Amid Economic Crisis, Even Sugar Becomes A Luxury In Egypt : Parallels Egypt's government has long subsidized everyday needs like food and electricity. But the economy is in terrible shape and austerity measures are making it hard for the poor to afford even the basics.
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Amid Economic Crisis, Even Sugar Becomes A Luxury In Egypt

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Amid Economic Crisis, Even Sugar Becomes A Luxury In Egypt

Amid Economic Crisis, Even Sugar Becomes A Luxury In Egypt

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to a country that has long been an important part of American foreign policy, and that's Egypt. It is facing its worst financial crisis in decades. And that means in the Middle East's most populous country people are having trouble putting food on the table. NPR's Jane Arraf went to a market in Cairo to see how poor Egyptians are getting by.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is one of the big food markets in central Cairo. You can find almost anything here that's raised or grown in Egypt - live chickens, piles of mangoes and pomegranates, red and yellow dates fresh from the tree. But all of those have become too expensive for a lot of Egyptians. That's why dozens of people are crowding around a nearby Army truck. Rising costs and a falling currency have made times so tough that Egypt has sent the army into neighborhoods to sell cartons full of a mix of basic foods at cut-rate prices.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: These people are shouting, I want a carton.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: The crowd is full of old people holding up tattered bills.

So there is an Army truck here, but they're just closing the doors even though people are holding up money. The boxes are supposed to cost 25 pounds each, less than $2. And people are waving money, but the soldiers are telling them there's none left.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Sugar, a carton with sugar and butter and macaroni - that's what this woman says she's waiting for. Most of them are going home empty handed to try again another day. Egypt has 90 million people in it, and it imports most of its food. For decades, the government has subsidized everyday necessities like food and electricity. But the economy is in terrible shape. Tourism has dried up. Oil and gas prices are down, and a shortage of foreign currency means the government doesn't have money for imports. Recently, it ran out of money to import sugar, and that's when things got really serious. It's the only luxury the poor can afford. At the market, I meet Ateeyah Saleh, a furniture maker, with his son Salah, who's 6. They haven't been able to find sugar in the grocery store.

ATEEYAH SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "A kid like that, how will he drink his milk if we don't put sugar in it," he says. The International Monetary Fund has agreed to lend Egypt $12 billion, but there are conditions attached. The government has to cut those subsidies that Egyptians have always taken for granted. It slashed the value of the Egyptian currency, and it will have to make huge structural changes to encourage foreign investment and create jobs in the private sector. The question is whether Egyptians will become so fed up they'll come out in the streets to protest. After all, it was poverty that sparked protests five years ago and toppled governments in the Arab world, including in Egypt.

ZIAD BAHA AL-DIN: On the whole, Egyptians, after five years of political change, don't have a lot of appetite for dramatic change. And most people I think are really willing to endure a lot in order to avoid other forms of turmoil.

ARRAF: That's Ziad Baha al-Din, an economist and former deputy prime minister. He says the government has to make genuine reforms to make sure the economic pain Egyptians are going through isn't wasted. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo.

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