In Egypt, an exorbitant Ramadan bill

Sunday 26/06/2016
An Egyptian vendor arranges his goods at a market in the neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, in Cairo, on June 14th.

Cairo - A growing consumer­ist culture, media that encourage people to spend all their money and misguided religious discourse contribute to Egypt’s overspending on food, especially during Ramadan.
“Sorry to say all this drives our country over the edge economi­cally,” said Souad el-Deeb, deputy head of the Arab Federation for Consumer Protection, which acts to protect the consumers’ rights in Arab countries. “If our consump­tion level continues as is, we are surely heading full sail towards a financial crisis.”
Ramadan should be a month of fasting for Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population but Egyptians buy far more food during Ramadan than in other months, according to a new government study.
The study, conducted by the gov­ernment-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), said Egyptians spend $4.5 billion on food and drinks dur­ing Ramadan. It said $675 million is spent on tea during the month and 72,000 tonnes of poultry, including 36 million chickens, are consumed in the same period.
This is almost 30% more than other months of the year, the study said. Economists say the figures are not consistent with tough econom­ic conditions in Egypt.
Since the 2011 popular uprising, Egypt has used most of its foreign currency reserves, lost foreign cur­rency earners to political unrest or terrorism and has waded deeper into debt. Egypt’s foreign cur­rency reserves fell to $17.5 billion, from $36 billion a month before the uprising, and its foreign debts reached $78.4 billion, from $53.4 billion a few months ago.
In the past six months, Egypt’s national currency lost almost 30% of its value against the US dollar, resulting in higher prices across the board. Egypt’s core inflation rate was 12.75% in May, the highest in seven years.
This is one reason economists were surprised at the reported Ramadan consumption levels. They said Egyptians are finding ways to get around price hikes and deteriorating economic conditions to keep their consumerist attitudes intact.
“Some people even borrow mon­ey to keep their living standard as is,” said Nadia Radwan, a sociology professor from Port Said Univer­sity. “Egyptians need a real change of attitude or the results can be catastrophic.”
This, however, is less about peo­ple keeping afloat while the eco­nomic conditions deteriorate and commodity prices rise and more about Egypt’s growing consumerist culture, which runs counter to the tough economic conditions.
Radwan and her students con­ducted a study that included doz­ens of interviews on consumption attitudes that concluded that most of the interviewees wanted to buy things far more expensive than they could afford in actual terms.
“This showed us that people have demands far larger than their financial conditions,” Radwan said. “At the national level, this is recipe for disaster.”
She blamed Egypt’s private me­dia for nourishing what she calls “consumerist” attitudes and called on the religious establishment to work to convince people that squandering has nothing to do with faith, especially when it comes to a month that should be dedicated to worship, not eating.
Squandering, though, seems to be what Egyptians do during Ram­adan, according to the Food Bank, a local organisation that works to end hunger. The group said almost 60% of food during Ramadan is thrown away.
“This exhausts the state budget because most of the food we eat is imported from other countries,” said Wafaa Tulan, a representative of the group. “Food thrown away can feed millions of poor people.”
The Food Bank tries to feed mil­lions of poor people with food surpluses from hotels, donors and homes. Food Bank volunteers get the leftovers, repackage them and then give them to millions of poor people throughout Egypt. They distribute 17 million meals a month.
“People need to know that at the time they throw a crust of bread away, somebody is there in bad need for this crust of bread,” Tulan said. “We are not so rich as a people to spend all this money on food and then throw it away.”