Hand to mouth
An upward spiral in living and food costs presents a serious problem for millions of Egyptians. Sherine Abdel-Razek
Whether in a high-end supermarket or at vegetable market on the street, Egyptians of all classes feel the pinch. The price of food has become a soar point for most households, even though the public usually expects a seasonal price hike in August soon after civil servants receive their annual 10 per cent salary raise in July. This year, however, prices have gone through the roof and caused some to go without several necessities.
According to a report issued by the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, food items witnessed price jumps last month which doubled costs in some cases. For example, packaged milk went up by 16 per cent, pasta and oil products rose by 30 per cent, while fruit and vegetables showed bigger leaps, doubling in the case of green beans which now costs LE6 per kilo. The price of bread, an indispensable staple food, also rose as a result of a hike in wheat prices.
Prices began to spiral upwards in mid-2006 after the outbreak of Avian Flu, which pushed up the price of meat and fish. It also coincided with the lifting of energy subsidies which added to the cost of production. Some international factors also added to the toll, such as an increase in the demand on traditional food crops by developed countries to use as a source of energy. Meanwhile, the European Union's decision to lift subsidies on milk and dairy products increased the international price of these items.
The government has attempted to calm citizen concerns, and sometimes anger, by highlighting the retreat of inflation to eight per cent in July, compared to 12.8 per cent in February. But the people only care about what is hurting them in their pocket books. "Until last year, when I talked about living on a budget, I meant reducing or excluding luxury items such as meat and expensive fruit from our grocery list," stated 34-year- old housewife Somaya Said. "But now, even vegetables and pasta are too expensive." The mother of two calculated that the minimum cost of dinner -- the main meal of the day -- is LE10 every day. "I am trying my best to reduce costs, but this eats away LE300 of my husband's LE550 salary." Her husband works as an office boy in a private accounting firm.
Meanwhile, the new school year and the approaching fasting month of Ramadan both come with additional costs for households. "I take the company bus to work now, instead of my own car," revealed Said Ahmed Bilal, an accountant at the Ministry of Agriculture. "The car needs a new battery, but buying uniforms for the children took precedence over that." Bilal's new commuter habits require him to wake up an hour earlier, "but I had no other choice," he stated.
With an income that is almost five times higher than Bilal, Maha Mustafa, an engineer, is not faring that much better. Mustafa, 38, is married to a dentist and is mother to one daughter attending fourth grade at a private school. "In addition to paying LE4,000 in annual tuition fees and books, as well as LE700 for the school bus, I was surprised when the school asked for LE1,750 as a donation to renovate buildings," stated Mustafa. "I borrowed the money from my mum, but had to deal with a 50 per cent increase in the price of school uniforms on my own." That budget was over LE500.
Demonstratively, the higher cost of living is no longer exclusive to limited income households. In fact, professionals and the well educated middle class may have a bigger problem because they have to keep up appearances, stated Mustafa.
"It is now normal to see people taking items out of their shopping carts when they see the inflated sums on their receipts," revealed Wael Farag, a cashier at a large supermarket in Heliopolis. "Customers are always complaining about the increase in prices." But wily shoppers try to find ways to make ends meet. One customer at this supermarket does her grocery shopping on Fridays when the store announces its special offers. "I can get very good bargains which make some difference at the end of the month," she told Al-Ahram Weekly.