar this year," Mahmud said. "This is far larger than my abilities and the abilities of everyone I know."

Spiking food prices are changing the habits of most Egyptians, especially the poor and members of the middle class.

The Islamic month of Ramadan is one of fasting, but it is also one of heavy food consumption. In the past, Egyptians have welcomed Ramadan by stockpiling large amounts of food and beverages, which accounted for a noticeable surge in food consumption during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and thus a surge in spending on foodstuff.

This surge in spending was probably why Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi advised Egyptians in March 2022 to economize on food consumption during Ramadan.

The rise in food prices seems to succeed this year where the advice of the Egyptian leader failed last year.

As they prepare to start fasting later this week, Egyptians find themselves in a different economic position than previous years, with many facing food insecurity.

"I am obliged to give up most of the things I used to buy to prepare for this month," Salma Sayed, mother of two, told Al-Monitor. "Nobody anywhere in this country can cope with these prices."

Sayed, a call center agent with a monthly income of 4,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $133), did not buy dried nuts and fruits this year like she did in previous years. She also plans to stick to the basics when Ramadan starts to be able to get to the end of the month.

"We will give up all types of animal proteins," Sayed said. "I feel really afraid that I cannot put food on the table for my children if my salary runs out before the end of the month."

Food prices have almost doubled in Egypt since March 2022. The price of beef jumped to 280 Egyptian pounds ($9) a kilo (roughly 2 pounds), from 180 pounds (around $5.80) in March last year. The price of boneless chicken rose to 170 Egyptian pounds ($5.50) a kilo, from 70 pounds ($2.30) a kilo in the same month.

Russia's war on Ukraine has caused a sharp rise in commodity and food prices in the international market, including import-dependent Egypt that was hard hit.

Egypt imports the vast majority of its food from the international market, including wheat, maize, cooking oils and animal fodder.

"The rise in the prices of food on the international market has ratcheted up pressures on foreign currency reserves," Khaled al-Shafie, head of local think tank Capital Center for Economic Studies, told Al-Monitor. "Egypt is badly in need of producing alternatives for these imports to reduce this pressure."

Apart from having to pay more for its imports, Egypt also had to depreciate its national currency several times this past year, making the pound lose over 50% of its value.

The depreciation of the Egyptian pound made commodity prices overshadow the money in people's wallets, regardless of its amount.

"The price spike has caused a significant slowdown in market activities," Magdi Tawfiq, deputy head of the herbs section at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, told Al-Monitor. "People are either buying smaller amounts, compared to the past years, or not buying anything at all."

This stagnation is clear in Sayyida Zeinab, the poor's mecca of Ramadan-related items in the heart of Cairo.

Containing some of the nation's oldest mosques, including the centuries-old mosque of Al-Sayeda Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, this district turns into an open-air market for Ramadan-related products weeks before the Islamic month starts.

On the sidewalks, herb shops display colorful dried nuts, dates and fruits below colorful, locally made and imported lanterns. Passersby rub shoulders and look, but few can afford to buy the wares on display.

A man raised his eyebrows in shock, when a dried nuts and fruits seller told him that a kilo of cashews sold for 500 Egyptian pounds ($16.30).

"Can anyone believe this," he asked as he turned his back on the seller. "You can buy a quarter kilo, if you want," the seller replied. The man continued walking.

Mindful of the toll the latest economic changes are having on people in a country where almost a third of the population of over 100 million is poor, the government has opened hundreds of outlets where food sells at discounted rates.

On March 17, Sisi also launched a huge campaign for the distribution of 5 million food boxes to the poor around the country, but the question is whether this will alleviate the hardships suffered by millions of Egyptians this Ramadan.

Salesman Ahmed Ali said he would not invite his brothers and sisters to his house to break their fast this year, for the first time in many years.

"I used to invite them once or twice during Ramadan," Ali told Al-Monitor. "This was always a good chance to meet family members, but with these food prices these gatherings will be unaffordable for people like me."

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