In the year of the economy, Egyptians kept their eyes on the dollar
How has the fact that economic conditions now touch every corner of Egypt's social fabric changed the way Egyptians engage with the economy?
 
 
 
Photograph: بسمة فتحي
 

In 2016, a six-year streak of mine was broken. Since I began working in journalism, I had managed to escape economic coverage after one utter failure of an attempt that took place when I first started out. An optimistic editor had underestimated my chronic inability to comprehend numbers and decided to help me through a story on the informal economy. She finally gave up after three unpublishable drafts.

I used this incident as a cautionary tale, recounting it to many editors who made similar suggestions in the years that followed and promised to hold my hand as I confronted my phobia of writing about economic issues. However, this method finally stopped working when news about Egypt’s economy made headlines throughout the year, with developments regarding international loans hoping to mend the country’s deepening crisis, a plummeting currency value, new taxation laws and austerity measures that prompted prices to skyrocket, all of which affected people’s livelihoods.

My equally economy-averse colleagues and I had to finally give in when it became impossible to overlook economic news as what we thought of, whether correctly or not, as a filler in the country’s media landscape.

We were not the only ones. Economic developments, which would normally be disregarded as specialized issues or issues for the experts, affected the lives of people from all all walks of life so directly throughout the year that they have been forced to pay attention.

The newly found prominence of conversation on the economy among Egyptians was most apparent on November 3, after the Central Bank of Egypt decided to float the Egyptian pound. The Central Bank official website subsequently received its 15 minutes of fame, crashing from the volume of visitors flocking in to check the rising price of the dollar.

Abdel Hady Abdel Aal, who owns an eyeglasses store in Dokki, is uncomfortable with the lack of clarity from the government regarding the economic situation. He feels that people would be more willing to put up with difficult conditions if they understood what was going on and why.

“If the government leveled up with us and gave us the full picture regarding this crisis, we would buckle up and make the solution possible,” he says.

To relieve the anxiety of being uninformed about the economic situation, Abdel Aal says has been trying to educate himself about the issue.

“At first, I used to watch the sports section of the news and get up when economic news was aired,” he says. “Now, it’s different, I sit down and listen.”

As Abdel Aal observes, the only method people use to keep up with the economic fluctuations is making a note of price hikes, a sentiment several people that Mada Masr spoke with expressed.

“We are in the market, so we rely on observations. I go and buy material and I find that the prices went up,” says Farouk Badawi, who sells herbs near Abdel Aal’s shop. “Everyone is complaining and wants to know why. It’s all because of the dollar.”

Badawi laments how the market has increasingly emptied as people’s spending power is curbed. He might not be on top of the latest economic issues the country faces, but he was able to note the development in prices of several essential goods since the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly, Eman Tawfik, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two who was never interested in politics or the economy, says that, despite feeling the brunt of the economic crisis, her level of engagement remains unchanged.

“My source of economic news is the supermarket,” she says.

Banker Mohamed al-Kei says that it’s now rare for him to be at a social gathering and not receive economy-related questions and requests for advice.

“These are the three types of questions that everyone asks. How much is the dollar now compared to the pound? How long is it going to keep going up and how high is it going to get? Is it going to come down again and what value is it going to stabilize at?” he says.

The fixation on the issue of the US dollar, as observed across different segments of society, shows that one thing is clear in everyone’s mind.

“No matter how humble their intellectual level is, everyone understands the direct relation between the value of the dollar and inflation,” Kei says. “That’s their only concern now, whether for their households or for their work.”

Facebook groups that were created in recent months to follow foreign currency exchange rates have garnered hundreds of thousands of members.

Kei says that it’s rare for people to ask him for anything beyond that. “When I go into detail, I usually get responses like, so how high is the dollar going to get anyway? Should I sell or buy? Basically, where are we going now?”

Private equity firm Multiples Group CEO Omar al-Shenety says that an increased interest in the economy is apparent in the fact that the volume of questions he receives, whether from friends or Facebook followers, has tripled during the last year. Shenety says that people mostly ask him about good investment solutions for their savings and about the price of the dollar and its effect on their work.

Nada Kabil, who runs a small business, says that she now checks the value of the dollar to the pound before getting out of bed every morning. Inkies, Kabil’s hand-painted shoes business, is on the brink of crisis after her suppliers first doubled their prices and then stopped importing the shoes that she uses altogether. Because of this, she tries to understand and ask people what to do in terms of when to exchange currency, among other decisions. But since most of the advice and forecasts she has received have been inaccurate thus far, she tends to follow the price of the dollar and takes things one day at a time.

As economic developments now touch every household and transcend the scope of decision makers, people are expected to increasingly engage with the interface that produces these developments. However, whether by talking among themselves or asking perceived experts for more sound footing, the question has become whether ongoing conversation can focus in on a level of analysis that pulls at the root causes of Egypt’s economic policies and the hardships so many people face.

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