The holy Muslim month of Ramadan began Saturday with a bitter taste for residents of Libya’s capital, as a cash shortage bites, prices rise and deadly clashes returned to Tripoli.
Dawn queues outside banks just to withdraw a few tens of dinars has become routine for most Libyans, whose chaos-plagued North African country faces a persistent liquidity shortfall.
But despite the difficulty of getting by on a daily basis, the small Tomzini grocery store was still crowded on the eve of Ramadan.
However shoppers were cautious and extra-careful about their purchases this year, with cutbacks the order of the day.
During Ramadan, Muslims around the world abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex from dawn to dusk.
They break the fast with a meal known as iftar and before dawn they have a second opportunity to eat and drink during suhur.
“Instead of buying three kilos of almonds, I’m buying three dinars’ worth, just for decoration,” said young mother Mariem, whose little girl gazed imploringly at large baskets of multi-coloured sweet treats.
Prices have multiplied by three or four times this year in Libya, including at Tomzini which is famed for its fresh spices.
Most Libyans these days are trying to adapt and change their spending habits so they are still solvent by the end of the month.
People no longer buy in the large quantities of the past.
“I have to be careful. I’m not sure I can replace every dinar that leaves my pocket,” 59-year-old civil servant Moftah al-Barrani told AFP.
“We haven’t been paid for months, and even if I still have money in the bank I can’t get at it because there is no cash,” he said.
Libyans pick vegetables at an open-air market in Tripoli, as a cash shortage bites, prices rise and deadly clashes return to the capital
But he also added that people still wanted to do their shopping in case prices rose even further because of high demand during Ramadan.
Retired teacher and mother of three Halima, 54, counts her cash carefully to ensure she does not have to come shopping again during the first week of Ramadan.
In a market in Tajoura, an eastern suburb of Tripoli, Sabri al-Bouechi who lives on his salary as an official recognizes that “living conditions are below zero”.
“I’m just an ordinary guy like those who queue up outside the bank,” he said, adding: “Officials should have pity on people.”
Because of the cash shortage, the businesses that do best are those that accept cards and cheques.
“Do you take the Commerce and Development Bank card?” asked one customer in a supermarket.
In addition to economic mayhem, Libyans have also had to cope with a country in chaos after the 2011 revolution that ousted and killed strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
On Friday, fierce clashes in the capital between forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and rival militias killed at least 28 people and wounded 130, according to the health ministry.
Smoke rises in the centre of the Libyan capital of Tripoli after clashes on May 26, 2017 in which at least 28 people were killed on the eve of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan
The fighting broke out in the south of the city after several months of relative calm in Tripoli, with even heavy weapons being used in residential areas.
In a statement on Friday, the GNA issued a scathing statement in the wake of the clashes.
“This is their gift to the people for the month of Ramadan”, the statement said of the month generally marked by sacrifice and piety.
With such lofty ideals in mind, residents of Tripoli have been helping others to cope with a country in crisis.
For the past two months, throughout the city and on social networks, associations have mobilised to collect food supplies for needy families.
“There’s no point in praying and fasting when a neighbour goes hungry,” said Samer Fayyadh, who runs a fast-food restaurant in Tripoli.
In an attempt to counter the effects of the economic crisis, the central bank decided to spend more than $550 million (500 million euros) on food imports for Ramadan.
This is despite the constant risk of subsidised products being diverted by unscrupulous traders.