x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

High food prices cast pall over Ramadan for many

Food prices, part of the economic hardships that catalysed the overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders, are still climbing in many Arab countries, and protesters have shown little patience for conciliatory gestures by governments after decades of empty promises.

CAIRO // From Syria to Libya and Egypt, the uprisings and unrest gripping the Arab world have cast a pall on the start of Ramadan, when the traditional focus on piety is likely to be eclipsed by more unrest.

Food prices, part of the economic hardships that catalysed the overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders, are still climbing. And protesters have shown little patience for conciliatory gestures by governments after decades of empty promises.

With momentum strong to drive out authoritarian regimes, there is no sign that opposition forces will ease up on protests, even with the difficulties of the dawn-to-dusk fasting that began yesterday.

Ramadan falls this year during the scorching summer, when tempers already running hot could easily boil over, especially as Egyptians complain about the continued rise in food prices and the general economic malaise after the uprising. Food prices typically spike during Ramadan, and the iftar feasts many put on to break the daily fast drive a deep hole in household budgets.

Mahmoud El Askalany of the consumer group Citizens Against the High Cost of Living said: "Before the revolution, Egyptians were like kindling waiting for a match." He was talking about the sense of frustration over soaring prices of food and consumer goods, as well as the gross income inequality and nepotism that prevailed before the Arab uprisings.

"If anyone thinks that this has changed, they'd be wrong," Mr El Askalany said. "The same rage we saw then can surface again, and worse."

Egyptians have not lost their sense of humour, However. In the annual tradition of naming dates after celebrities, they have dubbed the cheapest, least desirable variety of the fruit "Hosni Mubarak" this year.

"They're the lousiest of them all," said the date vendor Sherif Ramadan, flicking one of the shrivelled brown pellets back into a burlap sack with the others. Even though the Hosni Mubaraks sell for 40 cents a kilogram, and dates are a traditional food for Ramadan, "there's no demand for them", Mr Ramadan said.

In much of the Arab world, protesters hope the pressure that Ramadan places on food prices will inspire more people to challenge their leaders. Jordanian activists, for instance, say Ramadan inflation could fuel their campaign aimed at wresting greater reforms from King Abdullah II.

Several Arab governments, meanwhile, are trying to ease economic hardship.

In Bahrain, the king ordered increases in the salaries of civil servants, members of the military and retired government employees.

In Qatar, authorities have ordered reduced prices on 267 types of food and other commodities, 100 items more than last year's Ramadan season list of price caps, according to The Peninsula daily.

Such efforts are expensive in nations such as Egypt where the economy has already been hit hard by the unrest.

Food inflation in Egypt stood at 19 per cent in June versus a year earlier, double the core inflation rate and slightly higher than pre-revolutionary levels. To offset the blow, the cabinet announced last week that the government would shoulder 50 per cent of the cost of food rations, which tens of millions of Egyptians can buy.

For Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Ramadan is another month of hardship. The Palestinian Authority, reeling from a debt crisis, is paying tens of thousands of people only about half their normal salaries.

Ayman Al Hosari, 47, a schoolteacher in Gaza who has nine children, said: "Every year people wait for Ramadan for blessings. But it just gets worse every year.