Ramadan in Egypt: Too Costly for Some and Too Dangerous for Others

Egypt has launched a campaign to assist the poor acquire basic food packages. As usual, it is an opportunity for fly-by-night merchants to sell the low-cost packages at market prices.

People browse around stalls at Sayida Zienab district market during the first day of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt, June 6, 2016.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters

When Salman Tamimi moved to Iceland in 1971, he could not have imagined the price he would have to pay. The Palestinian computer programmer from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, who would go on to found the Islamic Association of Iceland and serve as one of two imams for a Muslim community numbering about 870, will have to fast 21 hours a day during the month of Ramadan, the longest fast for 30 years. If he was living in Argentina, he would only have to fast nine hours. That’s the way it is when the sun, not the moon, determines the months.

Over the month of the fast, with temperatures much higher than usual (in Iraq about 45 degrees Centigrade), the believers’ pockets also empty out. The Ramadan meals that break the fast also vaults the family food budget by about 50 percent.

Tamimi might not lack for anything, but his brethren in Egypt spend hours in long lines at government stores which sell discounted food to people entitled to benefits.

“I don’t know how I’ll cover my expenses this year. Everything is more expensive and the dollar is high,” an Egyptian citizen complained to a reporter from the newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba’a.

The Welfare Ministry has launched a campaign to assist the poor by the name of “Welcome Ramadan,” and sells basic food packages at a price of between $3 to $8. But these do not always reach the 18 million registered needy Egyptians. As usual, it is an opportunity for fly-by-night merchants to sell the low-cost packages at market prices.

The highest economic outlay on Ramadan is reserved for people who want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip costs $5,500 a person.

But the Egyptian authorities have other things to worry about. The government is concerned over the exploitation of prayer services in the mosques by preachers from extremist movements. For the first time the Ministry of Awqaf (Waqf — Muslim Religious Trust) has published strict guidelines to the more than 198,000 mosques under its supervision, including a ban against allowing anyone known to be an extremist from preaching as an imam in the mosques.

One of the important Ramadan prayers is the Tarawih, offered after the evening meal and before the morning prayer. Many people chose to spend their nights at the mosque, in conversation and listening to sermons. This year the government determined that the sermon given after the Tarawih is to be only 10 minutes long and preachers are to be only those approved by the Ministry of Awqaf. People who want to spend the night in the mosque must register a week before so their identity can be checked.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi seems to be leaving no stone unturned when it comes to seeking out members of radical movements.

Dr. Abd el-Hadi Mussabah says he finds great advantages in the Tarawih prayer. Among other things, he notes that walking to the mosque after the heavy evening meal that breaks the fast is good for the metabolism, and the time spent in the mosque standing and kneeling during the long prayer burns calories, “10 calories per bend,” he says. The worshipper’s mood also improves, according to Mussabah.

Islamic State has prohibited the recitation of the Tarawih because ISIS considers it an innovation by religious leaders “who do not know the sources, and it is misleading.” According to the ISIS “religious affairs ministry,” anyone who recites the Tarawih will be whipped.

Millions of refugees from Syria will be spending Ramadan in displaced persons camps, shelters and public parks for the fifth year now. Many of them have no income or supportive relatives ready to provide their Ramadan meals. They might be helped by a new app, launched in January in English and last month in Arabic, that allows users to contribute as little as 50 cents a day for a refugee child. That half-dollar, according to the United Nations, which sponsored the app, is what is needed to feed a refugee child for a day. So far, only a few thousand people have downloaded the app. It seems that many have difficulty believing that their contribution will reach its intended recipient.