Egypt needs electricity to move forward
Power cuts in Egypt are becoming the norm, the new cabinet needs to address the phenomenon
During Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s days, people always complained that public faces didn’t change as some men stayed in ministerial posts for more than two decades and some editors-in-chief of national dailies and heads of public companies remained in their posts for over a quarter of a century. Prime Minister Atef Sedqi remained in his post for nine years while Ahmad Nazif only remained in his post for six years. The situation is now different since the era of revolutions began, no cabinet has lasted for one whole year. It’s become difficult for people to recognize the names of ministers, mayors and heads of commissions. During the days of Mubarak, the case was described by his supporters as a means towards stability while his opponents described it as stagnation. After “ousting” him, there aren’t plenty of supporters for anything. Despite that, those who sympathize with the situation describe it as political activity while those who oppose it, and who now have a headache as a result of the changes that don’t really change anything on ground, describe it as chaos.
The most recent change Egypt witnessed was the formation of the cabinet of Ibrahim Mahlab. Mahlab’s history is distinguished but now, and only few weeks after assuming higher authority, he has to confront everything his predecessors confronted. All previous prime ministers confronted great challenges but electricity is perhaps the most threatening one for the prime minister and for the entire cabinet. Power has started to go out in the area of Mahrousa for a few hours every week then it started to go out for around four to six hours daily. Since 90 percent of Egyptians, rich or poor, depend on electricity for lighting, preserving food and watching talk shows, its outage creates a new revolutionary situation.
Fledging bout of optimism
The honeymoon period for cabinets have become very short as the bout of optimism in the new government ends quickly maybe because people don’t know whether the cabinet is really new or just a renewal of a former one. But problems remain since they are of a structural nature and they don’t disappear just because ministers have changed. The issue is that the Egyptian population increases by an average of 4.2 percent a year. This means the population annually increases by around two million. Such an increasing population has many demands and electricity is a major demand. Electricity can only be generated via power using gas and oil and these have become rare in Egypt. There is a tough choice to be made: either power goes to factories, farms and transportation or it goes to the people. Both are bitter options and the solution is to distribute electricity between people and production. In the end, the former don’t get what they need and th latter take the country’s economy into the abyss. The result is producing two kinds of protests in Egypt: a protest over power outage and a protest over small wages since factories don’t work at all or in the best case scenario aren’t operating at their full capacity.
There is a tough choice to be made: either power goes to factories, farms and transportation or it goes to the peopleAbdel Monem Said
Each problem has a solution of course. This power formula was tough even before the revolutions’ era. But the solution at first was that the power sector operates in a fair and economical way. Therefore, he who consumes more, pays more. This was not only enough for factories to meet their needs but it was also enough for people to have permanent lighting and more. The power company which is always losing achieved a surplus during some years. When Egyptian reserves of gas and oil began to decrease, it was suggested that the country use the cheaper alternative ofcoal - which is also available - to generate power but environmental groups in Egypt decided to act like their counterparts in progressive countries so they refused the proposal. Electricity was thus sacrificed and Egypt remained polluted.
The proposal has been recently brought up again but approving it came late in the day and it needs time to be implemented as factories and power-generating factories don’t change overnight and they also require time and money and Mahlab’s cabinet doesn’t have either. During the past era, a substantial solution was suggested and it stipulated that the private sector, in partnership with the public sector, establish basic infrastructure projects including power-related ones. This technique worked in the telecommunications sector and it also worked in establishing new cities. It could have also saved the power sector. But the revolutionary era has a psychological problem with the private sector and Mahlab had to swear that his ministries don’t include one single businessman. So practically, it does not include one single investor.
This situation is uncomfortable for this new government which was formed a while before presidential elections and parliamentary elections and amidst a security and economic crisis. The cabinet can turn a blind eye to everything but electricity. The current Egyptian situation can teach plenty of lessons to other Arab countries. Simply speaking, even if financial resources are available, major infrastructure requires constant treatment that can only be made available via the private sector. It’s not a coincidence that in progressive countries, all public facilities, from airports, ports to power factories, are in the hands of the private sector which is more competent when it comes to running them and which also pays taxes to the government and thus pays off its deficiency or at least part of it.
Egypt is a testing ground. Problems in Egypt accumulate although solutions are available; yet somehow they don’t cross paths. The test Egypt currently faces does not depend on the time factor which the Egyptians always thought they had plenty of, instead it depends tough decisions that will be made in a limited amount of time. If Egypt’s current or upcoming president or if its prime minister have the required political willingness, then perhaps there wouldn’t be these suffocating problems of power, water, sewerage and wastes. Toppling Mahlab’s government due to the power crisis will not solve anything. It will only add further confusion which has already endured for long. Perhaps the situation will improve when the country has an elected president.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 9, 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.
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