This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.
As the first light of the sun falls on Cairo, it finds the city awake, the streets crowded with people milling around to the peculiar sounds of the early-morning prayer and the soft bleating of sheep. The holy festival Eid al-Adha ("the feast of slaughter") celebrates the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son for God, its focal ritual being the slaughter of an animal. Tens of thousands of sheep and cattle have arrived in recent days, appearing in makeshift pens on the streets of the city. Families with the means to slaughter animals do it in their gardens or homes, but most people in Cairo depend on their local butcher, who slaughters cows and sheep en masse and portions out the meat to customers.
It is an impressive sight. Freelance butchers have sprung up on every street, trotting animals out of their pen, and slitting their throats on the pavement with production-line efficiency. The children move quickly around the animal, sweeping the gushing blood into the gutter before it can create torrents through the streets. For all their efforts, however, this year the butchers are figures of resentment among Egyptian after meat prices sky-rocketed, putting it well out of the reach of many working Egyptians.
The Kamel family have run their butcher shop in the centre of Cairo for generations. "A month ago I sold a live sheep for LE35 [about US $4.50] per kilo," says Mr. Kamel. "For Eid, it has gone up to LE43 [$5.50]. Just the meat alone costs more, at around LE80 ($10) a kilo, but some places charge LE100 [$12.75]." Considering the price was around LE65 ($8.50) for Eid last year, there is anger among the population. In a country where over a quarter of citizens live on less than $2 a day, meat is already a luxury for most, and people are feeling the pinch. So why do Cairenes continue to pay extortionate prices?
"We can't just not buy it," says Mostafa, an engineer from Cairo's El Mounira district, as he waits for Kamel to slaughter a sheep for him. "It's a religious thing. We do this every year, and however much it costs, we will always do it."
This year, the price increase was bad enough to warrant a nationwide boycott of meat. In the months leading up to Eid, the spike prompted a social media campaign "balaha lahma" (forget about meat), which found support among well-known Egyptian television personalities. There was a growing consensus backed by some government officials that the increase was due to the monopolisation of the meat industry by a handful of suppliers. The campaign spokesperson Mohamed Gad said that the movement was designed to "fight the greed of the traders", placing the blame squarely on the butchers and meat merchants themselves.
Kamel passes on the blame. "It is down to the farmers—they're the greedy ones," he says. "They know that they can push the price up, so they do it to make more money. It's supply and demand."
To put all blame on one group is a bit unfair. Modern Egypt does not have a strong agricultural industry, and food has always been expensive. Most of the sparsely available farmland is along the Nile, sandwiched between two deserts. The nation does not produce enough food to meet its demands and relies on imports. In the years since the 2011 revolution, this tenuous situation has been compounded by new problems.
In the last five years, Egypt's economy toppled. In 2010 the Egyptian pound was worth $0.18. Now it is worth just $0.13. Wages are lower, jobs are scarce, and with higher prices on food imports, it is now more difficult for Egyptians to afford foreign goods. The government is following a policy of austerity and as the economy at a low ebb. Money to invest in improving Egypt's outdated agricultural infrastructure is nowhere to be found, leaving the country hard-pressed to meet the demands of its rapidly increasing population.
Nevertheless, the butchers are not short of customers. The prices keep going up but the punters keep coming. One of them is Ehab, a father of four from the middle-class Cairo suburb of Malek al-Salah, who is waiting for another butcher to slaughter a sheep for him. He butchers it there on the street, giving Ehab the meat to take home. "I have to have meat for Eid," he says. "It's the tradition. The prices are much higher than last year, but it's a religious thing. There's nothing we can do."
No matter how much the cost rises, Egyptians like Ehab will always participate in this ceremony. Few of even those taking part in the meat boycott would forgo meat on the day of Eid itself. The price increases and they find ways to cope; butchers have even started to allow people to pay for meat in instalments.
For Ehab, this is frustrating, but what about the large proportion of Egyptians who cannot afford the new prices? "Well, they don't have to pay," he explains. "We all hand out a third of our meat to the poor," referring to the Islamic obligation to provide for the less fortunate at Eid. Large organisations in Egypt take in donations of meat and money and distribute it to those who most need it. "They go into their homes to see if they are really poor," explains Ehab's wife. "They even open their fridge to see if they have food in it. If they are struggling to eat, then the organisation brings them food."
Regardless of the price increases, few will go without meat this Eid. The richest in Egypt will not feel the price increase, and those who are unable to pay become beneficiaries of charity. It is the middle-class who will suffer most from the price hike. They may struggle to pay but they will have to go along with it. For them, the extra cost is just another frustration; another burden to be carried by Egypt's increasingly wearying middle class.