Mideast Feels the Pinch of Rising Food Prices as Ramadan Nears

CAIRO — The price of groceries was going up everywhere Souad Amer checked, so it was with nervous hope that she waded into a government-subsidized market in her Cairo neighborhood where a loudspeaker blared a jingle promising cheap essentials for Ramadan.

Browsing boxes of dates — which Egyptians traditionally eat to break their daytime fast during the Muslim holy month — Ms. Amer asked someone to check the price of one box. It was 20 pounds, slightly over a dollar. Much more than last year. Like nearly everything else.

“OK, just leave it where it is,” said Ms. Amer, 43, her shoulders drooping. She had three children to feed at home and already knew her Ramadan table would feature little meat and no duck, their yearly holiday tradition. “We just buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend,” she said.

Ramadan arrives in a week: a festive season when people across the Middle East and North Africa normally look forward to gatherings with friends and family, new clothes and feasts that begin after sundown and stretch late into the night. But this year, prices of staples such as oil, sugar, flour and rice have surged across the region, thanks to global supply chain snarls and the war between Russia and Ukraine, which export many essential commodities and foods, including wheat, fertilizer and gas.

Bags of fertilizer were piled up at the port of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, in February before the war broke out. Rising fertilizer prices have pushed up the price of commodities.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

That reality threatens to crush household and government budgets alike in countries that had nothing to spare, raising the possibility of the kind of mass popular unrest not seen since the Arab Spring protests a decade ago, which stemmed in part from soaring food prices.

Drought is already ravaging Morocco’s economy. Tunisia’s deeply indebted government was struggling to pay for wheat imports even before the war broke out. Lebanon is shuddering under an economic collapse. Syria, already raked by war and growing poverty, is now facing prices for tea and dates that have doubled or even tripled since last Ramadan, according to Damascus residents.

And in Egypt, where videos of ordinary people venting about food prices have gone viral on social media under the hashtag “revolution of the hungry,” the government has been forced to move swiftly to blunt the blow.

In a clear sign of the distress, Egypt on Wednesday announced that it had opened talks with the International Monetary Fund over a new financial assistance package, its third in six years, noting in a statement that the shock of the Ukraine war had caused prices to rise to “unprecedented” levels and had sent foreign investors fleeing.

The announcement followed a raft of other measures meant to stabilize the economy and blunt the pain of citizens, including capping the price of unsubsidized bread, adding more Egyptians to welfare rolls, allowing the Egyptian pound to devalue against the dollar, raising interest rates and accelerating pension and pay bumps for government employees.

A poster of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt with the slogan “Long live Egypt” at a market in Cairo. The government is talking to the International Monetary Fund about a new financial assistance package.Credit…Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The I.M.F. director in Egypt, Celine Allard, expressed readiness to help.

“The rapidly changing global environment and spillovers related to the war in Ukraine are posing important challenges for countries around the world, including Egypt,” she said in a statement.

Relief cannot come soon enough in a country where about a third of the population lives in poverty, surviving on less than about $2 a day.

“No one’s buying because people are afraid of the prices. There’s no money,” said Hisham Ali, 62, who works at a fruit stand in Cairo’s middle-class Abbasiya neighborhood. He could not blame his customers: With his salary of less than $6 a day, he said, he could barely afford to feed his children fruit.

Better-off Egyptians said they would not be saving any money this year or would skip buying new clothes, a cutback akin to going without presents at Christmas.

Unlike Ramadans past, Mr. Ali said, “Nothing so far gives you a feeling that something good is about to happen.”

Protesting against President Kais Saied of Tunisia in Tunis in March. Tunisians say they are losing patience with the president’s unfulfilled promises of economic rescue.Credit…Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Several countries have banned the export of certain crops in a bid to keep prices down at home.

Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, blocked farmers from exporting wheat and offered incentives for them to grow more, even as it considered overhauling its bread subsidy program — a lifeline for millions of citizens for decades — to save money. Morocco, where people rely on tomatoes, chickpeas, beans and lentils during Ramadan, the government was suspending tomato exports amid the worst drought in three decades.

Nadia Kabbaj, a caterer in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, was gearing up to sell traditional Ramadan sweets like chebakia, a sesame cookie fried with honey that many eat to break their fast. With the costs of flour, almonds, butter and oil all rising and her employees pleading for raises to cover their expenses, she said she had to raise her prices by 10 percent, even as she watched customers cut back sharply on their orders.

Still, she was lucky to be open at all. Many businesses did not offer Ramadan treats this year, she said, because ingredients were pricier and their customers less able to pay.

Some Moroccans would be able to adjust by consuming less or conserving oil by grilling food instead of frying, she said.

“But poor people are suffering,” she added. “What are they going to eat to break the fast?”

Protesters in Beirut, Lebanon, demonstrated against the rising prices of consumer goods in November.Credit…Hussein Malla/Associated Press

Abdulhadi al-Sbai, 72, a taxi driver in Beirut, said the two bags of flatbread his household of five needed every day were alone swallowing much of his earnings, which had shrunk as fuel prices rose and Lebanese cut back on taxi rides.

As Ramadan approached, Mr. al-Sbai waxed nostalgic about holiday tables past. This year, there would be only lentils and beans.

“The Ramadan table used to be rich, with meat and all kinds of sweets, but it’s been six months since I’ve had meat,” he said. “And of course, fish has become a dream.”

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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On the ground. Ukraine’s counteroffensive appeared to be gaining momentum, with the military hitting Russian targets and claiming territorial gains. Their progress underscores Russia’s flawed execution of the invasion, amid supply shortages and demoralizing conditions for its soldiers.

Biden in Europe. President Biden is currently in Poland, after a day of summits with world leaders in Brussels. During his visit, he plans to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine by meeting with people who have fled to escape the fighting.

Weaning off Russian fuel. President Biden and European leaders announced a deal to increase U.S. shipments of natural gas to help make Europe less dependent on Russian energy. European Union countries also agreed to jointly buy and store gas, a move that could increase their bargaining power.

Possible use of weapons of mass destruction. NATO allies agreed to provide Ukraine with support to deal with fallout from a possible Russian attack using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The alliance also said it was increasing its own preparedness for any such event.

In Tunisia and Egypt, there were rumblings of the kind of antigovernment sentiment that led to the overthrow of dictators in both countries in 2011.

Tunisians say they are losing patience with President Kais Saied’s unfulfilled promises of economic rescue. And in Egypt, the hashtags “revolution of the hungry” and “leave, Sisi” — referring to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — trended on social media for several days as the price of bread shot up.

“I see you, Sisi, I plead to you for the sake of God,” said one man in a video with more than 22,000 views. “Whatever you promise, you do not provide. You say we can have a good life, but you made it awful.”

As discontent spread in Egypt, the government subsidized local shopkeepers to open tented street-side stalls selling cheaper foods and Ramadan decorations along with meat and staples.

Ashraf Zaki, 50, a butcher in Cairo who opened one such stall, said the government pressured him and other butchers to lower their prices.

Abdelmonem Said Aly, a government-aligned political analyst and columnist, said he believed that the government’s efforts to stabilize the economy would mollify the public enough to avert unrest.

“The degree of support is enough,” he said. “It will not happen, because we are a stable country, we are building the country, and people can see the results of the last few years with their own eyes.”

But independent analysts said the government had squandered previous opportunities to set Egypt’s economy on a solid foundation after a $12 billion I.M.F. bailout in 2016. Instead of building up industries that could create sustainable, well-paying jobs, such as manufacturing or research and development, the government spent freely on real estate development, including massive projects like the new capital city Mr. el-Sisi is constructing in the desert.

Construction work has continued at the site of Egypt’s new administrative capital.Credit…Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Though the 2016 deal had tasked Egypt with making reforms aimed at developing the private sector and decreasing poverty, the private sector has shrunk nearly every month since the deal, partly because military-owned companies that enjoy tax breaks and other perks have crowded out private-sector competition, said Timothy Kaldas, a political economy analyst at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.

Austerity policies had already deeply cut into Egyptians’ purchasing power before the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war.

“Just as the world was trying to forget about the pandemic, you have a war,” said Mohamed Abou Samra, an economist at EFG Hermes, an Egyptian investment bank.

He said I.M.F. support would likely help Egypt weather this particular crisis, “but the key challenge is to go to a more stable trajectory of growth.”

Merna Thomas contributed reporting from Cairo, Aida Alami from Paris, and Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, Lebanon.

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