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Egypt's Sufis suffer economic hardship

Amid celebrations at their largest religious festival of the year, Egypt’s Sufis are struggling with economic and security concerns. Farid Farid reports from Sayeda Zeinab.

In the historic downtown district of Sayeda Zeinab that bears the same name of the Prophet Mohammed's grand-daughter, over 10,000 Egyptians gathered recently to celebrate - an uncommon occurrence ever since a law was passed in December 2013 preventing mass assemblies.

Sufis, following a mystical form of Islam as opposed to the orthodox Sunni and Shia branches, make up around 15 percent of Egyptian Muslims with hundreds of tariqat (orders) that venerate a rich tradition of remembering significant Muslim saints.

Verfolgung der Sufis in Ägypten (Abdel Rahman Mohamed)

The celebrations offer a welcome respite from the many hardships

"Sayeda Zeinab represents everything to me. She's my whole life really," said Rabie Zaaloul, 63, who traveled from Mansoura, around 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Cairo. "I come from the first day and stay the whole duration, feeding people, giving them khidma [an ethical act to provide a service for the poor - the ed.] and we butcher the meat daily. We are here to serve them, the needy are really struggling this year, this is our moral duty," he told DW in front of the Sayeda Zeinab mosque.

"It's a welfare that's not a welfare," said Paola Abenante, an anthropologist at the University of Milano-Bicocca who has extensively researched the practices of Egyptian Sufis. "It depends on private giving, in a moment where social disparities are even bigger there is even more charity beyond the neo-liberal sense," she told DW.

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A gentle face of Islam

Economic hardship

Egypt's inflation reached a three-decade high in April, which has caused food and medicine prices to surge. The pound has lost half of its value since the government floated it to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in November 2016.

Read more: IMF approves $12 billion Egypt loan agreement

Sayed, 42, hawked little trinkets along with his mother Om Sayed, 64, just outside the mosque.

"I used to attend the hadra [a dance ritual - the ed.] but now not so much. There's a stagnation in the market so we have to keep on working," he told DW.

He explained that economic and security pressures were affecting his humble trade.

"The cost has doubled in making our festive merchandise. It would cost 600 Egyptian pounds (30 euros) for 100 meters and now its 1,200 pounds. Sometimes we get told by local authorities to pack up because there are a lot of security problems in the country. They are afraid that someone would blow up something."

Egypt has witnessed a dramatic rise in terrorist attacks against religious minorities. In March the "Islamic State" (IS) group in the Sinai posted a video showing the beheading two Sufis for "sorcery" and claimed responsibility for church bombings the following month, which killed over 45 people.

Read more: Egypt orders military trial for 48 'Islamic State' suspects over church attacks

'IS' warns of further attacks on Egypt's Christians

Verfolgung der Sufis in Ägypten (Abdel Rahman Mohamed)

Om Sayed: "I want a revolution"

Om Sayed, who accompanies her son all over Egypt to hawk at moulids [religious festivals - the ed.], is unaffected by the religious atmosphere. She has more pressing issues to deal with.

Calling for a revolution

"We want things to loosen up. When you can't eat or drink, what you gonna do? We haven't gone through a year like this. I come to sell and leave - the moulid is crucial for me."

She reminisced about the millions in Tahrir Square and throughout the country who called for bread, freedom and social justice in January 2011 which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Read more: Mubarak walks free while Egypt's revolutionaries remain behind bars

"We want another revolution to straighten things out. You see what's happening to us. We want something serious. I was in Tahrir and sold a lot of merchandise," she said. "People are struggling these days, I want a revolution so people can be comfortable."

Valerie Hoffman, head of religious studies department at University of Illinois told DW that "many of those who offer food at the Sufi khidmas are themselves very poor, in which case it really embodies both a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of God in honor of the saint who is celebrated at the moulid, and it promotes the bonds of love that Sufis cherish."

Verfolgung der Sufis in Ägypten (Abdel Rahman Mohamed)

Rabie Zaaloul says the festival's spiritual value is more important than anything else

Zaaloul, a retired official with the ministry of electricity, meditated on the spiritual value the moulid gives him beyond materialistic concerns.

"We are merchants of love," he enthusiastically noted. "We love people and people love us back, this is our currency."

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