“I don’t fill the electric kettle to the brim anymore; I boil only enough water for my cup of tea,” “I do better; I stopped using the electric kettle altogether and shifted back to the stove teapot,” “Every lamp that needs to be replaced I replace with an LED one,” “I’m pulling out my old clothes—they are worth revisiting,” “The sugar crisis hasn’t affected me one bit; I don’t add sugar to either my coffee or tea,” and “I refused to buy Mawlid (birth of Prophet Mohamed) sweets this year; it was so expensive, it wasn’t worth it.”
Peculiarly, this is what Egyptians tell one another today; in addition, they are buying Egyptian products, the ones they disregarded and discarded for decades. “Do you realize that we pay 120 million dollars to import American apples, and that’s before the pound devaluation? That’s insane!” “Can’t we weave our own prayer carpets, for heaven’s sake? They cost a fortune,” or “Where can one find Shabrawichi perfume products? I used to love 555,” and “I bet Nabulsi Shaheen soap would do wonders for my hair.”
These are only a few of the comments I heard in the last little while. These comments mirror Egyptians’ reactions to the recent economic challenges.
After the floatation of the pound and the restrictions on power and fuel subsidies, Egyptians are trying to adjust to the hikes. They realized that money does not grow on trees and what it, money, brings in today is less than what it brought in yesterday; hence, they are applying all the thrifty tactics they can think of to get more out of the same pound, an excellent approach if I may add.
Egyptians are now fully aware of the dilemma they face. They had lived in la la land for too long, and the time has come to pay the expected dues, so they are succumbing to the changes. But is it out of frugality, necessity, or common sense?
I had gotten myself worried sick about how Egyptians will react to price hikes, which seemed to have engulfed every single item whether local or imported from an arugula bunch to hefty salmon fillets, from sugar to Nescafe Gold, and from key lime to designer shoes. I worried because I didn’t know how Egyptians would take the surge in prices. I shouldn’t have though since Egyptians proved my fretting unnecessary.
From previous experience, the bread riots in particular, Egyptians don’t take sudden increases in staple foods well. In 1977, when President Sadat axed flour, rice, and cooking oil subsidies so as to meet the conditions of the International Monetary Fund, 79 people were killed and hundreds injured during the resulting riots. Soon afterwards, the government backed off and re-instituted the subsidies.
Since then, no leader considered axing the exorbitantly costly subsidies as they bulged further year after year. I wondered if similar reactions would take place after the floatation of the pound.
And yet this time round, Egyptians watched, perplexed, true, but accepting. Even the call for a November 11 stand off was quickly ignored. In fact, acceptance is the name of the game today. Surprised, I ask myself and you, why?
Don’t get me wrong; Egyptians are stunned and bewildered; what they bought yesterday for LE 10 is now worth LE 25. And yet they joke about it, draw cartoons about it, and make videos where some scatter brain frugally makes juice from a mere drop of fruit juice or a sliver of banana, but that is as far as the discontent goes.
Let’s figure out the main reasons for this mood. First, though Egyptians aligned themselves with January 25th, the revolution didn’t give them what they expected. In fact, many an Egyptian believes that the anguish existing today is a reflection of this same revolution, for coinciding with it foreign reserves dwindled, tourism got squashed, and extreme economic measures left Egyptians facing harsh times.
So they wonder what another upheaval may inflict upon them, and they conclude that they are better off not stirring more ripples.
Second, they look around them only to realize that despite the shortages and the pound devaluation they are so better off than neighbouring countries and its citizens who’ve lost lives, shelters, and the clothes on their backs, and became refugees. Egyptians then thank the lord for the safe environment and the potential for a better one.
Third, they are hopeful that tomorrow will bring a better life. Egyptians believe in today’s leaders and that they are working hard for them. Indeed, no leader could’ve taken bold moves such as floating the pound or cutting subsidies had he not bet on Egyptians standing behind him. Though necessary, such moves were risky, volatile ones. But finally someone was gutsy enough to go ahead and get it over and done with while facing the music head on, and Egyptians did not disappoint him.
More importantly, those in the needy brackets are supported by better wages, more commodities added to the ration system, pensions such as “Takaful and Karama,” and subsidised power if they consume less.
The wealthy, those who still insist on buying Dolce Gabbana sunglasses will be hit hard, but I’m sure that they can afford such “necessities.”
The pendulum has swung steeply and swiftly, the change never experienced before, and in the process a new Egyptian is born, one that dwells on matters before reacting, one that was bitten once and is not ready to head that route once more, and one that believes in the efforts that are being made.
It is frugality, necessity, and common sense combined.
The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.