As Egypt’s president marks his first 100 days in office, struggling farmers say Mohammed Mursi has failed to deliver on one of his key promises: to resolve the country’s fuel shortages.
The farmers say they were neglected under the former government of Hosni Mubarak and had hoped for a better future under the new order.
But many say they feel let down.
“As for Egyptian farmers, we thought our daily lives would improve a little, but our conditions have become worse. As for fuel, we haven’t been able to get any gas cylinders and now we have a severe shortage of diesel. Agricultural land needs to be irrigated, so we need to find enough diesels to operate the irrigation engines. But there isn’t any,” said farmer Abu Taleb Mohammed.
When he took office in June, Mursi announced a 100-day plan in which restoring the country’s supply of energy was one of his top priorities.
But on Saturday, the president conceded that among his government’s main shortcomings was the ability to supply butane gas cylinders to Egyptians to cook with. He cited deep-rooted corruption in the country as one of the reasons for insufficient supplies.
The country’s farmers say the lack of available diesel has indirectly led to a deterioration in the quality of the soil.
“The lack of water means there is now a concentration of salt in the soil. The concentration of salt has led to a problem for agriculture. The crops have begun to deteriorate. All of this is because of the increase in prices and because there is no diesel fuel. We are not able to find any diesel fuel,” said Sadek Alshemy of the pest control department.
Although it is now the world’s biggest wheat importer, Egypt was once the breadbasket of the ancient Roman empire.
Farms in Menoufia in the Nile Delta have traditionally produced cotton, vegetables, maize and citrus fruit - much of it for export.
But the lack of fuel is making it impossible for farmers to pump water up from deep wells, leaving the land parched and destroying the crops.
“We are suffering from a lack of fuel because most of the farms here are irrigated by diesel-operated machines. I have to send a worker to wait at a fuel station for seven or eight hours to get hold of diesel. And we get 20 or 40 liters of diesel, which is enough to run a water pump for only a couple of hours. So the crops are affected, they are thirsty, they lack water. This is the problem, and I call on the government to urgently provide us with diesel fuel,” said farm owner, Mohamed Shafiq.
With the farming industry in trouble, day laborers say they are struggling to make ends meet.
“What can I do with a daily wage of 30 pounds? A cylinder of butane gas (for cooking) costs me 20 pounds. It feels like I am working just to buy a cylinder of gas, not to feed my family. The life of an Egyptian farmer is very hard, nobody cares about Egyptian farmers at all,” said 27-year-old Moussa Abdel Rahman.
The State currently sells butane cylinders at about five Egyptian pounds ($0.82) each as part of its energy subsidy programme. The actual cost of the cylinders is about 65 pounds.
Spending on fuel subsidies has soared as world prices and domestic consumption have risen but the authorities have been reluctant to cut them for fear of a popular backlash.
Amid ongoing shortages, the government, which is negotiating a $3.2 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, has denied talk that it can no longer afford to pay the fuel bill.