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

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CAIRO – The old man behind Abou Tarek, one of Egypt’s most famous restaurants, has always relied on koshary.

A mix of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce, koshary is one of the cheapest and most popular dishes in Egypt, packed with carbs and protein that can keep even the hungriest customers going all day. Everyone here eats – from the richest to the poorest.

But food prices are rising rapidly in the face of growing financial problems, even the cheapest foods are becoming more expensive – hitting the margins of koshary kings such as Youssef Zaki, owner of Abou Tarek, as well as pockets. the common Egyptians.

As Egypt hopes to recover from the outbreak, which has seen its tourism industry collapse, Russia has invaded Ukraine. The war caused a series of unexpected problems throughout the region, hitting Egypt hard.

Foreign investors left billions of dollars from the country within a few weeks of the destruction, disrupting the economy. Egypt also imports more wheat than any other country – most of which comes from Russia and Ukraine. Grain and oil prices began to rise as tourism figures also fell due to long-term dependence on Russian and Ukrainian tourists.

Rising food prices around the world have led to food shortages, from Nigerian jollof rice to Russian pasta and Argentinian meat.

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

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Food and beverage prices are up 30.9 percent since this time last year. At the beginning of this year, the government’s exchange rate was 15.6 to the dollar. It is now on 24.7. On the black market, one dollar can be sold for up to 33 pounds. Banks are reducing the withdrawal of dollars to try to save money in the country. Many Egyptians are giving up on mistakes – from eating out to delaying weddings – in the hope that prices will drop soon.

Fortunately for Zaki, koshary is still a staple of Egyptian cuisine.

In order to avoid raising prices Zaki knows that his customers cannot afford, Abou Tarek has made his portions smaller. Despite this, their customers have dwindled. With more employees between the kitchen, waiting and delivery teams, Zaki now has employees who have to pay as before – less money to do it.

The same customers who once bought “a big bowl of koshary, they can buy a small one,” said Zaki, sitting on a plastic chair on the street outside, while passing fans gave him the familiar support, interrupting the interview to take pictures with. he.

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

Blaming the crisis on the war in Ukraine “can’t be true,” said Egyptian economist Wael Gamal. Years of borrowing and investing in capital made Egypt vulnerable, he said. The projects were promoted by President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who took power from the army in 2013 and has made infrastructure development a hallmark of his leadership.

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

Egypt’s financial crisis, Mr. Gamal said, “gets worse every time they go to the IMF and take more loans and repay old loans with new loans.”

Zaki’s restaurant, successful since the 90s – and featured once on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” – gave him enough time to weather the storm. Having sold koshary most of his life, first from his father’s food cart and then from his restaurant, Zaki has seen prices rise and fall over time. “But don’t be like this,” he said.

In Zamalek, a Nile island, 27-year-old Ahmed Ramadan gives out about 700 koshary and other food every day. Most of his customers are students and working people who go there every day.

Compared to others who live in the low-income community of Imbaba, Ramadan considers himself lucky. He has a steady job, and can go to a koshary restaurant in Zamalek every day without worrying about the high cost of transportation. For his neighbors, “things keep getting worse,” he said. They have to earn their living and eat only vegetables and rice. What can he do?”

The purchase price was so high that a few weeks ago his restaurant stopped serving its cheaper koshary section – covering the selection with duct tape. Until recently, Ramadan said, he could buy a ton of rice for about 8,000 Egyptian pounds. Now, he said, it costs 18,000 pounds. The price of his pasta has 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 are still showing up. “People have to eat,” he said.

Nearby, in the Agouza neighborhood, Medhat Mohamed, 47, stood behind a roadside restaurant selling taameya (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (bean) sandwiches. Both are vegetarian dishes in Egyptian cuisine, but customers are starting to do without, Mohamed and his colleagues said.

A year ago, sandwiches sold for three and a half pounds. Now they buy four and a half.

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

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

Even if the restaurant doubles its price, the store’s manager, Sayyid el-Amir, said, “we don’t make much profit.”

Many other shops are closing, he said, but they will do everything they can to avoid layoffs. “Each of these workers has three or four children,” he said, pointing to Mohamed and other men, including one tossing raw falafel into an exploding pot of oil. All of the restaurant staff also have other jobs, delivering or working in other restaurants.

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

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