Cairo's rising prices bring home the cost of global turmoil

Scenes from an open-air food market show struggle of ordinary Egyptians to cope with high inflation

A woman buys potatoes at a market in the Abdeen district of Cairo, Egypt. EPA
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Pensioner Nadia Ibrahim is a regular at the outdoor food market in Cairo’s middle-class Abdeen district.

With every trip she makes there, she pays more for roughly the same amount of shopping. Prices do not rise significantly from one week to the next, she says, but the small hikes have added up over the months, meaning that now she must forgo some items and buy less of others.

“They move up in a quiet and sneaky way, but they don’t escape my attention,” she said as she walked the market’s dusty and narrow streets one recent morning. “It does not surprise me any more. I have grown accustomed to what to expect.”

Ms Ibrahim, who lives with her husband of 45 years in a four-storey apartment 10 minutes' walk away from the market, finds it a stretch to make ends meet on the couple’s meagre pensions.

Their lifestyle, already austere, has become even more so.

Her day-to-day struggle is shared by the overwhelming majority of Egypt’s 104 million people since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, beginning a war that Egypt’s government blames entirely an economic crisis at home the like of which has not seen in decades.

Russia and Ukraine together produced about 20 per cent of global wheat exports at the start of the conflict, as well as globally significant quantities of cooking oil. The two countries accounted for 80 per cent of wheat purchases by Egypt, one of the world biggest importers of the grain.

Already among the most indebted nations in the region, the crisis in Egypt is defined by double-digit inflation — nearly 26 per cent year-on-year in January — that is mainly driven by soaring food prices.

The local currency has lost about 50 per cent of its value since March last year. The country faces a foreign currency crunch caused mainly by a higher import bill and the flight of foreign investment from its once-attractive debt market.

On her latest shopping trip to the market, Ms Ibrahim bought a kilogram of chicken breasts for 190 pounds, or about $6. That is 100 pounds more than what they cost a year ago. The vendor told her she was lucky to be getting the meat for 190 pounds when it should have been more after he trimmed the fatty parts.

“I know that 190 is too much for most people. The demand has been so down for chicken breasts that several of their outlets in the market have closed down,” the seller, a heavily-built man in his 40s, told her as he sliced the chicken breasts with a knife.

The next stop was a wooden pushcart loaded with tomatoes where the woman selling them pointed matter-of-factly to a pile of inferior quality tomatoes when Ms Ibrahim protested about the price of the better ones.

“Tomatoes are not crazy any more,” the trader said, referring to the name “el outa el magnouna” — “the crazy tomatoes” — that Egyptians have given tomatoes because of their price volatility.

“I am just trying hard to sell enough, so I keep the price unchanged, but people are not buying them so much now,” she said.

Ms Ibrahim’s next call was at an egg shop, where a tray of 30 cost 50-70 pounds a year ago but now sells for 120 pounds. She bought 10 of the tastier but more expensive free-range eggs for 4.25 pounds each. On her way home, she grabbed five “free market” loaves of balady, Egypt’s traditional flatbread that costs nearly twice as much as it did a year ago.

Ms Ibrahim said the market, a maze of narrow streets where stray dogs comfortably share space with humans, sees fewer shoppers than it did a year ago, so the vendors plead desperately with shoppers to buy. However, she did not rule out that the cold spell Cairo is experiencing this month was a contributing factor.

The Abdeen market, like many others across the city of 20-plus million, is a strictly no-frills affair. There is no fancy packaging, no eye-catching displays and very few imported items. Sales are cash only, and haggling over prices is common.

The market caters mainly to the poor and middle class, the two population segments hit the hardest by the rise in prices since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi embarked on an economic reform programme that reduced state subsidies and introduced new taxes.

The market’s streets are lined with wooden pushcarts loaded with vegetables, fruits and balady bread. The tiny stores behind the carts sell a wide range of goods, from poultry and groceries to eggs and live chickens.

There are a handful of relentless beggars hoping that some shoppers will be generous enough to spare some cash.

“Help me buy rice for my children,” one beggar says.

“I want to buy bread for my family,” says another.

“Ya Allah, take pity on us and make things easier!” cried a man selling vegetables off a rickety stand, in an apparent entreaty to God on behalf of both shoppers and vendors.

His supplication was instantly echoed by another vendor a few metres away. “Make it better, ya Allah!” he screamed in a heart-rending sandpaper voice.

Both men complained that business had been down for months, with shoppers buying less and tirelessly searching for bargains.

President El Sisi has said it would be unreasonable to expect the government to control food prices at all outlets, and suggested that Egyptians punish greedy sellers by boycotting them.

He has also taken issue with media coverage of the price increases, saying that too much was being written about the subject.

“Why are you portraying Egyptians to be thinking only of food?” he said in televised comments aired in late January. “Like price hikes are the end of the world. I am not saying it’s not true, I am just saying it’s not the end of the world.”

The government has spent billions of dollars to shield the most vulnerable Egyptians from the increases, including subsidies on bread for nearly 70 million. It has also made sure that all essential food items are available, although at prices set by retailers.

Reflecting on eight years in office, Mr El Sisi spoke this month about the challenges facing his nation and likened his job to “holding a ball of fire”.

Responding to criticism of his economic policies, he accused parties he did not name of seeking to undermine the trust in the relationship between Egyptians on one side and the government and himself on the other.

In comments made at last week’s World Government Summit in the UAE, he spoke about building 24 new cities since he came to office in 2014, including a new, ultra-modern capital in the desert east of Cairo. He also mentioned an extensive network of new roads, new sea and air ports, hundreds of bridges and new modes of transport running on clean energy.

“There’s very big inflation in Egypt, but Egyptians have endured and continue to endure these conditions,” he said.

Ms Ibrahim, 74, is doing exactly that, she says, eating less meat and chicken and making do with local cheeses rather than the European brands that were affordable not long ago.

“I don’t think things will get better any time soon or prices will return to where they once were,” she mused as she navigated her way through the market.

“We have no choice but to muddle through with contented souls, tied lips and vexed minds,” she said with a hint of bitterness mixed with resignation. “I had never thought my life will be entangled with politics, which I had never paid attention to.

“Now, virtually overnight, my quiet life has been impacted by the war in Ukraine and the rise of the dollar’s value against the pound.”

Updated: February 24, 2023, 6:00 PM