Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 09:37 UK

Egypt tastes Ramadan austerity

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

Mandarine Koueider
For those that can afford it, sweets are a must for breaking the fast
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is now in its fourth week and for many Egyptians this year the physical struggle of enduring the customary daily fast has been combined with financial difficulties caused by rising inflation.

Food queues have become a common sight in Egypt in recent months but the one which forms outside the Mandarine Koueider store in central Cairo is different.

Each afternoon there is a festive atmosphere as long lines of people wait to buy traditional Arabic sweets to eat after the iftar meal which breaks the daily fast.

"Every day during Ramadan I go and buy desserts," says Hassan clutching two neatly-wrapped packages.

"Today I'm having iftar with a friend. He wanted basboosa and I wanted baklawa so I bought both."

"I got basboosa and kunafa for my family," says Riham, a smartly-dressed woman. "You must have some sweets after your meal in Ramadan. I come here every year."

But for poor Egyptians it is hard to afford the usual Ramadan fare. A few miles away in the Tawfikiya souk, Laila, a middle-aged housewife furrows her brow as she considers prices at a vegetable stall.

This evening she and her sister are preparing food for a dozen relatives.

"Things that we used to buy for one Egyptian pound we now buy for two pounds. What was ten pounds is twenty," she complains.

Food inflation

Laila says that she never bought subsidised food in the past but now relies on it, buying her full rations from state-run bakeries and grocery shops. Yet the week before Ramadan started even the cost of some subsidised goods went up.

Basboosa: Dessert made with semolina and yogurt, then soaked in a rose water syrup
Baklawa: Sweet layered pastry filled with nuts and syrup or honey
Kunafa: Cheese cake, with shredded wheat, syrup, ground nuts and raisins

"In Ramadan people should have mercy and not exploit others," Laila says.

"At this time there is a higher consumption of food because we have a lot of invitations and invite people to iftar."

As a net importer of food and energy, Egypt - with its large population of about 75 million people - has been hit hard by price increases on the global market.

Economist, Dr Samir Radwan, has been comparing this year's figures to those for 2007.

"In July inflation was 22% and food inflation 25%, by August overall inflation had risen to 25% and food inflation was 35%.

"These are very telling numbers and they immediately translate into an erosion in the income of the poor because they spend two-thirds of their incomes on food."

Other indicators show the Egyptian economy is performing well. Reforms have helped push the overall growth rate above 7% and exports and foreign investment have soared.

However benefits are not yet trickling down to the poor.

Charity reliance

The government has raised the salaries of 6 million public workers by 30% and restructured subsidies but Dr Radwan says this has not achieved the desired effect.

Food prices
Food prices have doubled since Ramadan last year, shoppers say
"There's a rough, back-of-an-envelope estimate that all the improvements in salaries and subsidies have added 18% to the income of the poor but at the same time the increase in prices resulting from removing energy subsidies and liberalising some commodity prices have resulted in a loss of 19%."

Economists are now advising on further short-term measures to protect the poor and long-term measures to boost investment - particularly in agriculture - reform the salaries system and improve productivity.

With more Egyptians in need this Ramadan there is greater reliance on charity.

This is traditionally provided in the form of zakat (alms) and sadaqah (handouts) as well as iftar feasts which are set up in the streets.

During the holy month shopkeepers in the Zamalek area of Cairo provide free food to up to 200 people every day.

"Anybody passing who can't get iftar at home can get it here," says an organiser, Khaled al-Howary.

"We have meat, rice and salad. A kitchen here makes it and everyone has his own meal."

But some imams have commented that increasing living costs are affecting people's generosity.

With Eid al-Fitr - the feast marking the end of Ramadan - now approaching they've appealed to Egyptians who can afford it to remember the many struggling to make ends meet.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific