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As Egypt’s economic crisis deepens, an affordable meal is hard to come by


CAIRO — The patriarch behind Abu Tarek, one of Egypt’s most famous restaurants, has always been able to rely on koshary.

A mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and spicy tomato sauce, koshary is one of the cheapest and most popular foods in Egypt, so high in carbohydrates and protein that it can satiate even the hungriest customers all day long. Everyone here eats it, from the richest to the poorest.

But with food prices rapidly rising in the face of a deepening economic crisis, even the cheapest meals are becoming more and more expensive to prepare – hitting the margins of koshary kingpins like Youssef Zaki, the owner of Abou Tarek, as well as the pockets of ordinary Egyptians.

Just when Egypt was hoping to recover from the pandemic, which saw its massive tourism sector come to a halt, Russia invaded Ukraine. The war unleashed a series of unexpected repercussions throughout the region, hitting Egypt particularly hard.

Foreign investors withdrew billions of dollars from the country in the weeks following the invasion, disrupting the economy. Egypt also imports more wheat than any other country, most of it from Russia and Ukraine. The cost of wheat and oil began to soar while tourist numbers fell again due to a long-standing reliance on Russian and Ukrainian visitors.

Soaring global food prices put basic meals out of reach, from Nigerian jollof rice to Russian pasta and Argentinian steak

Egypt is now facing one of its worst bouts of inflation in years, and ordinary Egyptians are largely paying the price.

Food and beverage prices are up 30.9% since this time last year. Earlier this year, the official exchange rate was once 15.6 to the dollar. Now it sits at 24.7. On the black market, a dollar can be sold for up to 33 pounds. Banks limit the withdrawal of dollars to try to keep cash in the country. Many Egyptians are forgoing indulgences — whether it’s avoiding dining out or postponing weddings — hoping costs will come down soon.

Luckily for Zaki, koshary remains a major staple in the Egyptian diet.

To avoid raising prices, Zaki knows his customers can’t afford, Abou Tarek has reduced his portions slightly. Nevertheless, the clientele has somewhat decreased. With dozens of employees between the kitchen, servers and delivery crews, Zaki now has the same number of workers to pay as before – just less money to do so.

The same customers who once bought “a big plate of koshary, they could buy a smaller one,” Zaki said, sitting in a plastic chair on the street outside as passing fans gave him the celebrity treatment, interrupting the interview to take pictures with him.

“Instead of eating three meals, people might just eat one or two,” he said.

Blaming the crisis solely on the war in Ukraine would be “barely true”, said Egyptian political economist Wael Gamal. Years of borrowing and investing in megaprojects have made Egypt particularly vulnerable, he said. These projects have been championed by President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup in 2013 and made infrastructure development a feature of his presidency.

In December, after months of negotiations, Egypt announced it would receive a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, $347 million of which will be disbursed immediately. This is the fourth time the IMF has assisted Egypt in the past six years.

Egypt’s economic problems, Gamal said, get worse every time they go to the IMF and take out more loans and cover older loans with new loans.

Zaki’s restaurant, successful since the ’90s – and once featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” – gave him enough cushion to weather the storm. Having sold koshary for most of his life, first from his father’s food cart and then from his own restaurant, Zaki has seen prices rise and fall over time. “But never like this,” he said.

In the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, an island in the Nile, Ahmed Ramadan, 27, serves around 700 orders of koshary and other takeaways every day. Most of its customers are students and working class employees who go there every day.

Compared to other residents of his low-income neighborhood of Imbaba, Ramadan considers himself lucky. He has a stable job and can walk to the koshary restaurant in Zamalek every day without worrying about the increased transport costs. For his neighbours, “the situation has gotten worse and worse,” he said. “They have to make ends meet and only eat vegetables and rice. What can they do?”

Supply costs have risen so much that a few weeks ago his restaurant stopped serving its cheapest serving of koshary – covering their menu option with a piece of duct tape. Until recently, Ramadan said, he could buy a ton of rice for around 8,000 Egyptian pounds. Now, he says, it costs 18,000 pounds. The cost of its pasta supply jumped 6,000 pounds. Even the plastic containers and bags used to wrap meals are more expensive than before.

But the customers still show up. “People have to eat,” he said.

Not far away, in the neighborhood of Agouza, Medhat Mohamed, 47, stood behind the counter of a roadside restaurant that sells taameya (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (bean stew) sandwiches. Both are vegetarian staples in the Egyptian diet, but customers are starting to do without them, Mohamed and his colleagues said.

A year ago, the sandwiches sold for three and a half pounds. Now they cost four and a half years.

“The war in Ukraine has increased the prices of flour and oil,” Mohamed said. “When that went up, everything else went up.”

Now some poorer customers are buying pieces of falafel rather than a sandwich, putting them in bread they get through a subsidy scheme, just to save a few pounds.

Even if the restaurant doubled its prices, store manager Sayyid el-Amir said, “we wouldn’t make much profit.”

Many other stores are closing, he said, but he would do whatever he could to avoid the layoffs. “Each of these workers has three or four children,” he said, pointing to Mohamed and the other men, including one tossing raw falafel into a pan of bubbling oil. All restaurant employees also have other jobs, making deliveries or working in other restaurants.

“It’s amazing how people survive,” he said.


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