Portraits of Egypt’s Economic Crisis

Jihad Abaza

August 23, 2017

Inflation rates in Egypt hit an all-time high of 31 percent in 2017 amid tough economic reforms mandated by a three-year $12 billion IMF loan. These reforms have included the floatation of the Egyptian pound against the dollar last November, the hiking of fuel prices by almost 50 percent in June, and most recently, in early July, the hiking of electricity prices by up to 42 percent.

As Egyptians struggle with the harsh austerity measures, MENASource spoke to small business owners, craftsmen, and workers about how Egypt’s economic policies have impacted their daily lives.

“This is one of Cairo’s oldest shops. It was at its peak before 1952, but after the July revolution the army banned the tarboush. They erased Egyptian identity--before that everyone used to wear the tarboush. Nowadays our main clients are Azhar sheikhs. Sometimes we’ll also get seasonal clients, like TV show and movie producers who come to buy costumes before Ramadan for their sets. We really can’t work and we’re struggling to keep the shop open. The cheapest material now costs 30 or 40 EGP for each tarboush, and we’re supposed to be selling each one for 30 EGP. Our employees put up with really low salaries with the hope that things will get better. This latest increase in gasoline prices [has affected us], everything is interlinked and everything touches on everything else. The situation is getting really tough. How am I supposed to give these people their salaries?” –Ahmed El Tarabeeshy (not pictured), the owner of the Tarboush store in Cairo. (The photos feature the employees of the shop)
“This profession is almost extinct. My clients are mostly the people living in the area and women who want to sharpen their cooking knives. Now people will not come though unless they really need to. I have to increase my prices too. I sharpen scissors for 40 EGP and knives for four EGP. I only go home once I have made the bare minimum of my home’s expenses. Back in the day, meat used to cost less than one EGP, now he [the president] has made it to go up to 150 EGP.” - Mohamed, scissor and knife sharpener
“Our problem is that we Egyptians do not produce anything, so we always have to rely on exports. I buy from local factories, but they get their material from abroad and it has been getting a lot more expensive lately. Now I can barely keep the shop open. Now, anyone who makes a profit is a hero. No one manages to make any profit; we’re just trying to get by. I think the solution lies in domestic production.” - Mustafa, shoe store owner
“I’ve been working here for one month. This is my first job. Before that, I was finishing my conscription in the military. You see how many people walk through these streets every day, and barely anyone stops. Still though, I have a bit of independence. Other young people have to work with horrible bosses and under a lot of pressure. Here, I’m making just enough to feed myself, but I’m more comfortable.” – Mahmoud Shahat, street vendor
“Before, I stood on this very same street and this little table got me an income of 4,000 EGP a month. I had this system set up, that half the money I would take to my family and the other half I would re-invest to buy more supplies and try to expand. Now, I’m lucky if I even have just a bit of money to bring back home. People are buying less and the prices of all daily expenses have doubled, including transportation. I take two buses and walk the rest of the way to save three EGP on my trip here. I walk the same distance on the way back to save another three EGP. Two sandwiches now cost 10 EGP. Sometimes I want to buy something cold to drink while standing here, but then I tell myself I’d rather save it for my kids.” – Reda Saeed, street vendor
“There’s no market. We don’t really have customers anymore. When they do come and ask for the price of a product, you’ll tell them it’s for 10 EGP and they’ll tell you no it’s for five. To give you a small example, before I would buy 10 products to sell, now I’ll just buy two, because there’s no demand. The customer that used to buy six or seven things will now just buy two, if they even buy anything, that is. Prices are really arbitrary for me too, I can go to the factories one week to find a price and the next week I’ll go and find it for an even higher price. It’s then really unstable for the customer too.” – Mamdouh Abu Leil with his two sons, Islam and Mohamed, souvenir shop
“I have a boy and a baby girl coming on the way. I’m scared, I won’t lie to you. I’m scared for the coming generations because I’m expecting things to only get worse. My father died just a few months ago because of lack of treatment. Medicine costs so much now, what are people supposed to do? They’re creating an environment that’s ripe for theft. There are people that could end up stealing out of desperation. –Ahmed, microbus driver
“I used to walk around selling gasoline cans but I cannot do that work anymore. I have a disability in my leg and cannot move. So now, sometimes I grill corn and sell it here in front of our apartment building and the money depends on the day. Sometimes I will make as little as 10 EGP and other days I’ll make more than 30 EGP.” – Abu Sherif, corn seller (right) “On paper, our salaries are supposed to be 1,200 EGP a month, but really we only get paid 600 EGP. It’s not enough for anything and we work from 8 am to 8 pm. There’s one week that is all night shifts too. We complain to the administrators, but then they tell us things like, ‘what are we supposed to do?’ and ‘you’re alive, aren’t you?’” – Um Sherif, a cleaner at a nearby hospital (left)
“I opened this shop one year ago. Sudanese and Egyptian customers used to come here all the time. The place would get full, inside and outside. We sometimes wouldn’t have enough chairs. This changed. Of course, the prices changed things; people come less or don’t come at all. But what are we going to do? For us, we’re refugees, so we can’t complain. We can’t say we don’t like this law or that policy, because then we’ll be told ‘well, go back to your country.’ So we just live with it and try to keep going, like everyone else.” – Nizar Ibrahim, owner of Sudanese restaurant and café (Photo 17 is of a woman who works in Nizar’s shop. In this photograph she is making coffee, she is also a Sudanese refugee and only recently began working in the shop.)
“Our sales have gone down by at least 50 percent. People are only buying the bare necessities. They’re not buying luxury things anymore. The people that have a bit of money are still buying Nescafe coffee and chocolates, but for everyone else, they’re just buying pasta, rice, and oil. They’re not buying chips and sweets anymore. If there was any movement we would be developing and expanding the store, but we’re making just enough to stay open.” – Emad Ragab, grocery store owner.
“Before all of this, there was at least one bride coming in every week, if not two or three. Now, barely anyone comes. For the hairdresser, everything has gone up. Face and eyebrow waxing used to cost 10 and 15 EGP, now its 25 or 30 EGP. Now the cheapest make up for weddings and formal occasions is over 275 EGP. Even the masks used to cost 5 EGP and now they cost 15, because if we want high quality products, they have to be imported. Nothing is like it was before, and only people who have money and are comfortable come to get their hair done.” – Noura, worker in a hairdresser and dress tailoring shop
“I’ve been driving this minibus for six months now. I’ve always known that we live in a patriarchal society but I have really felt this more after I got this car. There are women that refuse to ride with me because I am a woman. They say they don’t feel comfortable. Men drivers will harass you while driving and policemen are rude. You’ll have to not just put up with all of this, but you’ll have to accept it with a smiling face. You can cry later, but at the moment you’ll have to smile because these people have authority. Before this, I worked in online sales for six years, but with the prices of everything doubling, that wasn’t enough anymore. I’m a widow. I couldn’t handle it anymore and I told myself that I had to get up and start working on this car. Now I do both.” – Marwa, one of Egypt’s few female minibus drivers
“Every month, there are more and more brides that aren’t able to prepare for their marriages. And there are so many people exploiting the situation, selling products they bought before the price hikes, but with the new prices. Everyone is playing this game. I’m afraid of the factories. There are lots of surprises and the prices go up every day. I feel bad when I tell the customers the new prices. One week I sell a product for 60 EGP, and the next, it’s 70 EGP. It isn’t just me. Everyone is screaming. The entire country is screaming.”- Ahmed Seoudy, clothes shop owner
“We had a tradition of walking through the neighborhood, asking people for their old clothes, fixing them up and reselling them. Now no one will let go of an old pair of pants, because they probably can’t afford to buy new ones. People do not have money like they did before. We get our material from China and after the dollar went up, all the material also went up. We would get a roll of string for 6 or 7 EGP, now it costs 15 EGP. At work, to get two sandwiches, its 8 EGP, and if I want to buy a pack of cigarettes I’ll pay 18 EGP. I have a son, I feel embarrassed when he asks me for money or help and I just don’t have anything to give him.” – Fahmy, tailor
“There are 72 publishing houses that have closed down this past year. This is for a lot of reasons. The prices of printing books domestically increased by 60 to 70 percent and after the floatation of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, importing books is very expensive. All my work relied on imports, but this stopped. Now I’m still selling the old supplies. The amount of customers has also decreased by 60 percent, and we have researched this. So many bookshops on Gumheriya street closed down too. It’s sad. These places had a history. There’s also the issue of censorship. More books and authors are getting censored. For now, we’re trying to do some domestic marketing for books. We’ve gone to different universities and we’re trying to have more book fairs. We’re also getting in touch with more governors, and the good thing is that some of them are starting to be responsive.” – Mahmoud Ramadan, bookstore owner

Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.

All photos © Jihad Abaza