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Energy, Egypt’s other power struggle

Erin CunninghamGlobalPost.com

SAYEDA ZEINAB, Egypt — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may have made his ultimate power play against the country’s commanding army earlier this month by stripping its top generals of the political control they wielded since the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

But he’s been less successful in a power struggle of a different kind.

Rolling blackouts that have plunged Egypt into darkness during the most sweltering summer months are spurring popular anger against the new leader just weeks into his presidency.

The month-long power cuts have halted trading on Cairo’s stock exchange, stranded passengers on the subway and prompted angry residents to block roads in protest.

The outages appear to have abated in some regions. Energy consumption decreased following the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and festivities, the electricity ministry said. And two new power plants have been put back online. But in the city’s poorest quarters, there's still no relief.

“The cuts ruined Ramadan,” said 38-year-old Umm Mohamed, whose central Cairo slum endures blackouts for 12 hours at a time. “We know the government will do nothing for us.”

The national power grid began to buckle in July, when temperatures broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit and prompted residents to switch on their fans and air conditioners for extended hours. At the same time, a short supply of natural gas, used to generate electricity for 90 percent of Egypt’s power plants, helped create shortages for the country’s 82 million people.

“The lack of natural gas, thefts [of equipment] from power stations, the excessive electricity usage in the summer months — all of that causes problems,” electricity ministry spokesman Aktham Abu Alaa said.

This summer’s scheduled blackouts are new for Egypt’s already ailing infrastructure. But they point to a looming energy crisis under for Egypt, which will soon struggle to generate power for its growing population beyond only the hottest months of the year.

Egypt produces 124 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity per year and consumes 109 billion, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

However, poor infrastructure, inept resource management and tumbling foreign reserves limit Egypt's options for dealing with the growing demand.

“There's an urgent need to ration electricity because we don’t have enough supply,” said Magda Kandil, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. “The system is very inefficient, and the government needs to think about alternatives.”

Although Egypt’s energy woes predate Morsi, they're presenting the new Muslim Brotherhood president with an early test.

Energy intensive industries, such as cement and steel, receive the highest level of support under a government fuel subsidies regime. Instead of reducing it, however, Morsi’s government has asked ordinary citizens to carry the burden.

A statement from Prime Minister Hisham Kandil encouraging people to wear cotton garments to deal with the heat prompted a deluge of ridicule from Egypt’s vocal Twittersphere.

The cabinet is also reported to have proposed a law requiring shops and businesses to close at 9 p.m. to cut back on electricity consumption. But in Cairo, a city of 20 million and broiling temperatures, business thrives at night after temperatures drop.

Some analysts say the government should end natural gas exports to Jordan and elsewhere.

But Egypt is in dire need of foreign currency reserves, which fell by nearly half in the year following the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

“[The leadership] obviously doesn’t understand how angry the people are,” oil industry expert Ibrahim Zahran said. “They've been calling only for a decrease in consumption and nothing else. The government will switch Egypt off and go to bed.”

Residents of Umm Mohamed’s slum in the working-class neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab seethe with anger at both Morsi and the electricity administration.

Living in a crush of informal, red-brick tenements that reach up into Cairo’s smog-choked sky, families already steeped in poverty are grappling with the hardships of life without power.

Built by the government before the revolution in 2011, their settlement was stripped of all electrical wiring after police withdrew from the streets and allowed criminals and thieves run amok prior to Morsi’s rule. Residents refashioned wiring themselves, but it's highly unstable, and they regularly go to the hospital with injuries from electrical shocks.

Makeshift fuseboxes blow and appliances short-circuit when power flickers from the blackouts. Abu Rafaat says he no longer keeps a refrigerator after having had to replace two since the outages began.

“Our children get scared, and they are afraid of the dark,” said Umm Ahmed, 40, also in Sayeda Zeinab. “We haven’t seen anything good since Morsi came to power.”

Residents of this shanty-town who have staged protests at the local electricity authority have been roughed up and dispersed by police. Elsewhere in Egypt, people have also fought with police and blocked roads and railroads to protest the crippling blackouts.

Egypt’s plucky netizens have created their own website — Kahrabtak, or “your electricity” — to field and track reports of blackouts.

With no end in sight, Morsi looks set to face further unrest. Muslim Brotherhood opponents are planning a mass march on Tahrir Square on Friday.

“Statements like ‘decrease your electricity usage’ could have been said by anyone — a bawab [doorman] or any man on the street,” said Hisham Kassem, co-founder of Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm.

“It might not be his responsibility, but Morsi could have handled it much better,” he said. “We're forced to give him a chance, but it seems there is no room for improvement.”

Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo.