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On Cairo streets, generators’ hum sends loud message about Morsi’s failings

Egyptians are furious with President Morsi, who they blame for widespread electricity cuts that are further disrupting businesses, shops, and restaurants at a time of economic hardship.

On a busy street in Cairo, a strip of shops typically selling power tools have been doing brisk business in something a little bigger: generators. On a recent day, there were plenty of potential buyers checking out the shiny machines stacked on the sidewalk.

Inside one store, the owner of a pastry shop negotiates a price as other customers interrupt to ask for details on various models. The buyer says he needs a generator to keep his refrigerators and other machinery running during power cuts that have increased in frequency since the temperatures began climbing into the triple digits earlier this summer.

Shop owners and employees say demand for generators has soared as business owners and wealthy homeowners try to insulate themselves from electricity outages. Several years ago they might have sold one to three machines a day. But shop owners say they now often sell 10 to 15 a day. 

And when the customers come to buy, they are angry.

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“They insult the government and the president,” says store manager Bishoy Hanna, with an embarrassed smile.

With temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and businesses already struggling amid an economic slump, the electricity cuts are provoking anger across Egypt. AlthoughPresident Mohamed Morsi inherited Egypt’s energy problems, some energy experts say his government is not doing what it could to solve them.

Regardless of who is to blame, when the lights go out, it is Morsi who bears the brunt of Egyptians’ anger.

Noha Sayed, who runs a small restaurant in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo, says the power cuts are affecting her business. “It’s ruining the restaurant. The country is standing still, and when the power goes out it gets even worse,” she says. “I voted for Morsi. But now, I don’t want him. … I thought he would make things better, with Islam, but nothing. Nothing. He’s not doing anything. He added to the problems.”

Years in the making

Egypt’s energy crisis has been years in the making, and electricity outages are not a post-uprising phenomenon – fuel shortages began in 2007, and there were many outages in 2010, the year before the uprising. 

But recent events have exacerbated it. Energy subsidies have been consuming an increasingly large chunk of Egypt’s budget, now taking up one-fifth of it. It was long an exporter of natural gas, which fuels the majority of Egypt’s power plants, but now it imports gas. As foreign reserves dropped after the uprising, Egypt struggled to buy enough fuel for its power stations.

Egypt has been forced to import fuel partly because foreign oil companies doing exploration in Egypt have stopped supplying it with gas because the government is already too heavily indebted to them. Farah Halime, who writes the Rebel Economy blog, says Egypt is believed to owe at least $5 billion to foreign oil and gas companies.

And when the government can’t afford to buy enough natural gas and other fuel to keep up with the demand generated by a population of 84 million, the lights go out.

Electricity ministry spokesman Aktham Abou-Elella says the government’s recent allocations of $700 million to the oil ministry to purchase fuel for power stations means there will likely be occasional, short blackouts during the summer but not longlasting cuts in electricity. But he warned that during the month of Ramadan, which begins mid-July, demand might exceed capacity, even if Egypt has enough fuel to operate plants at full capacity.

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There were extensive power outages during Ramadan last year as consumption spiked during the time when Egyptians break their daily fast. In some areas, power outages occurred nearly daily.

Dr. Abou-Elella blamed consumers for using too much electricity, or, in some places, blocking the construction of new power plants. “If the people cooperate, [Ramadan] will pass maybe with small problems. If the people don’t cooperate, we’ll have big problems,” he said. “It depends on the people, whether they cooperate or not. From my experience, the government will do all it can.”

Government mismanagement

But Magdi Nasrallah, founding chair of the Department of Petroleum and Energy Engineering at the American University in Cairo, says the government is not properly managing the crisis. Instead of planning ahead and buying the fuel needed to meet the predictable spike in demand as Egyptians switch on air conditioners in the summer heat, the government waited until a crisis arose to allocate extra funds, he says.

“This is a very serious concern and the government is not really paying attention,” he says. “They just wait until a crisis happens and they start panicking.”

He says the government also does a poor job of managing power plants. It has been turning increasingly to a heavy fuel oil, which is more readily available than other fuels but is less efficient and requires more power plant maintenance. Dr. Nasrallah says that when this fuel is used, the power plants should be shut down periodically for cleaning, but they are not. 

And then there is the bloated subsidy program, which does not target the needy and is increasingly costly as Egypt imports fuel and then sells it at discounted prices. Reforming the program risks arousing popular anger at a time when the president is already facing significant challenges.

“But the truth is that there’s no other choice,” says Halime. “This idea that energy subsidies can continue to take up a bigger part of Egypt’s budget every year is a serious problem.”

Reforms have been much discussed but always delayed, though officials say Egypt will begin rationing subsidized fuel through smart cards in July.

Blame all around

Not all Egyptians blame Morsi for their electricity woes. Farag Suleiman, a tailor who can’t work his sewing machine when the electricity goes out, says Morsi’s enemies are behind the blackouts. “They want to make him fail,” he says.

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Many of those angry at the president take out their frustration on their local electricity bill collectors, who go door to door to collect what is due. Some residents have declared they will not pay their bills.

At the Sultan falafel shop in Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood, a slow but steady stream of customers files in on a sweltering afternoon to buy crispy, piping hot falafel, french fries, and other simple lunch foods.

A generator sits on the sidewalk in front of the shop, ready to roar to life when the electricity goes out. And here, says employee Emad Hamdi, that happens up to four times a day.

As he discusses the power outages, the neighborhood electricity bill collector walks in, his shoulders hunched as if to brace against the constant insults he bears these days. As he sits to eat his sandwich, another customer comes to the doorway and glares at him. “What are you doing here?” he says angrily.

Mr. Hamdi, the employee, laughs. “Everyone wants to kill him!” He gestures at the bill collector, who looks resigned to the abuse as he hunches his shoulders a little more and eats his falafel sandwich.