Tough times in Egypt: Stronger together

Jailan Halawi, Saturday 29 Apr 2023

When the going gets tough in Egypt, greater solidarity can be the most effective solution to a wide range of problems. 

Egyptian solidarity
Egyptians defeating hardships by sharing together their limited resources (photos: AFP)


Uniting in the face of danger and strong social support systems have always been distinct traits of Egyptian society.

During the colonial period, Egyptians eventually liberated themselves by forming cells of resistance that dealt the enemy severe blows, forcing them to evacuate the country.  Later, when facing natural disasters like floods or earthquakes, Egyptians have stood together, in many cases sharing not only their food but also their houses.

Even in the chaotic time during the 25 January Revolution when the police disappeared from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, neighbourhood watch groups led by young men sprang up to fill the void. Driven by the imperative of community defence, these committees spread throughout cities and villages.

Such a defiant spirit is an inseparable component of the Egyptian character. People often say that the best thing about Egypt is its people, who are always willing to help no matter how limited their resources might be. Help in Egypt also has many forms, material or moral, and it manifests itself best at times of crisis.

The major challenge for many people today is the state of the economy, which has come under severe pressure over the past year. The Egyptian pound has been tumbling, foreign currency drying up, and inflation soaring. The latter has taken its toll on many goods, raising prices drastically.

Grocery prices have gone up dramatically, and money is worth half of what it was a year ago. The prices of basic food commodities have been increasing day by day, including those of cooking oil, sugar, lentils, rice, and even Egyptian baladi (flat) bread.

All households whatever their incomes have been affected by the price increases and are trying to make ends meet. For many, eggs are now a luxury, with prices going up to LE90 for a pack of 20.

Meat can be a dream, with a kg reaching up to LE320. Even those who can afford such basic needs are burdened with medical expenses and education fees. There is even a joke among many that all social classes have now taken one step down the social ladder towards poverty. 

Nevertheless, Egyptians are again using the weapon of social solidarity to overcome their ordeal. “In Egypt, solidarity is not restricted to those with more supporting those in need. It extends to those in need sharing whatever scarce means they have in a magnificent demonstration of kindness and compassion,” said Um Islam, a domestic helper in her late forties and a single mother of five children.

Her eldest son is 25 years old, and her youngest daughter is 18 and in her first university year. Without the help she receives from well-off people in her neighbourhood and from the families she works for, “I would have never been able to provide for my family, especially after my husband passed away two years ago,” Um Islam explained.

From the Cairo suburb of Al-Zawya Al-Hamra where she lives, Um Islam recounted many stories of people standing together with their limited resources in the face of the rises in prices. “We don’t have much to share, but here in Al-Zawya I can share my only pack of sugar or rice with my neighbour so both our families can have something to eat,” she said. 

Um Islam makes between LE200 to LE300 per day, but sometimes she does not have work every day, and even if she works all week, “I can barely afford bread and cheese to feed my children. Now chicken and meat are out of the question. We only get to taste them when people I work for or charities distribute meat on special occasions like the Eid Al-Adha or other religious occasions,” she added.

Other women interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly in Al-Zawya Al-Hamra seconded Um Islam’s account, explaining that despite always being short of money, this year the situation had got worse. “We are used to tough living conditions, but we could spare some money to buy clothes for our children and eat meat once a month. This year, we can hardly afford our meals,” Um Hussein, a street vendor, said.

Um Hussein, is the mother of three, and her husband does not work. Sometimes, she takes out loans from credit unions since what she earns barely provides for food. If she cannot pay the interest on the loans, Um Hussein resorts to “charity people” to help her pay her debts. These are taken out in emergency situations that her normal earnings cannot honour.

Um Hussein told the Weekly that her first loan was to pay for her husband’s hospital bill last year, when he had to pay LE5,000 to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in one of the government hospitals.

“My neighbours collected the money for my husband’s admission, but his stay and treatment needed more, so I had to take out the loan. Of course, I could not afford to pay the debt until one of our district’s charity organisations paid it in my stead,” Um Hussein explained.


Such stories of solidarity and kindness are widespread in Egyptian cities and villages.

In Fayoum governorate, the Weekly encountered many examples of social togetherness. “The smallest act of kindness can make people happy,” said Omayma Baarour, a middle-aged lady who works as a cook in an ecolodge in Tunis village.

Despite being a low-income citizen herself, Baarour is very active in raising funds through the people she meets to help people in Kharabet Al-Sheimi near Markaz Al-Seddik in Fayoum. “People here call it Ezbet Al-Sheimi because they are embarrassed by the name, but it is called Kharaba not Ezba,” Baarour explained.

Whereas kharaba literally means “ruin”, or an area where people live below the poverty line, ezba can mean something more like neighbourhood or a small settlement.

In comparison to her neighbours, Baarour lives better than many of the people around her. ”At least I have a job and a fixed salary and can provide for my children’s basic needs,” she said. Despite being in need, the people in the area all share anything they might have, be it food, clothes, or even utilities.

Most houses are made of mudbrick and have very little to no furniture. Some do not even have mattresses to sleep on, and of course having a refrigerator or a television is often an unaffordable luxury.

Yet, those residents who have fridges and televisions share them with their neighbours the same way they share food and drink. Baarour helps a lot with her year-round fundraising to help provide meals, grocery and clothes for her neighbourhood. 

Originally from Cairo, she had a difficult childhood when she experienced the taste of need at an early age. Now the mother of five, she has suffered for years in order to earn a living.

She recounts that at times she could not afford the price of a pack of rice to feed her children. “I know how it feels to be in need. I have suffered a lot and worked hard to stand on my own two feet and raise my children. God has rewarded me, so I decided to use every chance I can get to help anyone in need,” she explained. 

She has met people from different walks of life, and her project to provide meals for the needy during the holy month of Ramadan, which she started eight years ago, has now become a year-round one aimed at providing food, clothes, and even school expenses for students whose families cannot afford them.

“This year, we started a campaign to collect money and clothes for school children and had many volunteers who covered all the expenses,” she said. Donations are not restricted to money. People donate anything from money to old books and even used clothes. Some offer skills like tutoring, or sponsor a child’s education or spread the word about their needs.

“There are many families from Cairo who visit on special occasions. They like to come here and distribute money, food, and clothes personally. We also have school children who tour nearby villages and distribute toys and sweets,” Baarour explained.

Today’s rocketing prices challenge many people in cities too, and there are many social-support groups who provide for the different needs of people in urban as well as rural areas. According to interviews with charity committees and independent social-support groups, the rising prices have not deterred donors from carrying out good deeds in Cairo.

As prices doubled and tripled for basic food stuffs, it was not certain whether this year the Ramadan bags of food and banquets could continue. A Ramadan bag that cost LE200 last year cost over LE500 this year, and it could only contain a two-week supply. However, the giving did not stop. 

“There is little we can do on our own, but together we can do so much,” said Jehan Hassan, a middle-aged lady who is an active member of an informal charity group.

Hassan and her friends raise funds and provide services from their social circles for those in need. These services include paying off the debts of people who fail to do so, collecting monthly payments for low-income families to help them meet their basic needs, and providing medical support if needed.

While they are not always able to solve all the cases they encounter, Hassan and her friends do their best to use their social circles and connections to help the cases they find. “We all need help, not only the low-income people. The financial crisis has hit the different segments of society and the social pyramid is collapsing. What we are trying hard to do is to stand together side by side to survive the challenges,” Hassan said. 

There have been cases of once high-income households that have failed to pay their bills and are struggling to cover their expenses. “There are some cases where we had to collect money from each other at my children’s international school to help some parents pay their school installments,” Hassan explained. 

This year’s major challenge was whether during the current economic crisis Hassan and her friends would be able to continue to care for the needy. “Our greatest challenge is always Ramadan meals and bags, since these require lump sums in cash,” she explained.

Hassan and her friends have a yearly habit of giving over 300 workers at their children’s school Ramadan bags. This year, they needed over LE150,000 to make that possible. At first, it seemed impossible, Hassan recounted, but the ladies did not give up. “We have a very strong social-support system, and we used all our resources to collect donations,” she noted.

Acts of kindness are not only restricted to adults, as children also take part. “We teach our children the importance of giving back to their community and urge them to save part of what they have, be it money, clothes, toys or sweets, in order to give them away,” Hassan said.

Herself the mother of two, Hassan said her experience of charity work started accidently, and she had not had the intention to pursue it so single-mindedly. Her sympathy with a jobless woman who was the victim of domestic violence and was beaten and thrown out of her house by her husband was how Hassan started her journey.

“I did not know the lady but heard her story from a friend. I could not imagine how after 20 years of enduring all sorts of violence an elderly woman could face life penniless, jobless, and homeless,” Hassan said. She wanted to find her somewhere to stay and a monthly pension to support her, and she sent a text message to all her acquaintances on social media to help her.

“I sent the message and went to bed and then woke up to find messages from dozens of volunteers willing to take part. We helped her rent a house and find a job to support herself and her children,” Hassan said.

From this moment on, the work has not stopped. “Giving back to those in need is such a great feeling. Solidarity is an essential part of human nature and is something that all of us can take part in. By giving back to our community, we are helping to make the world a better place to live in,” Hassan concluded.  

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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