Electricity cuts, food costs and politics complicate Ramadan for Egyptians

Even as power shortages fail and staples such as meat, chicken and rice become pricier, Egyptians are still managing a collective solace.

CAIRO // Even as power shortages leave iftars of some Egyptians unusually dark and uncomfortably warm, and even as such staples as meat, chicken and rice become pricier, Egyptians still manage a collective solace during this holiest of months. Year after year, as Ramadan slows everyday business activity, Egypt's frenetic streets bustle with housewives and husbands scrambling to buy essentials for evening banquets and family gatherings.

It is not always a joyous celebration. The notorious traffic of Cairo, the capital, becomes an even worse snarl of exhaust and dissonant car honks. And in some cases, Ramadan can turn political. The ruling National Democratic Party announced it would distribute a million sacks of food to the public, while the opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, said it would hand out its own share. But an unintended result of political handouts, at least in the Dakahliya province, 120 kilometres north-east of Cairo, were scenes of controlled chaos - thousands of residents elbowing and jockeying for the free meat, chicken and rice.

The rush to buy food has helped to send prices soaring, a difficult phenomenon for almost half the population that gets by on average with $2 a day or less. Since the start of the holiday, prices of meat and chicken have surged by more than 5 per cent, according to the ministry of supply. "The distribution of Ramadan bags is the beginning of the election campaign in which votes are being sold, both directly and indirectly, where family, tribal and local influence is on full display, because of an absence of political parties and solid political platforms," said Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of the state-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

On the eve of Ramadan, Aktham Abu el-Ela, the spokesman for the electricity ministry, was reported by Egyptian dailies as saying the ministry sent letters to branches of the religious affairs ministry in all provinces banning colourful decoration lamps, which adds to electricity usage, without permission. Violators would be punished, Mr el-Ela said, noting most of the lamps are hooked up to the main electricity cables provided by the government.

Some heavily populated areas in Cairo, such as Imbaba, Shobra and Ain Shams, had been suffering from electricity cuts, as have several cities in upper Egypt, even before Ramadan, due to the summer heat and more people using air conditioners. But for Mariam Ibrahim, the joy of spending time with friends and family outweighs any of the month's difficulties. "Ramadan is fun," as the unemployed twenty-something, who graduated with a degree in fine arts and lives in Cairo, put it. "We can stay late with our friends more than the rest of the year," she said.

Many Egptians enjoy the Ramadan dramas and television series, of which there are lots to choose from. More than 50 of the overly theatric series were produced in Egypt this year, providing endless late-night entertainment and a daunting amount of advertising to go with it. The public, it would seem, is enthralled by the more politically relevant plot of Al Gamma, or the group, about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood since its founding in 1928. Another one that has caught the public's imagination is Zahra, a series about a woman of the same name, who, throwing tradition on its head, marries five times, each time after divorcing her previous husband.

"Ramadan can't be Ramadan without muselsellat," said Ghada Adel, 42, who works in the admissions office of a private university in Cairo. She's following at least four of them regularly. "I become upset when I miss any episode and try to watch it when they repeat it late at night," she added. Still, some poke fun at their ubiquitous, in-your-face advertising. Amr Selim's tongue-in-cheek cartoon last week in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm read: "The minister of TV series decided to increase the number of series so every citizen will have his own TV series starting next Ramadan, God willing."

Others decry the whole eat-and-watch routine as mind-numbing, or, as columnist Gamal Fahmy of the opposition daily Al Dustor described it, spreading "ignorance and accelerating mental annihilation and achieving maximum of spiritual and moral deformation." For Said Sadek, a sociologist with the American University in Cairo, the concern is more about the torpor of watching hours of television following the typical gorging of iftar.

"We have 30 days of Christmas Eve full of banquets and food," said Mr Sadek. "Egypt consumes three to five times its normal food consumption during the month of Ramadan. They are semi-drugged by media, by food, banquets, The Egyptian society has become a very capitalist and materialistic society, which has encroached on spirituality." @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae