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Priced out of Cairo meat market

Egyptians find meat — once a staple — increasingly out of their reach.

CAIRO, Egypt — At El Rifai, tucked away in a narrow corner of one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, the only thing on the menu is meat.

For more than 40 years, this alleyway restaurant has been a carnivore’s dream, dishing up nightly over 200 pounds of fire-grilled kabob, seasoned lamb chops and tarb, a sausage-like stick of minced beef wrapped inside a layer of moist fat.

El Rifai is a local success story, having evolved from a metal street-cart near the Sayeda Zeinab mosque into a renowned, albeit shabby, eatery popular with movie directors, politicians and other celebrities.

But tough times have fallen on El Rifai. Soaring meat prices in Egypt have kept customers away, cutting business by one-third over the past few weeks. Waiters are receiving fewer tips, a vital chunk of their monthly incomes, and are suddenly worried for the future.

And so, last month, owner Mohamed El Rifai did what many Egyptians have done recently to voice their anger: he joined an organized protest, shutting the doors to his restaurant for a day.

“Meat in Egypt is just too expensive now,” said El Rifai, 66, owner and namesake of the restaurant. “By closing down, I lost some business, but it was nothing compared to what’s been going on recently.”

El Rifai was one of hundreds of restaurants in Egypt that banded together, pulling red meat from their menus out of frustration.

The one-day meat boycott exposed an entire industry rocked by higher prices, and highlighted the fact that red meat — a staple in this most populous Arab country — is increasingly becoming a delicacy that average Egyptian families can no longer afford.

On average, a kilogram of beef sells for $10 to $12.

By comparison, nearly one-fifth of Egypt’s population of 80 million earns less than $2 a day.

And last month, the price of meat shot up more than 30 percent.

Restaurants could no longer afford to serve meat, said Wagdy El Kerdani, chairman of a business association representing more than 1,300 restaurants in Egypt.

“We had to strike, even if only for one day, to put down the price of meat,” said El Kerdani. “We couldn’t keep raising our prices, so we took action to stop eating meat altogether.”

The move was aimed at butchers and distributors, who El Kerdani believes unfairly increased prices.

But butchers too are feeling the pinch.