LETTER FROM CAIRO, JUNE 2014

Life may be full of uncertainty in Egypt, but if there’s one thing you can rely on it’s the daily black-outs. Although unscheduled and unannounced, they seem to come in early evening and last an hour or two. Many hospitals are equipped with generators and unless you happen to get trapped in an elevator, the outages are short enough to be manageable. You light some candles, cover your ankles (since the mosquito repellent machine can no longer protect you) and hope your computer battery holds up until the power kicks back in. Depending how hot the weather, you may decide to shower by candlelight, that is, if you have enough water pressure without the help of an electrical pump, which is admittedly rare.

In the 1980s, when Cairo’s underground metro was under construction, electricity, water and phone cuts lasted days on end, making city-life a bit like survivalist camping, minus the trees and clean air. Although it was a hardship, especially for those living in upper-storey flats, people accepted the dysfunction in the name of the metro, which represented a thoroughly modern infrastructure upgrade and reflected the state’s careful planning for the future.

These days, black-outs are a politically charged issue, since they represent the state’s lack of funds to purchase natural gas (which fuels 70% of Egypt’s electrical power plants) and its inability to deal with Egypt’s growing energy demand. Last year when Muslim Brotherhood- backed president Mohamed Morsi was ousted, one of the main complaints was that his government had done nothing about power shortages. Like Morsi, Egypt’s next president, in all probability former General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, will inherit a problem he did not cause but will be expected to solve.

Thanks to deals cut during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, natural gas was sold cheaply to foreign companies who could extract and transport it. So while Egypt is exporting gas at a low price, it has to cover its domestic shortfalls by importing it at higher market costs. Energy is subsidised in Egypt, placing a huge burden on the state’s budget, but cutting subsidies is a politically volatile decision that no Egyptian leader has so far had the courage to take. That may change under Egypt’s incoming president, not least because the current situation is economically untenable.

Some Cairenes ironically refer to the black-outs to as ‘Sisi time’, because of the speech where El Sisi announced his presidential candidacy and called on all citizens to tighten their belts for the good of the nation. This upset quite a few Egyptians whose belt buckles are already up against their backbones. A similar jibe that is going around – ‘When the lights go out, we know that El Sisi is our president’ – is a subtle reference to the darker failings of Egypt’s military-backed transitional government including the violent dispersal of protests, the jailing of activists, the deaths of journalists covering unrest and the mass arrests and sentencing of suspected Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Egyptians are wary of critiquing these events too loudly, partly because they’re afraid to be punished and partly because they still hope their government can somehow save them from total disaster. As the long hot summer progresses, the black-outs are bound to increase, making life harder and less productive. But in the minds of many Egyptians, the biggest power failure of all is that of their leadership, and the burden of proof to the contrary will fall squarely on the shoulders of their newly elected president.

Maria Golia

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