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Egypt's Mercy Tables: A Ramadan tradition hit by economic hardship

The surging prices of food and dwindling value of currency have led to less donations for charity dinners and more people in need during the Muslim holy month this year
A volunteer preparing an Iftar table in a street in Cairo, March 2023 (MEE/Fadel Dawod)
By Shahenda Naguib in Cairo

Ismail Al-Husseini, a 46-year-old wedding chef, takes a break from weddings in Ramadan and opens his schedule for Ramadan's Mawaed Al-Rahman (Mercy Tables), an Egyptian tradition where passersby and the needy can sit down and have their Iftar for free with others in a large table.

Al-Husseini usually gets booked all month in Cairo and Giza, but this Ramadan the country's economic crisis has affected business. "I have been doing this job for the last 15 years. This year is the first I am not fully booked," he told Middle East Eye. For him, he lost some business, but for hundreds of people in need, it was an opportunity to have free home-cooked meals.

"The number of Mercy Tables has drastically decreased and people who give to charity have started to reconsider it because of the increasing prices," Al-Hussieni said. "One Mercy Table could feed up to 2500 people in one sitting - sometimes even more - but now it is difficult."

In the Mercy Tables that MEE visited in Cairo and Giza, people from different classes, genders and social backgrounds sat at the tables, including delivery workers, nurses, conscripts and passersby. 

But the number of Mercy Tables, which Egypt has known for hundreds of years, has declined due to the high cost of table supplies of foodstuffs.

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The prices of food and basic commodities, mostly imported, have more than doubled since the Egyptian pound was devalued at the beginning of this year, with core inflation rates increasing to a record 40 percent in February.

This came after the International Monetary Fund approved a bailout to Cairo in December, the third deal since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in a 2013 military coup.

The value of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar dropped from seven EGP in 2013 to just above 30 EGP at the time of publication, amid reports that the pound was trading at about 35.5-36 per dollar on the parallel market this week. 

A shift to a flexible exchange rate regime is among the main conditions of the international lender to reduce inflation and consolidate the country's spiralling debts.

'I see many people I know in the charity lines... I wore a niqab [face cover] so no one could identify me and my children are not stigmatised'

Sayyida Osman, housewife

But the fiscal measures have had immediate effects on the majority of Egypt's 104 million population, with an estimated 60 million people living below or just above the poverty line ($3.20 per day) before the current crisis. 

In Sayyida Zeinab, one of downtown Cairo's populated working class neighbourhoods close to the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, a family of four is waiting in a line to get to the Mercy Table.

The Sleem family, consisting of a married couple and two children, are visitors from the southern city of Sohag, who arrived in the capital to finish some governmental paperwork, but cannot accommodate the food prices of the capital. 

"I take my children and wife to these tables. Otherwise we will eat bread and cheese," the husband Mohamed told MEE.

Another worker at a charity hosting a Mercy Table, Saied Genish, also refers to government regulations as the reason for the decline in the number of those available. He cites the need to obtain security approvals and licences, which he considered "unacceptable", since these tables are a charitable act that does not aim for profit.

"I wish they would make life easier and not complicate things. At the end of the day, dozens of soldiers and low-ranking officers sit at these tables and eat. We do this for God," Genish said.

"In previous years people used to reserve and take a seat an hour before the Maghrib prayer, but now people come three hours earlier," Yassir, 55, a worker in a charity hosting a Mercy Table told MEE. 

"This year young people, men in suits, and women who look well off stand in lines to join and get a meal," Yassir, who has been working with one of Cairo's Sufi sects for the last five years, added.

First time at charity iftars

Until last year, Sayida Osman, a 56-year-old housewife from Imbaba, a working-class neighbourhood in northern Giza, was able to make ends meet and was always eager to host her family for the holy month of Ramadan, and to help others in need. This year, the mother of three, like thousands of other Egyptians, has fallen into poverty and hoped the holy month would at least provide them with some charitable grants.

Charitable donations usually witness a surge in the holy month of Ramadan. In Egypt thousands wait for this month to have a steady hot meal with protein, for example meat or chicken, while others depend on financial help from charity groups or religious institutions. 

Osman told Middle East Eye that she has registered in three mosques and is on a waiting list to receive any support for her and her children. She is also hoping to receive a food rations box, which usually contains quantities of rice, oil, pasta and sugar, and its total weight is approximately 10kg. It is not sufficient to meet the needs of the poor for about a week, but it's enough to face the high cost of living.

"I would never have thought that I would reach out to ask for help or wait for people to give me some money or some food," she said, adding that families in her circles are no different.

ramadan lanterns egy
People buy traditional lanterns and foodstuff ahead of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan at a market shop in Cairo's central Sayyida Zeinab district late on 12 March 2023 (AFP)

"I see many people I know in the charity lines [to register one's name]. Out of embarrassment, I wore a niqab [face cover] so no one could identify me and my children are not stigmatised," she added. 

"Ramadan used to be a month to compete with the neighbours on whoever's dish is more tasty, but this year everyone will be happy just to feed their family," Insaf, a 45-year-old nurse told MEE. 

In addition to her 9-to-5 work at a governmental hospital, Insaf works as a private nurse at a family's house to assist an elderly, physically challenged patient. "I used to refuse to take leftover food from the house I worked at, but now I have to take it."

"Even if it is just rice, I store it in the freezer and heat it on a later day," she said, adding that she is also not buying sweets and candy any longer, considered an essential tradition in Ramadan.

It is now a common scene in Cairo to see middle-aged men and women gathering at a charity group waiting for a ration pack. 

In the Matariya neighbourhood, lines extend for 500 metres to receive a box with the Tahyia Misr [Long Live Egypt] logo, in front of one of the grocery shops that are affiliated with the Future's Nation party, affiliated with the Egyptian state and military. 

The party uses these lines to promote itself, and state-controlled media outlets usually highlight these occasions. 

Youssef, a retired 67-year-old garbage collector and resident of Matariya, the working class district in the east of Cairo, told MEE that he stood in the lines for hours and got a box, but refused to have his picture taken. "There is no need to humiliate the poor and the needy. God only knows how we feel standing in the lines and seeing how people look at us."

"Nevertheless, I am thankful. Ever since I lost my fingers in a work accident, I was laid off from work and have to live on a pension of EGP 1600."

'Cheap shot'

Last week, the Egyptian government launched the "Shoulder to Shoulder" initiative to publicly distribute food supplies to the poor, in a large ceremony at the Cairo International Stadium attended by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and broadcast live.

According to the initiative's founders, they distributed around six million cartons of foodstuff. However, the event was criticised as a propaganda stunt and a move to "humiliate Egyptians".

A senior member of the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of seven socially liberal opposition parties, told MEE that "the regime is announcing that they are healing the economic crisis with ration boxes and charity, not by macroeconomic measures that ensures the end of the crisis".

"Gathering thousands of people to give them rice and sugar would not save the regime, and using the misery of millions is a cheap shot, let alone taking their pictures while doing so," the politician said.

In pictures: Egypt’s Ramadan tables provide iftar for increasing numbers of people in need
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In most Egyptian cities, where poverty and unemployment rates are increasing, charities, volunteer teams, and official and unofficial bodies prepare Ramadan boxes or bags to distribute to the poor during the holy month.

Mohamed Samir, an engineer who volunteers to help in his free time, told MEE that he has been helping with different charity groups for the past five years. This year, applications to receive benefits and aid have almost tripled, he said. 

"A lot of the families live on a day-to-day basis. And they are not the 'impoverished poor' - they are people who used to be well off, but with the current situation have to ask for help," he explained, adding that they used to help families who had no jobs, could not work or were homeless. Now, more families have joined the lines, and await meals and rations.

Samir and his team prepare bags of rations and hot meals and will continue to do so for the rest of the month. He said that such initiatives have increased as upper middle class circles "are feeling more guilty and concerned as well".

"It is hard to live in a society knowing that your neighbours might not be able to celebrate Ramadan as they were able to do in the last years," another volunteer, Nada from Imbaba, 35, said. 

Being from Imbaba, Nada notices that a lot of charity groups have closed their doors or were closed by the government. "A lot of Islamist-oriented charity groups were closed or limited their activities because of the government's opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists."

She added that some people are afraid to donate to whichever charities are left, fearing they might be accused of being terrorists

Since 2013 and the military ouster of the late president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, dozens of charity organisations were either closed or seized by the government for alleged links to the group, now outlawed. The closures have been criticised by rights groups as being part of a politically-motivated crackdown on the group and the rest of Sisi's opposition.

Coming from a middle class family, Nada fears that in the next few years, she and her family might be the ones asking for money and food rations. "I hope [my volunteering] brings good karma," she said.

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