“Oh God, don’t let us get to the point of having to eat chicken feet,” says a man begging alongside the poultry sellers in Giza market.
Egypt is facing a deepening economic crisis, a situation so acute its people are struggling to feed their families.
The latest nutritional advice from the state suggested cooking up some chicken feet – a protein-rich part of the bird usually reserved as scraps for dogs and cats.
This recommendation has sparked anger and intensified criticism of the government.
Many countries are battling soaring inflation but running at just over 30% in March, Egypt is one of those suffering the most.
For many people, items that were previously basic staples such as cooking oil and cheese have become unaffordable luxuries. Some products have doubled or tripled in price within months.
“I eat meat once a month, or I don’t buy it at all. I buy chicken once a week,” says Wedad, a mother-of-three in her sixties, as she picks her way through the stalls. “Nowadays, even one egg is sold for LE5 [US $0.16; £0.13].”
Part of the reason Egypt is struggling is it relies very heavily on imported food rather than domestic agriculture to feed its huge population of over 100 million people.
Even the grain to feed its chickens is shipped in.
Over 12 months last year the Egyptian pound lost half its value versus the US dollar. So in January, when the government devalued the currency again, this pushed the cost of imports like grain sharply higher.
A year ago, Wedad lived comfortably on her monthly pension of LE5,000. She would have described herself as middle-class. Now, like many other Egyptians, she struggles to make ends meet.
Today, she has scraped together just enough money to buy some chicken.
“One seller told me the price for a kilo of chicken fillets was LE160. Others say 175, 190, even 200,” says Wedad, as she shops around.
“Chicken legs are LE90, but even chicken bones are sold now – and the feet cost just 20,” she adds with a sarcastic laugh.
President Adbdul Fattah al-Sisi often blames the turmoil which followed the 2011 Egyptian uprising and rapid population growth for his country’s current economic woes. He also points to the pandemic followed by the war in Ukraine.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in March last year dealt a serious blow to the economy. Egypt is the world’s second biggest importer of wheat, and the two countries were its primary suppliers. When the war disrupted exports, the price of wheat – and consequently bread – soared.
Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers used to visit Egypt in droves so the tourist sector also lost money.
Tourism, which used to generate about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP), had already been hit hard by the pandemic.
Analysts suggest missteps from the government have made a bad situation far worse.
The power and influence of the presidency, military, security and intelligence agencies has grown while President Sisi has been in charge, according to Timothy Kaldas, a political economist at think tank The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Mr Kaldas says this has happened through expansion of regime-owned enterprises, with the military for example, given state contracts for huge infrastructure projects.
Private sector involvement has shrunk dramatically as a result – with companies not affiliated to the regime unable to compete. Many foreign investors have deserted Egypt.
Egypt’s struggles have sent it to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ask for a bailout four times in the past six years. Almost half of the state’s revenue goes towards paying back these debts, which amount to 90% of GDP.
Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have bought state assets and are helping to prop up Egypt, but have also tightened their conditions for further investments.
Both the West and Gulf neighbours fear the fallout if the most populous country in the Middle East were allowed to fail.
Past economic hardship led to riots and contributed to the fall of both former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi. And there are already signs that growing public anger over the economy will cause unrest again.
“I can’t tell you how we women regret the black day that we went to vote for you,” one Egyptian housewife tells President Sisi in a social media video that went viral. “You’ve made our life hell.”
She counts some small change out from her purse, asking with how she is supposed to feed her children with that.
Meanwhile, back at her apartment, Wedad is trimming green beans and chopping tomatoes to prepare fasouliya khadra, a traditional dish for her grandchildren.
Her mind turns to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It may involve dawn-to-dusk fasting, but typically there are also generous feasts.
“What will I do this year?” Wedad asks, shaking her head. She imagines even chicken will soon be off the menu.
“I can barely afford lentil soup.”
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