Egypt's energy crisis sparks conspiracy theories
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It is one of the first concrete changes observed since Mohammed Morsi’s ousting: power outages and queues at petrol stations seem to have miraculously disappeared. Speculation as to why is running rampant.
Anour Said, a taxi driver in Cairo, can’t contain his elation.
“Ever since Mohammed Morsi left, there’s petrol at the service stations,” he said as his family piles into the car alongside him. “Since that very minute, things have been going well!”
Said’s wife nodded along as her husband continued: “For a year, life was very difficult. There were water shortages, power outages, no fuel. But now, everything has returned to normal.”
Indeed, ever since the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the long queues of cars outside petrol stations in the capital of Cairo have disappeared.
Achraf Hader, the manager of a small service station near Ramses Station (the city’s main train station), confirmed the change. “Before the demonstrations on June 30, I had to send two employees to negotiate all night in order for us to have enough petrol, and that didn’t always work,” he recounted. “Tonight, both pumps are full. And the petrol supplier called to ask if I wanted more!”
‘Magic wands don’t exist’
Hader is at a loss when it comes to explaining how and why exactly things changed. “It’s the question everyone is asking,” he mused.
Taxi driver Yasser Mohammed Abdel Ghani has his own theory. “Members of the Morsi regime created the petrol shortage to prevent Egyptians from going to protest on June 30,” he said. “But it didn’t work. We parked our cars and walked for kilometres to reach the rallying places and voice our anger.”
He continued: “Magic wands don’t exist. If we all of a sudden have fuel again, it means there never was a shortage. The suppliers were just not delivering – that’s the only logical explanation.”
Not everyone is convinced by that reasoning, however. For the ousted president’s supporters, the return of petrol and electricity is evidence of a plot orchestrated by members of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, free-market economists and the military. According to the conspiracy theorists, the petrol shortages and power outages were intended to incite anger against the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This was preparing for the coup,” Naser el-Farash, spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Morsi, told The New York Times. “Different circles in the state all participated in creating the crisis,”
Panic and poor management
Economic and social frustrations were the catalyst behind the mass street protests on June 30, which led to Morsi’s ouster. Beyond voicing political grievances, many Egyptians demonstrating that day demanded petrol and electricity, but also food and jobs. Egypt’s already disastrous economic situation further deteriorated after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.
Does the miraculous return of petrol point to the prior incompetence of the Islamist-controlled government? Or does it prove, rather, as an article in The New York Times read, that “the legions of personnel left in place after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011 played a significant role -- intentionally or not -- in undermining the overall quality of life under the Islamist administration of Mr. Morsi?”
Or did the 9.2 billion euros in aid promised by Gulf nations land in the accounts of the new Egyptian authorities last week, as some have affirmed, therefore enabling the petrol pumps to flow anew?
“The theories from pro- and anti-Morsi Egyptians are politically motivated, so it’s difficult to distinguish the true from the false,” offered Ahmed Gamal, the director of the Economic Research Forum in Cairo. “Still, we know that the Egyptian economy is lacking in foreign money because of the drop in tourism and investments from abroad. That can lead to limits on imports of certain products, which could explain some of the problems.”
According to business journalist Farah Halime, who oversees a blog called Rebel Economy, the lines at petrol stations could be explained by a combination of panic and poor management. During the period of political uncertainty that began on June 30, many nervous Cairo residents tried to stock up on food and money. “Knowing there’s a fuel shortage encourages people to go fill up their cars at the station,” Halime said.
Shortages in the past, shortages in the future?
On the other hand, Halime does not trust the explanation offered by the Muslim Brotherhood. “Intentionally planning shortages would have required a lot of effort,” she said. “If that theory proves to be true, it’s very worrying. That means that a whole group of people is responsible for the difficulties the country has been facing.”
Whatever the likeliest explanation may be, Egyptians may be celebrating too soon. Less than ten days after Morsi’s arrest, queues at petrol stations have already been reported at Beni Suef, in central Egypt, and certain neighbourhoods in Cairo have had temporary power outages.
According to experts, Egypt’s energy crisis is indeed far from being resolved. The sector is plagued by aging infrastructure and is supported by costly government subsidies (accounting for 6% of the GDP and 70% of all government subsidies).
“Egypt pays a lot for its energy and re-sells it very cheaply,” Halime noted. “The system more or less worked before the revolution in 2011, but it’s no longer sustainable. There were shortages in the past, and there will be shortages in the future.”