Egyptian staple increasingly out of reach

Under a high tree in Cairo, dozens of people from different sections of society gather around two tables, eagerly waiting to satisfy their hungry stomachs with the Egyptian staple meal of fool, a fava bean paste, and taamiya, fried falafel balls.

Fool and taamiya sandwiches are among the cheapest foods Egyptians can buy; fool carts are ubiquitous in streets all over the country, and one sandwich costs 1 EGP (US $ 0.14.) In a country where the minimum wage for some government workers is 1,200 EGP, many Egyptians depend on these low-cost foods for survival. Following the January 25 Revolution and subsequent economic difficulties, many Egyptians find the cost of the staple sandwiches prohibitively high.

“We inherited this work from our parents and grandparents; my father was working in this place since 1988 and it became our job; the turnout now is decreasing,” said Ahmed Gad, 34, a street vendor selling fool and taamiya, told The Cairo Post.

“There is no big demand as we used before the revolution,” he added. Unemployment rates in Egypt reached 13.4 percent in 2013, and 40 percent of Egyptians live in poverty, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS).

Gad said he can fry more than forty taamyia in five minutes in a large deep round dish on a butane-powered stove, while his mother, Om Hamo, and his brother Hamo work with him in preparing the sandwiches.

Shouting and frowning at her son conducting the interview, Om Hamo called out, “Hamo, come here we have a lot of work to do,” and gave him a focused gaze as she prepared the sandwiches. “My mother is very anxious from our talks and she does not want any problems,” said Hamo, who then joined her in the work.

Many of the fool and taamiya carts are not officially licensed; vendors are required get a certificate from the Ministry of Heath that their operation is safe and adhering to sanitation standards. However, many vendors have not obtained the licenses, due to the lengthy procedures, thereby risking confiscation or their carts.

After her son Hamo assured her the interview would not cause any harm for them, Om Hamo took the fool from a big pot on one of the tables while Hamo made moussaka (eggplant with potatoes) sandwiches, in the shadow of many hands reaching to pay for their food.

Diners ate at a table covered with a dish of fried potatoes, a stack of pita bread, and a bowl of tahini, sesame seed paste. Others, impatient to wait for a seat, stood to devour their fare, but Gad said this was much less than they used to see.

To cope with the low turnout, Gad said he reduced his staff from eight to four people, adding that his team is keen to keep the good quality of the sandwiches to preserve their clients. The quantity of the food they brought from their home in Meet Ouba neighborhood in Giza for sandwiches has also decreased, as he brings one metal mixing bowl for falafel paste instead of two.

Before the revolution, more Egyptians were working; the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in 2010, according a report from to the CAPMAS issued in September 2010.  The price of the food was also less; one kilogram of lemons now costs 10 EGP (US $ 1.4), compared to its pre-revolution price of 3.5 EGP per kilogram. Peppers cost 10 EGP/kg, up from 2EGP, Ahmed Abu el-Fadl, 28, a fool vendor in Helwan governorate (South Cairo) told The Cairo post.

“Our turnout has been reduced by 25 percent; I used to cook three large bowls of beans every day, but due to the bad financial crisis now I cook one” Fadl said.

Like Gad, Fadl also reduced his team from five to three members, to reduce costs, adding he paid his workers between 60-70 EGP daily.

“The cause of that is not the revolution itself, but the rulers,” said Yasser, 34, a father of three who has worked as a fool and falafel vendor since 1991.

He said his profits had been reduced 50 percent since the revolution. He pays every member of his  5-member team 80 EGP daily, and sells approximately 550 sandwiches daily.

Seven million street vendors are currently registered with the Association of the Street Vendors in Egypt, said association head Mohamed Abu Zeid.

Some vendors in last December asked to form a separate syndicate, but “the association is a mediator between the vendors and the government, it is the official body that represents them,” Abu Zeid added. Vendors can renew their subscriptions by paying 30 EGP annually.

“I like to get the fool and falafel from here because they are good and very cheap; the incidents after the revolution affected the financial life;  a fool sandwich  should be .75 EGP and now it is bought for a pound,” said Emad Mohamed, 34, who is a building worker.

Mohaned, 18, who works in a Mohandessin restaurant, said his employer bought the fool sandwiches from Gad and other carts to save costs, adding that what they bought for 1EGP they sold to their customers for 4.5EGP.

“The people like to eat from fool cart because they could not afford to buy the food as they used to do in the past,” said Ahmed Ismail, an electric worker in Helwan, adding that his company had reduced his salary by 50 percent after the revolution.  

“I buy the teachers their breakfasts from here because the food tasted good and is cheaper than what sold in the restaurants; one taamiya ball is sold here for .25EGP while it is sold for 1.5EGP [in other places,]” said Om Ahmed, a janitor in a school in Giza.

10 EGP is not enough to buy her breakfast from a restaurant, and eating anywhere else would be too expensive, since her monthly salary is 500 EGP ($ 71.83,) she added.

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