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With the economy in tatters, Egyptians tighten their belts for major Muslim holiday

Tamer Shamy's butcher shop is all set for one of Islam's most important holidays — colorful blinking lights have been festooned around hanging slabs of meat, Egyptian pop music is blaring and a cluster of chairs and benches have been placed out front. The only thing missing is the customers.

Egyptians are feeling the squeeze from nearly 20 months of political turmoil that have gutted the nation's economy and brought home the meaning of the four-day Festival of Sacrifice, which begins Friday, marking the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

"People are under a lot of pressure," Shamy said. "They have many expenses and not enough income to celebrate the holiday the way they used to."

Families traditionally mark the occasion by eating sumptuous meals of lamb or beef, lavishing their children with gifts and distributing meat to the poor. But standing outside his butcher shop in the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, Shamy said Egypt's economic woes have forced his customers to cut back on the celebrations.

"I'm selling a lot less meat this year," he said, noting that he bought only 250 sheep and 15 cows to slaughter for this year's holiday compared to nearly 750 animals a year ago.

Mohammed Hassan, a butcher at another shop nearby, pointed to a woman leaving his store carrying a black plastic bag filled with lamb meat.

"She can only afford to buy five kilograms (11 pounds)," Hassan said. "Only the rich can afford to sacrifice a whole sheep or a cow. We are all supposed to do this sacrifice, but many of us cannot."

A kilogram of lamb meat is selling for about $5.75 ($2.60 a pound), putting the prospect of buying a whole sheep — weighing in at 50 kilograms (110 pounds) or more — well out of reach for many in Egypt, where the African Development Bank estimates nearly 40 percent of the country's 85 million people lives on less than $2 a day.

The economic hardships of many Egyptians have only been compounded by the uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the political turmoil that followed it.

The country's budget deficit has ballooned, the already high unemployment rate has stretched to more than 12 percent, and tourism — a key source of revenue — and foreign investment have dried up. The government is still negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a badly need $4.8 billion loan to help bolster its finances.

American University in Cairo professor Samer Atallah says that, although it is difficult to measure the economic impact of the political upheaval, there is no doubt that Egypt's ongoing transition has ratcheted up the financial pressure on the vast majority of Egyptians.

"There's obviously a lot of uncertainty and it affects any consumer to a great extent," said Atallah, noting that even before the 2011 revolution, "the supply of affordable goods was already limited for a large majority of Egyptian households."

Eid overlaps with the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage, which is set to begin Thursday. Hajj is the oldest and most sacred ritual of Islam that every able-bodied Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform once in a lifetime. The pious journey brings together the many nations that make up the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.

Saudi authorities say around 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage.

On Tuesday, men and women prayed for their sins to be erased and for their families, nation and Muslims worldwide as they circumambulated the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure that Muslims around the world pray toward, seven times. They also walked between two hills with their arms stretched out in prayer, retracing what they believe are the steps of the Prophet Muhammad and that of the prophet Abraham's wife.

Even for those not making the pilgrimage, Eid al-Adha provides a welcome chance to reflect and spend time with family and friends.

Back in Cairo, Ehab Abd el-Gaber, a butcher in the city's downtown district, said he will sacrifice a calf to "think about this past year and absolve my sins."

"I have taught my children about the importance of this holiday, just as my father taught me," he said.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Mecca, Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.