Mideast feels the pinch of rising food prices as Ramadan nears

The port of Mykolaiv in Ukraine, February 14, 2022. Rising fertilizer prices have pushed up the price of commodities. Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven up the prices of staple foods and energy across the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Muslim holy month of daytime fasting and nighttime feasting. (Photo: NYTimes)
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.اضافة اعلان

Browsing boxes of dates — which Egyptians traditionally eat to break their daytime fast during the Muslim holy month — Amer asked someone to check the price of one box. It was 20 pounds, slightly more than $1. Much more than last year. Like nearly everything else.

“OK, just leave it where it is,” said 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.

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.

In Egypt videos of ordinary people venting about food prices have gone viral on social media under the hashtag “revolution of the hungry,” and 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 (IMF) 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.

The IMF 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 one-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, Ali said, “Nothing so far gives you a feeling that something good is about to happen.”

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. In 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?”

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

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