Every Ramadan, many people complain about rising prices and their inability to meet their basic needs for the holy month due, they say, to price-gouging by vendors.
Some 27 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, said Abu Bakr Al-Guindi, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), and these people in particular may have difficulty meeting their needs this Ramadan.
The struggle to provide is not limited to the poor, however. Even members of the middle classes may have difficulty this Ramadan after the continuous price hikes that have taken place over the past two years and particularly after the devaluation of the pound.
“This is the only month I don’t worry about. God provides with abundance,” declared Um Hussein, a Cairo resident. “There are many good folks. People in my neighbourhood take care of me. Every Ramadan they give me cooked food, and last year they gave me two food bags before Ramadan full of rice, macaroni, tomato paste, sugar and many other things.”
Um Hussein, 47, lives in the working class neighbourhood of Dar Al-Salam in Cairo and is a single mother of three children after her husband divorced her and abandoned the family. She has no regular income.
“I sell some vegetables on the street to provide for my family. Some days we have nothing to eat. Life is very hard, and prices keep going up every day,” she said.
She recalls one day when they had an “indulgent meal” of chicken. “Three years ago, I had LE40, so I bought chicken wings and made soup, moloukheya, and rice. The kids were so excited. I bought some basbousa [a kind of cake] as well so they could taste what it’s like,” Um Hussein remembered. “Today, I can’t even buy a kg of lentils or four loaves of bread for LE40.”
But the poor may be doing better than the middle classes in Ramadan. Um Hussein explained that “I don’t have to buy anything during the month, as people give me bags of food. We eat them all month long.
There is dried food like macaroni, rice, dried beans, flour, sugar, tea, and so on, and then someone will send me cooked meals, like some meat or chicken. Thanks be to God, we manage,” she said.
Mahmoud Asqalani, chair of Citizens Against High Prices, a pressure group, said the poor suffered less during Ramadan compared to the middle classes, because despite their hardships society takes care of the poor, especially in Ramadan, because of increased charitable donations.
“The state and charities also provide assistance such as millions of boxes full of food to assist poorer people during Ramadan,” he said, adding that the middle classes, on the other hand, suffered most because of price-gouging.
“Some people also have a bad habit of hoarding goods before Ramadan, which raises prices at the expense of ordinary citizens,” he said.
“I have not, and I will not, buy anything for Ramadan this year,” declared Ashraf Abdou, a website designer for a private company in Cairo. “Since prices went through the roof two years ago, we have been struggling. Every day it is getting worse. Prices go up, but salaries stay the same,” he said.
On 3 November 2016, Egypt devalued the pound as a prerequisite for a $12 billion loan from the IMF.
While the decision improved the economy and raised the country’s foreign reserves by $17.5 billion in the first 11 months, according to Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) figures, the decision caused prices to skyrocket, poverty to spike, and youth unemployment to explode when private companies laid off workers.
The middle classes almost began to disappear because of the seismic price hikes.
“I earn LE7,000 a month and have two boys in school,” said Ashraf, 37. “I pay LE2,000 for rent, LE400 for electricity, LE1,500 for transportation, and then there is food, tutoring and bills. The money is all gone without paying for healthcare, clothing, outings or anything else.”
“It will be Ramadan soon, and I can’t buy the traditional nuts and dried fruit because they cost LE400 a kg. We can only eat meat three times a month since it costs more than LE180 per kg. Then Ramadan will end, followed by the Eid [holiday]. I won’t be able to buy new clothes for the kids, especially since I have to pay the next installment of the school fees and the school bus which keep rising insanely every year. We definitely cannot afford to go on a summer vacation. How can I afford all these things with LE7,000 a month,” he asked.
Rising prices and low wages averaging LE670 for those working in the private sector, which employs 60 per cent of the workforce according to CAPMAS, have caused the Ministry of Supplies to put forward some solutions in preparation for Ramadan this year.
It declared a state of vigilance a few days before the holy month by contracting a chain of vendors to stock “Welcome Ramadan” products at wholesale prices and 15 to 20 per cent discounts. The Cairo products sale opened on 10 May.
The ministry will take similar action in other governorates until the end of May. It is also distributing one million free food bags during Ramadan to those in need.
The Ministry of Religious endowments will supply 600,000 bags, the ministry of petroleum 200,000, and the ministry of Tourism 200,000.
A committee formed from the ministries of social solidarity, supplies and endowments will distribute donations in coordination with local governments.
“I buy everything I need from the government co-op by my house in Basateen,” a district of Cairo, said Hosniya Ismail, a homemaker. “The prices are reasonable, not like they were in the past, but still reasonable. We don’t buy meat from the butcher anymore because it costs LE150 per kg. Instead, I buy it at Armed Forces meat outlets where it costs LE85.”
Ismail went to a Welcome Ramadan outlet last year and bought her supplies for the month there. “Last year, the products were fine, and the prices were reasonable. Not cheap — there’s nothing cheap anymore — but better than at the supermarket and close to the prices of the co-ops. There were a lot of things available. I went there twice and bought everything I needed for the entire month of Ramadan. I can’t wait until the outlets open this year, and I will shop there again,” she said.
She said she had stopped buying Ramadan nuts and dried fruit three years ago. “Dates, tamarind juice or a cheap sheet of apricot paste will do just as well. No one can afford nuts anymore. I use peanuts and raisins instead,” she commented.
Ahmed Abdel-Zaher, head of the General Union of Co-ops, believes the government has prepared for Ramadan well by supplying the market with basic goods and monitoring prices at its outlets.
It has even reduced prices to make it easier on consumers during Ramadan.
Abdel-Zaher said that all basic commodities were available at government co-ops at fair prices to suit all classes.
“We coordinated with the National Service Agency of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior’s Aman Co-op to provide superior Sudanese meat at LE80 per kg, chicken at LE22 per kg, rice at LE6.5 per kg, best quality macaroni at no more than LE7 per kg, and the best dates from Aswan, New Valley, Siwa and the Delta at good prices,” he said.
He said these commodities were available at all 3,000 government co-ops across the country.
The co-ops are a primary partner of the Welcome Ramadan outlets that began three years ago, along with other partners such as the Chambers of Commerce and some vendors. “These outlets reach everyone, including those who can’t go to the co-ops, and the prices are the same,” he said.
Abdel-Zaher explained that the co-ops have an assistance programme that “tallies the poor in their neighbourhoods and gives them Ramadan food bags that contain two kg of macaroni, two kg of rice, two kg of dates, two cans of tomato paste, tea and sugar.
In Aswan, we distributed nearly 2,000 bags and are planning another 1,000 elsewhere,” he said, adding that the assistance programme operates all year round to orphanages, the poor, and those with special needs.
Asqalani said there were nearly 500 outlets selling meat, including co-op butchers, across the country under the supervision of the Citizens Against High Prices group that sells meat at a stable price of LE75 per kg. “A kg usually costs LE80, but we pressured them to bring it down by five pounds to help consumers and make Ramadan easier,” he said, noting that many people look forward to eating meat and chicken during Ramadan, making them in high demand.
Charities: A Primary Partner
Charities also try to meet the needs of the poor and limited-income families during Ramadan, either by donating Ramadan food bags or through Feed a Fasting Person campaigns.
Some of these charities are main partners in the Month of Goodwill month, which provides services and assistance to families in need during Ramadan in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Armed Forces Public Services Agency.
Ezzeddin Farghali, head of the Regional Federation of Non-Governmental Organisations in Cairo, an umbrella group, said NGOs and charities had donated more than 250,000 Ramadan food bags that would be distributed to low-income and most-needy families before and during Ramadan.
The donations will also include Eid clothing at the end of Ramadan, as well as donations by the Misr Al-Kheir and Orman Association groups of more than one million Ramadan bags.
One woman, Khadra, sitting outside her house in Ezbet Khairallah, a Cairo district, might be targeted by the campaigns.
Now in her 60s, she lives alone in an unfinished house. “I eat anything. I’m not particular. God provides. I live alone, as all my children got married and moved away. No one has time to ask about anyone else, as they are already working hard to make a living. A charity gave me Ramadan supplies last year. I cooked them and thanked God,” she said.
One charity, Misr Al-Kheir (MEK), is planning to feed 10 million fasting people this year, which is double last year’s target, according to Hala Al-Sayed, its media spokeswoman.
“We want to double last year’s numbers through a variety of activities including distributing 420,000 Ramadan food bags, setting up 60 Ramadan tents in 22 governorates, and distributing 500,000 meals through the Feed a Traveller campaign by the end of the month,” she said.
She explained that it was providing the largest family size Ramadan bag, containing 25kg of different foods including seven kg of rice, six kg of macaroni, two kg of sugar, two kg of flour, 500g of fuul (fava beans), 500g of white beans, 500g of yellow lentils, 500g of brown lentils, 500g of wheat, 500g of dates, 500g of dry peas, one kg of vermicelli, 400g of tomato paste, 250g of tea, and 700g of ghee at a cost of LE250.
She added that its campaigns were in partnership with 200 young people, and since last year several other charities had participated. MEK, which started in 2007, focuses on six sectors of development, namely health, education, scientific research, social solidarity, aspects of life and integrated development. “MEK has succeeded in reaching its goal of supporting and assisting families in need all year round, especially in Ramadan,” Al-Sayed noted.
Although in recent years Ramadan food bags have been a more common form of assistance, their numbers have dropped this year due to the high costs of some main consumer goods, and some items are no longer included. Al-Mohandess Mohie, in charge of the Nasser Bank Charity Committee at the Al-Rahman Mosque in Dar Al-Salam, said the committee had prepared 1,000 food bags and would add another 500, which was less than last year’s 2,000 Ramadan food boxes.
“Each box costs LE53 and includes a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, a bag of lentils, a bag of macaroni, a bottle of oil, a jar of tomato paste and tea,” he said.
Last year, the bag cost LE50 and included more items, but this year “we took out the more costly items such as dates, apricot paste, hibiscus and tamarind.”
The high prices have also reduced donations, and this has negatively impacted on assisting the poor and needy, not only in Ramadan but also all year round. “There have been almost no donations at all this year,” Mohie said. “They have been far fewer than last year due to price hikes.”
His committee assists 1,000 families a month, including widows and orphans, with about LE70. “We cannot add more families, unfortunately. Our committee is financially audited, and there are receipts for all our donations,” he said. The committee also provides other assistance and activities such as paying for orphaned young women to get married and eliminating illiteracy.
A form of charity that is a common sight during Ramadan are the Ramadan Tables where tables and chairs are set up in the street to feed people who are poor, in need, or even simply have not made it home in time for Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast.
These free meals are paid for by wealthier residents in the neighbourhood, and they occur daily throughout the month of fasting. However, the recent price hikes have changed this tradition.
Some people have decided not to host the meals anymore, while others have reduced the menu because they cannot afford to pay for the entire month.
“Every year the committee hosts a Ramadan Table for 200 people and relies on neighbourhood donations that have included rice, macaroni, meat, chicken and vegetables about four weeks before Ramadan begins,” Mohie said.
“However, this year the donations came in very late, only 10 days before Ramadan started, and we have only received one quarter of what we usually do so our choices are more limited.” He is concerned his committee will not be able to host Ramadan Tables throughout the whole month because of the reduced donations.
For five years, Ahmed Abdel-Raouf, an engineer living in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, has hosted Ramadan Tables with his friends and neighbours, serving meat, vegetables, macaroni and rice. However, this year the cost is too high, he says.
“Each year, we have fed around 250 people every day at a cost of LE3,000. When we calculated for this year, the cost had jumped to LE7,000 with fewer dishes. So, unfortunately, we decided to cancel the Ramadan Tables,” he said in dismay.
Instead, they will prepare food bags that include ghee, oil, macaroni, rice, fuul, lentils, sugar and dates.
“We will distribute them and hope that this helps,” he said. “I wish the tradition of feeding someone who is fasting had not ended, but we can’t help it. Prices have skyrocketed,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A month of piety and poverty?