As Egypt’s economic crisis deepens, affordable meals are hard to come by | Daily News Byte

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CAIRO — The patriarch behind Abu Tarek, one of Egypt’s most famous restaurants, has always been able to depend on baskets.

A mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and spicy tomato sauce, koshari is one of the cheapest and most popular foods in Egypt, so packed with carbohydrates and protein that it can keep even the hungriest customers full all day. Everyone eats it here — from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor.

But with food prices rising rapidly in the face of a growing economic crisis, even the cheapest meals are becoming more expensive to make – eating into the margins of basket lords such as Youssef Zaki, owner of Abou Tarek, as well as the pockets of ordinary Egyptians.

Just when Egypt was hoping to recover from the pandemic, which brought its massive tourism sector to a virtual standstill, Russia invaded Ukraine. The war caused a number of unexpected consequences throughout the region, hitting Egypt particularly hard.

Foreign investors withdrew billions of dollars out of the country within weeks of the invasion, disrupting the economy. Egypt also imports more wheat than any other country — most of it from Russia and Ukraine. The price of wheat and oil started to rise, while the number of tourism fell again due to the long-term reliance on Russian and Ukrainian visitors.

Rising global food prices are putting staples, from Nigerian jolof rice to Russian pasta and Argentinian steak, out of reach

Egypt is now facing one of the worst periods of inflation in years, and ordinary Egyptians are largely paying for it.

Food and beverage prices have increased by 30.9 percent compared to this time last year. Earlier this year, the official exchange rate used to be 15.6 to the dollar. It is now 24.7. On the black market, one dollar can be sold for as much as 33 pounds. Banks are restricting dollar withdrawals to try to keep cash in the country. Many Egyptians are giving up indulgences – from skipping dinner to postponing weddings – in the hope that costs may soon drop.

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

To avoid raising prices Zaki knows his customers can’t afford, Abu Tarek has reduced his portions a bit. Despite this, their customer base has declined somewhat. With dozens of employees between the kitchen, wait staff and delivery teams, Zaki now has the same number of workers to pay as before — just less money to do so.

The same customers who once bought “a big plate of koshari might buy a smaller one,” Zaki said, sitting on a plastic chair on the street outside as passing fans gave him the celebrity treatment, interrupting an interview to take photos with him.

“Instead of eating three meals, people could only eat one or two,” he said.

Blaming the crisis solely on the war in Ukraine would be “barely accurate,” said Egyptian political economist Wael Gamal. Years of borrowing and investing in megaprojects made Egypt particularly vulnerable, he said. Those projects were championed by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup in 2013 and made infrastructure development a hallmark of his presidency.

In December, after months of negotiations, Egypt announced it would receive a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund — including $347 million that will be disbursed immediately. It is the fourth time the IMF has helped Egypt in the last six years.

Egypt’s economic woes, Gamal said, become “every time they go to the IMF and take more loans and cover older loans with new loans.”

Zaki’s restaurant, successful since the ’90s — and once featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” — gave him enough of a cushion to weather the storm. Having spent most of his life selling baskets, first from his father’s food cart and later from his own restaurant, Zaki has watched prices rise and fall over time. “But never like this,” he said.

In upscale Zamalek, an island on the Nile, Ahmed Ramadan, 27, serves about 700 orders of baskets and other takeaways every day. Most of his customers are students and working-class employees who commute there every day.

Compared to others in his low-income neighborhood of Imbaba, Ramadan considers himself lucky. He has a steady job and can walk to the basket restaurant in Zamalek every day without worrying about rising transportation costs. For his neighbors, “the situation just got worse and worse,” he said. “They have to make ends meet and eat only vegetables and rice.” What can they do?”

Procurement costs have risen so much that a few weeks ago his restaurant stopped serving the cheapest part of the baskets — covering up the option on its menu with a piece of tape. Ramadan said until recently that he could buy a ton of rice for about 8,000 Egyptian pounds. Now, he said, it costs £18,000. The cost of his pasta procurement has jumped by £6,000. Even the plastic containers and bags they use to pack meals are more expensive than before.

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

Nearby, in the Agouza neighborhood, 47-year-old Medhat Mohamed stood behind the counter of a roadside restaurant selling taameia (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (bean) sandwiches. Both are vegetarian staples in the Egyptian diet, but customers are starting to get by without them, Mohammed and his colleagues said.

A year ago sandwiches were selling for three and a half pounds. Now they cost four and a half.

“The war in Ukraine has led to an increase in the prices of flour and oil,” Mohammed said. “When that increased, everything else increased.”

Now, some poorer customers are buying falafel pieces instead of sandwiches, putting them in bread they get through the subsidy programme, just to save a few pounds.

Even if the restaurant doubled its prices, the store’s manager, Saiiid el-Amir, said, “we wouldn’t make a huge profit.”

Many other stores are closing, he said, but he will do what he can to avoid layoffs. “Each of these workers has three to four children,” he said, pointing to Mohammed and other men, including one tossing raw falafel into a pan of oil. All employees in the restaurant have other jobs, making deliveries or working in other restaurants.

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

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