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Egypt economic woes take sheen off the Eid

(AP) / 25 October 2012

CAIRO — Tamer Shamy’s butcher shop is all set for Eid Al Adha holidays — colourful blinking lights have been festooned around hanging slabs of meat, Egyptian pop music is blaring and a cluster of chairs and benches have been placed out front. The only thing missing is the customers.

Egyptians are feeling the squeeze from nearly 20 months of political turmoil that have gutted the nation’s economy.

“People are under a lot of pressure,” Shamy said. “They have many expenses and not enough income to celebrate the holiday the way they used to.”

Families traditionally mark the occasion by eating sumptuous meals, lavishing their children with gifts and distributing meat to the poor. But standing outside his butcher shop in the working-class Cairo neighbuorhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, Shamy said Egypt’s economic woes have forced his customers to cut back on the celebrations.

“I’m selling a lot less meat this year,” he said, noting that he bought only 250 sheep and 15 cows to slaughter for this year’s holiday compared to nearly 750 animals a year ago.

Mohammed Hassan, a butcher at another shop nearby, pointed to a woman leaving his store carrying a black plastic bag filled with lamb meat.

“She can only afford to buy five kilogrammes,” Hassan said. “Only the rich can afford to sacrifice a whole sheep or a cow. We are all supposed to do this sacrifice, but many of us cannot.”

A kilogramme of lamb meat is selling for about $5.75 ($2.60 a pound), putting the prospect of buying a whole sheep — weighing in at 50 kilograms (110 pounds) or more — well out of reach for many in Egypt, where the African Development Bank estimates nearly 40 per cent of the country’s 85 million people lives on less than $2 a day.

The economic hardships of many Egyptians have only been compounded by the uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the political turmoil that followed it.

The country’s budget deficit has ballooned, the already high unemployment rate has stretched to more than 12 per cent, and tourism — a key source of revenue — and foreign investment have dried up. The government is still negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a badly need $4.8 billion loan to help bolster its finances.

American University in Cairo professor Samer Atallah says that, although it is difficult to measure the economic impact of the political upheaval, there is no doubt that Egypt’s ongoing transition has ratcheted up the financial pressure on the vast majority of Egyptians.

“There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty and it affects any consumer to a great extent,” said Atallah, noting that even before the 2011 revolution, “the supply of affordable goods was already limited for a large majority of Egyptian households.”

Eid overlaps with the start of the Haj pilgrimage, which is set to begin on Thursday.

Saudi authorities say around 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah for this year’s Haj. Even for those not making the pilgrimage, Eid Al Adha provides a welcome chance to reflect and spend time with family and friends.

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