Ramadan banquet rules leave Egypt’s poor high and dry

Sunday 04/06/2017
Ramadan tradition. Egyptians break their fast at a charity banquet in Cairo. (Saeed Shahat)

Cairo - Egypt’s rich have long funded iftar meals for the poor during Ramadan but rising food prices follow­ing a currency flotation and new bureaucratic rules are rad­ically reducing the number of free iftar banquets.
“Food prices have risen almost threefold, which is why many of those who had the banquets in the past do not do the same this year,” said Rashad Abdo, director of the Egyptian Forum for Economic and Strategic Studies think-tank.
Hundreds of thousands of free if­tar meals have been offered during Ramadan in recent years. This year, however, economists said there are fewer free banquets even as the poor are more in need.
Inflation hit a 30-year high in April following a November 2016 decision to float Egypt’s currency in line with International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands ahead of al­lowing Cairo a $12 billion loan.
There used to be free iftar ban­quets in almost every neighbour­hood. Poor families would race to reserve places ahead of the sunset call to prayer, which signalled the end of the day’s fasting.
Businessman Ibrahim Hashem said many poor people from the lo­cal community would attend.
“They are the doormen working here in the neighbourhood, poor market workers and motorists who cannot go home for their iftar,” Hashem said.
It cost Hashem $9,500 to host a banquet for 250 people during Ramadan last year. This year, he calculated it would be closer to $30,000 because of price increases.
He decided to continue the Ramadan tradition but had to en­list friends and family members to contribute money.
“Otherwise, I would not have it because I simply cannot pay all this amount of money,” Hashem said.
Other businessmen and commu­nity leaders who usually hosted iftar banquets could not meet the cost. The Economic Research Fo­rum estimated there may be only half as many charity banquets this year.
“The price hikes have affected the ability of the rich to offer free food to the poor,” Abdo said. “This is so bad, given rising poverty.”
Egypt’s poverty rate has risen to almost one-third of the population of 92 million and the government’s economic reforms are expected to increase short-term poverty.
Making things even harder are new rules by the authorities gov­erning charity work, even the host­ing of free iftar banquets.
The rules include requiring ban­quet organisers to get licences from local municipalities, ensure that the banquets are far from main roads, public buildings and schools, get approval from the civil defence to ensure that banquet guests will be safe and organise cleaning up after the banquet is over. Banquet organisers must also accept government supervision on food offered to guests.
“I have given instructions for speeding up licensing for those who apply,” Local Development Minister Hesham al-Sharif said.
The rules, however, have scared many of the usual banquet organ­isers away from having banquets.
“I know people who had can­celled the idea of having the ban­quets because of these rules,” Hashem said. “The authorities want to ensure that nobody will have the banquets. This has noth­ing to do with traffic or safety.”
Responding to the criticism, al-Sharif warned that the holding mass iftar banquets cause a surge in demand for food, which raises the price of food during Ramadan.
“Those organising the banquets buy huge amounts of food but this affects supply and consequently food prices,” Hashem said.