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The Politics of Power Cuts In Egypt (Part 1)

[Image from Jadaliyya] [Image from Jadaliyya]

Egypt has been suffering from an exceptionally hot summer, with record temperatures observed all over the country. The “terrible heat wave” mantra, thus, grew to become what is probably the most pressing issue in Egypt today. The advent of Ramadan obviously could only but emphasize this problem more, as people now have to fast through long and exceptionally hot summer days.

Naturally none of this is unique to Egypt: the entire region suffers the same heat wave. But unlike its neighbors Egypt has been suffering also from long, systematic, nationwide power cuts. Facing sudden shortages in the country’s electric generation capacity, the authorities began to reduce demand by cutting power off entire neighborhoods and cities for a while everyday: an hour if you’re lucky, 8-10 when you’re not. In several cases the cuts spanned entire cities and governorates for whole days. The fact that these outages combined all too often with water cuts highlighted the state’s failure—the latter resulting mostly from cutting the electric power that runs the water network, and to a lesser extent from accidental pipeline breaks. In either case, these cuts intertwined to undermine the already precarious legitimacy of the state.

Meanwhile, wildfires suddenly erupted in Russia and destroyed large tracts of its wheat crop, prompting the Russian government to halt its wheat exports. This bore grave consequences for Egypt, as years of twisted agricultural policies have already made it the world’s largest importer of wheat, and is especially dependant on Russian wheat. With only four months’ supply on its hands, the government hastily went shopping for other sources. Although they finally landed on alternative suppliers, by the time they had done so speculators had already taken advantage of a growing “wheat crisis” to raise the prices of un-subsidized bread, sometimes by 50%. The wheat crisis then led to a bread crisis, and that, in turn, revived the infamous bread queues, which already claimed one man dead. The “wheat crisis” also pushed the prices of other food items up, all merging to exacerbate the already heavily strained Ramadan budget.

It is difficult to understate the social resonance of this failure in a state that prides itself on its supposed infrastructural “achievements.” State pedagogy never tires from preaching that Hosni Mubarak’s wisdom has averted the useless wars that other Arabs never avoid. This, the story goes, is what allowed Egypt to focus on building itself and attain the many infrastructural “achievements” that we now supposedly enjoy. In this narrative Mubarak’s wisdom manifests itself mostly, if not solely, in his “great” infrastructure developments. In addition to justifying the state’s position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, this story has also become a central justification for the “wise” dictatorship that governs Egypt.

If anything, the regime’s historical brag about its infrastructure “accomplishments” to justify its colonial alliances only accentuates it current failure, which people now locate in its electricity failures. The irony here comes out most vividly on comparing Egypt to its neighbours. Evidently the same month-long “heat wave” resulted in record electricity demands in other countries in the region too. Yet, the only other cases that suffered from comparably substantial problems—actually, much more severe—are Iraq and Gaza, both under occupation. Needless to say, the current electricity situation in Iraq and Palestine is the product of decades long of systematic and deliberate efforts to destroy them by the strongest colonial forces on the face of this planet. By contrast, Egypt is a “strategic” ally, in fact doll, of the very forces that continue to destroy Palestine and Iraq. Ironically, Egypt joined this alliance for exactly the same type of “gains” that are now so scandalously failing; more ironically, to avoid the fate of Palestine and Iraq. In this way, the Egyptian regime appears to have attained its current electricity failure against every bit of colonial justification that it has been preaching for decades.

Ramadan is a month of high consumption. It witnesses the biggest sales of most food and recreational products. It’s also the time when people are fasting and impatient. They generally work less, rest in the afternoons, have iftar (break the fast) with their extended families, watch TV a lot, go out after iftar—all with great intensity. Besides, it’s also an expensive month, as middle-class families support much higher consumption behaviours. But suddenly they are required to fast without electric power amidst the melting heat and rising prices. On the domestic side that meant no cooling facitilies, TVs, and often no water too. That makes a very different and certainly difficult Ramadan. Understandably, then, these outages drove middle-class people nuts. Their immense anger and disappointment  evolved directly from the bodily discomforts that they now have to suffer, which means that the state cannot just sweet-talk it away. It is no wonder thus that the failure remained front-page material in the press and TV shows for weeks now, as a sign of Egypt’s return to the so-called “middle ages.” Such deterioration also became the main topic for extended families’ chats over iftar, always cursing the state. Moreover, it provoked people to take to the street, sometimes sitting in and stopping traffic by force. 

The economic loss that resulted from these cuts is yet another colossal aspect of our failure story. Unfortunately we don’t know its full extent yet: the media has been too obsessed with the social anger part of the story to give it the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, the sporadic coverage that we have suggests that these cuts forced perhaps tens of thousands of economic enterprises to shutdown for long durations, sometime with grave consequences to their production machinery. One report said that in the neighborhood of Shubra alone 1200 factories were forced to shutdown for three hours in only one day. The governor of Shubra has put the shutdown losses of these factories at 200 million pounds (a bit less than $40 million) for that one day. Another report said that two weeks of these cuts have cost the Aluminum factory of Naga Hmadi alone a loss of almost 400 million pounds ($80 million). It is hence safe to say that we are talking here about a gigantic national loss on a multi-billion dollar scale. 

The government’s first explanation for this failure blamed it on increased consumption: the heat caused a sudden unwieldy rise in demand for electric power that surpassed the national generation capacity. This increased demand was, in turn, blamed on air-conditioners to build sympathy with the state’s dilemma by associating the root of the problem to extravagant behaviour. But these arguments –which ultimately condemn state planning- didn’t sell well. The state also made sure to drop its favourite population line along the way, which basically blames population increase for eating up all of the country’s natural resources. Egyptians are here to blame because they have too many children. Again, this decades-old argument doesn’t hold water. Egypt’s population growth is relatively small compared to most countries in the region, and more importantly lies well below its GDP—the “extra” people should have been easily more than covered.

The state’s original storyline only provoked the press to search for more-convincing explanations for this mess. In one case the Shorouk reported that the factories of the steel magnate Ahmad Ezz alone consume 17% the country’s electricity subsidies. Surely you can imagine the resonance of discovering that Ezz, Gamal Mubarak’s right hand and possibly business partner, consumes the biggest share of the electricity that has suddenly been denied to everyone. It means that Ezz’ growth is somehow implicated in causing this mess, not population growth as they claim.

[To be continued . . . ]





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