As Egypt’s economic crisis deepens, an affordable meal is hard to find

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CAIRO – The patriarch behind Abou Tarek, one of Egypt’s most famous restaurants, can always count on the koshary.

A mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, peas, fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce, koshary is one of the cheapest and most popular meals in Egypt, full of carbohydrates and proteins that can keep even the hungriest customers full all day. Everyone here eats it—from the rich to the poor.

But with food prices rising rapidly in the face of a growing economic crisis, even the cheapest food will be more expensive to make – hitting the limits of kingpins like Youssef Zaki, the owner of Abou Tarek, and pockets. of ordinary Egyptians.

Just when Egypt was hoping to recover from the epidemic, which saw the major tourism sector come to a standstill, Russia invaded Ukraine. The war started a series of unintended consequences throughout the region, hitting Egypt hard.

Foreign investors withdrew billions of dollars from the country within weeks of the attack, disrupting the economy. Egypt also imports more wheat than any other country – much of it from Russia and Ukraine. Wheat and oil prices began to rise while tourism numbers fell again due to long reliance on Russian and Ukrainian tourists.

Rising food prices around the world are putting staple foods out of reach, from Nigerian rice jollof to Russian pasta and Argentinian meat.

Egypt is currently facing its worst period of inflation in years, and ordinary Egyptians are paying the price.

Food and beverage prices are up 30.9 percent since this time last year. At the beginning of this year, the official exchange rate used to be 15.6 to the dollar. Now it sits at 24.7. On the black market, one dollar can be sold for as much as 33 pounds. Banks are limiting dollar withdrawals to try to keep money in the country. Many Egyptians are cutting back on entertainment – from skipping meals to postponing weddings – in the hope that costs will soon drop.

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Fortunately for Zaki, koshary remains a staple in the Egyptian diet.

To avoid raising prices that Zaki knows his customers can’t afford, Abou Tarek has made his shares smaller. However, their customer base has dwindled. With more staff between the kitchen, waitstaff and delivery team, Zaki now has the same number of staff to pay as before – less money to do so.

The same customers who never buy “a big plate of koshary, they can buy a small one,” said Zaki, sitting on a plastic chair on the street outside, as passing fans gave him the famous treatment, interrupting interviews to take photos with him. he.

He said: “Instead of three meals, people can eat one or two.

Blaming the crisis solely on the war in Ukraine “will not be true at all,” said Egyptian economist Wael Gamal. Years of borrowing and investing in mega projects made Egypt more vulnerable, he said. Those projects were supported by President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who took power in a military coup in 2013 and has made infrastructure development a hallmark of his presidency.

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In December, after months of negotiations, Egypt announced that it would receive a loan of 3 billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund – including 347 million dollars to be paid immediately. This is the fourth IMF assistance to Egypt in the last six years.

Egypt’s economic problems, Gamal said, “are getting worse every time they go to the IMF and take more loans and pay off old loans with new loans.”

Zaki’s restaurant, which has been successful since the ’90s – and was even featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” – gave him enough of a cushion to weather the storm. After selling kosher all his life, first from his father’s food cart and later from his restaurant, Zaki has watched prices rise and fall over time. “But never be like this,” he said.

In the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, an island on the Nile, Ahmed Ramadan, 27, serves about 700 orders of koshary and other snacks each day. Most of his customers are students and working class workers who go there every day.

Compared to others in his low-income community of Imbaba, Ramadan considers himself lucky. He has a stable job, and can walk to a koshar restaurant in Zamalek every day without worrying about the rising costs of travel. For his neighbors, “the situation has gotten worse,” he said. “They must live and eat only vegetables and rice. What can they do?”

Supply costs have risen so much that a few weeks ago his restaurant stopped serving its cheapest koshary portion – covering the selection on their menu with a piece of tape. So far, Ramadan said, he can buy a ton of rice for about 8,000 Egyptian pounds. Now, he said, it is worth 18,000 pounds. The value of his pasta supply increased by 6,000 pounds. Even the plastic containers and bags they use to pack food are more expensive than before.

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But customers still show up. “People have to eat,” he said.

Nearby, in the Agouza neighborhood, Medhat Mohamed, 47, stood behind the counter of a roadside restaurant selling taameya (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (bean) sandwiches. Both are vegetarian staples in Egyptian cuisine, but consumers are starting to make them outside, said Mohamed and his colleagues.

Last year, sandwiches sold for three and a half pounds. Now they cost four and a half.

“The war in Ukraine caused the prices of flour and oil to rise,” Mohamed said. “When that increases, everything else increases.

Now, some poor customers buy pieces of falafel instead of a sandwich, put it on bread and get the subsidy program, just to save a few pounds.

Even if the restaurant doubled its prices, the restaurant’s manager, Sayyid el-Amir, said, “we will not make a profit.”

Most other stores are closing, he said, but he will do everything he can to avoid layoffs. “Any one of these workers has three to four children,” he said, pointing to Mohamed and other men, including one frying raw falafel in a pan of oil. All restaurant workers have other jobs, delivering goods or working in other restaurants.

“It’s amazing how people survive,” he said.

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