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People struggle with higher food prices in Egypt's economic crisis

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

We turn now to Egypt, where an economic crisis has made it difficult for people to afford food. Much of the country's grain comes from the Black Sea region now in turmoil with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Then there's Egypt's own currency crash and high inflation. NPR's Aya Batrawy reports that charities are straining to help fill the gaps.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives by motorcade to Cairo's main open-air stadium. He's here for a state orchestrated ceremony broadcast on TV to honor the many local charities helping stave off hunger across Egypt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Tens of thousands of volunteers from these charities have packed the stands. Patriotic songs are playing as the volunteers cheer and wave Egypt's red, white and black flag. The government uses the moment to roll out a new initiative called el-kitf fil-kitf (ph) or Shoulder to Shoulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: The slogan has an upbeat song the crowd is swaying to. At its core, though, this initiative is a call for help. Egypt's currency has lost half its value compared to the dollar in just the past year. That's made it harder for the government to import affordable wheat from Russia and Ukraine, where the war has also driven up prices. Bread from that wheat forms the backbone of Egyptian diets. The country's been pushed deep into debt. Critics blame years of poor planning in Egypt and overspending on superfluous projects that benefited military-owned businesses. The president tells volunteers global economics are to blame.

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISSI: (Through interpreter) Everyone is playing an incredible role at this difficult time. I had to come and thank you for all you do and all you will do in helping to make this major crisis faced by the world and by Egypt a little easier.

BATRAWY: The government is increasing food subsidies by more than 40% this year, but Sissi's message is clear. Egypt's challenges are not for the government alone to shoulder. Everyone is responsible. His government is under pressure as food prices in Egypt climb by more than 60%. Young couples in Cairo are delaying marriage because they can't afford a wedding or home. Middle-class families struggle to buy eggs and chicken.

FATMA HASSAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Tens of millions of families stay afloat with help from charities, like this one in the poor Cairo suburb of Kattameya. It's where I meet Fatma Hassan.

HASSAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She says her grandkids want chicken and meat, but it's too expensive.

HASSAN: (Laughter, non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Hassan laughs as she tells me how she and her daughter often end up cooking a dish of stuffed vegetables with rice called mahshi.

HASSAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She can't afford lentils these days, either, and tells me, who needs that anyway? And what are we going to do? We aren't going to steal.

The government gives her some cash aid every month, and donors help her buy the medicine she needs. Every little bit helps. Hassan comes to this charity office twice a year for a box of food that lasts her household a little over a week. Inside are what's become little luxuries that help create a balanced diet - dates, rice, cooking oil, lentils, pasta, tomato sauce, sugar and tea. The food was packed by the Egyptian food bank, one of the largest nongovernmental charities in the country helping tackle food insecurity. At their headquarters in Cairo, conveyor belts sealed bags of fava beans grown locally, as well as imported products like macaroni.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And then the workers, they fill the other boxes.

BATRAWY: It's supported mostly by private donations and a network of 5,000 community-based organizations across the country. They have a massive database of families in need, but even its operations have been strained. Egypt Food Bank CEO Mohsen Sarhan says donations are up by 20%. Still, it's not enough to keep up with inflation.

MOHSEN SARHAN: The future is very hard to predict, and whatever scenarios you put, it tends to break down the next day. We're playing it by the ear somehow. We're operating on a very flexible budget, and we adjust it, sometimes weekly.

BATRAWY: It's up to charities in Egypt to try and plug gaps in the government's stretched safety net. But Sarhan says they can't eradicate hunger.

SARHAN: I think it was three years ago that we realized that this is never going to happen.

BATRAWY: What they can do, he says, is to try and make people's lives a little better. And the government is now signaling that everyone is going to have to shoulder more of that work. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.