In the days of former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, the perpetual complaint was that the faces in government never changed. Some ministers held on to their seats for more than two decades.
Some editors-in-chief of state newspapers and directors and board members of public sector companies remained in their posts for more than a quarter of a century: Atef Sedki was prime minister for nine years, while Ahmed Nazif was fated to spend only six years in office.
Today, the situation could not be more different. Since the beginning of the era of revolutions, not a single cabinet has remained in power for a full year. People are finding it hard to learn the names of ministers, not to mention governors and directors of government bureaus.
Mubarak supporters described the lack of changing faces as stability. Opponents described it as stagnation and rigidity. Since Mubarak’s ouster, we do not find many supporters of anything. However, those sympathetic with the current situation describe it as a form of political flux and dynamism, while those opposed, or those whose heads ache from so many changes while conditions remain the same, call it chaos.
The new government finds itself in this difficult situation just as the presidential campaign season has begun. After this will come the parliamentary elections and, meanwhile, the security and economic crises persist. But apparently the government can close its eyes to everything except electricity.Abdel Monem Said
New leadership, old electricity problems
The latest major change in government was the reshuffle that brought in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb. Mehleb has had a distinguished career in government characterized by energetic action both in the former era and in the revolutionary era.
Now, only weeks after assuming the premiership, he has to contend with the whole gamut of issues his predecessors faced. All those predecessors faced enormous challenges, but one of the most critical in terms of the political survival of a prime minister or cabinet has been electricity blackouts, the frequency of which has increased from a few hours per week to four to six hours a day in some areas.
Since more than 90 percent of Egyptians—rich and poor alike—depend on electricity for so many things, from lighting their homes and preserving food of course, to watching the many talk shows on TV. The outages are generating a new revolutionary climate.
The honeymoon period for new governments has grown extremely short. The optimism that is generated by a new cabinet is over in a flash. Perhaps one reason for this is that no one is certain whether the cabinet is really new or just a renovation of the previous one.
In all events, the problems remain the same because they are structural in nature and do not disappear the moment names in government change.
Egypt’s population increases by around 2 million people a year. These people have many needs, prime among which is electricity, without which it becomes difficult to meet other needs in education, healthcare and employment, for example. But electricity can only be generated by gas and oil, which have become scarce in Egypt.
So it had to be decided whether to direct the energy to industry, agriculture, transport or to the people. It was a thorny and bitter choice to have to make and, ultimately, the solution was to divide the electricity between the people and production.
However, it turned out that the former did not obtain their basic needs and the latter continued to plunge, taking the national economy down with it. Two forms of protest were generated as a result: those against electricity shortages and those against low wages because factories were not working or, at best, not working at full capacity.
Every problem has a solution, of course. The electricity situation was problematic even before the era of revolutions. The solution was, first, to make the electricity sector operate more economically and equitably. Those who consumed more would have to pay more.
That was sufficient not only to ensure that factories obtained their electricity needs, but also to ensure the people had lighting all the time. Moreover, the electricity authority, which had operated at a loss, began to run a surplus in some years. But then Egypt’s oil and gas reserves began to decline and it was suggested that coal be used to fuel the generators.
Coal: a better alternative?
Coal is inexpensive and, as it turns out, abundant. But environmentalists in Egypt, following the example of their counterparts in industrialized nations, objected adamantly. So the electricity cuts continued and Egypt remained as polluted as ever.
Recently, the coal option has resurfaced again, in keeping with maxims regarding the need to swallow bitter pills. But the decision has come rather late in the day. Factories and electricity generating plants cannot be converted to coal power overnight. The process takes time and money, and the Mehleb government has neither.
In the previous era, another solution was discussed. It entailed bringing the private sector in through partnerships with the public sector to undertake major infrastructure projects. The method proved extremely successful in the communications sector and in constructing new urban developments.
It could have also been applied in the electricity sector, transforming the situation from one of a dearth of electricity to one of plenty. However, because the revolutionary era has a kind of psychological block when it comes to the private sector, Mehleb had to swear the solemnest of oaths not to include a single businessman in his cabinet.
This means, in effect, that the cabinet does not contain a single investor and is thus a cabinet for consumers. And these are the ones who are lashing out against him now.
The new government finds itself in this difficult situation just as the presidential campaign season has begun. After this will come the parliamentary elections and, meanwhile, the security and economic crises persist. But apparently the government can close its eyes to everything except electricity.
This Egyptian situation appears to offer many lessons for the rest of the Arab world. Simply put, even if financial resources are plentiful, infrastructure needs to be constantly maintained and upgraded, which is something only the private sector can do.
It is no accident that in all industrialized nations public utilities, from seaports and airports to electricity generating plants, are managed by the private sector which, on top of being more efficient in managing them, pays taxes to the national treasury, offsetting at least some of the national deficit, while optimizing output and the quality of the service.
High risk for unsolved electricity problem
Egypt can be thought of as a huge laboratory, in which there is a plethora of cumulative problems and a full range of available solutions. Unfortunately, neither problems nor solutions have converged very often. Today, the country faces the historic test of whether it can make this convergence happen.
But now the time factor is more critical than ever. We do not have as much time as we thought we did, and there is now very limited time available in which to take some tough decisions. If Egypt’s next or current president or prime minister has the necessary political resolve, perhaps we will no longer have those major blockages, not just in electricity supply, but in other infrastructure services such as water provision, sewer systems and garbage removal.
The key to handling all these issues is to treat them not so much as problems, but as areas in which to produce solutions and responses to the needs of society. If these can be brought into the marketplace, they can become part of the economic cycle, as well as being economic and social assets.
To bring down the Mehleb government because of the electricity crisis will serve nothing. It will not turn darkness into light. Rather, it will only aggravate the confusion that has already been too widespread for too long. Perhaps when Egypt has an elected president, conditions will hopefully improve.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 17, 2014.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.