Cairo’s Al Fagala district is the go-to place for school supplies in the Egyptian capital, its streets and alleys usually packed with shoppers every September, ahead of the new academic year. But not this year.
With barely two weeks to go before Egypt’s public schools reopen on September 30, crowds were sparse when The National visited on Wednesday.
“Demand is very low this year, it’s very disappointing because we rely on the school season to make the highest profits all year. People browse for a long time before only buying the necessities,” said Ibrahim El Sayed, who owns a stationery shop in Al Fagala.
Parents say they are buying less because the cost of books and stationery has doubled since last year.
This is a reflection of the record high inflation being recorded in the Arab world’s most populous nation – with almost 110 million inhabitants.
At the same time, the Egyptian pound has lost more than half of its value against the US dollar after three devaluations since March last year.
This has increased costs for sellers of school supplies, most of which are either imported or manufactured locally using imported materials.
“Everything has doubled or more,” said Amal El Refaey, a mother of three browsing at Al Fagala.
“Pens that used to cost one pound [$0.03] are now two pounds. Notebooks – and not the nice, bound kind – that used to cost three pounds are now six or seven pounds,” she said.
“But the really big issue for me was the prices of additional books this year, which my children need to pass their exams.”
Most schoolchildren in Egypt do not rely on education materials offered by the Ministry of Education, which parents and teachers consider to be seriously lacking.
They also require textbooks outside the ministry’s curriculum to do well in the subject they are learning.
Unlike the ministry's materials that are provided free of charge and online, these additional books cost money, and this year their prices have increased beyond the reach of Ms El Refaey.
“My eldest daughter is in her final year of school. The book that was requested by her private tutor costs 850 pounds," she said.
“For what? It’s just some paper. How can it cost this much?
“I cannot afford it. She will most likely have to borrow it from a friend of hers and photocopy the parts that she needs as the year progresses.”
Because of the high prevalence of private tutoring centres Egypt, much of the country’s education is actually in the hands of the private sector, with little input from the state.
Each private tutor gets to outline the education materials that students enrolled in their class have to purchase.
Most of them devise their own textbooks and charge the students for them as another means of making an income, Ms El Refaey said.
“They usually make a deal with a printing shop to make copies of their textbooks and sell them to students. The shop gets a cut of the profits and the teacher gets the rest,” she said.
Because of the ongoing economic crisis, some tutors have started to sell their textbooks by the chapter to ensure that those who cannot afford to buy them all at once do not fall behind the rest of the pupils.
The government has tried to help struggling parents by selling school supplies for up to 30 per cent lower than market prices at expos called Ahlan Madares – Welcome, Schools in Arabic – being set up across the country.
These are organised jointly by the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade, the Cairo Chamber of Commerce and the Consumer Protection Agency of Egypt, said Mohamed Hassan, head of the Cairo chamber's stationery division.
“There are certain controls we have placed in the Ahlan Madares expos to ensure that citizens can afford school supplies this year,” Mr Hassan said this week.
“The chamber organised over 200 sellers to display their wares at each expo, which increases competition, that in turn brings down prices. The Consumer Protection Agency’s role is to ensure no seller is displaying unreasonable prices.”
One of the expos opened on Thursday in Cairo's Nasr City district, with colourful backpacks on display alongside an array of stationery items.
Mohamed Sameh, a father of two who was among the small group of shoppers, said he did not think they would help families save any money.
“Yes, it’s true some of the items here are cheaper than most places in Cairo. But the cheap items are of really low quality, they are virtually unusable. I tried out one of the cheaper notebooks today and it ripped when the pen went across it,” he said.
“So, in reality very few people will accept the quality of the cheap items.
“They will have to bite their tongues and buy the more expensive ones that can last their child longer in school.”
Families struggling to afford school supplies do have other options. Used backpacks, pencil cases and uniforms are available at informal markets all over Cairo for a fraction of the cost of new ones.
Unauthorised copies of textbooks can be found at Soor El Azbakeya in Cairo, a place known for selling all kinds of printed material, for a fraction of the price.
The problem is that these counterfeited books are usually from the previous school year, which means students run the risk of studying material that is not in the curriculum of the current year.
However, with prices so high, Egyptians must make do with what they have, Ms El Refaey said.