That’s the short answer. Here’s the long one:
I’m afraid Egypt still has a long way to go before we never experience a power cut or experience gas shortages again.
The country’s fuel shortages seemed to have miraculously disappeared, just as Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi was overthrown. There were no gas lines and suddenly no electricity cuts:
“We went to sleep one night, woke up the next day, and the crisis was gone,” Ahmed Nabawi, a gas station manager told the New York Times.
Supporters of the interim government predictably seized on this saying the “improvements in recent days were a reflection of Mr. Morsi’s incompetence, not a conspiracy,” according to the NYT story. While the former president is guilty of a lackadaisical approach to the economy, there is little truth in this. It looks more like severe wishful thinking shared by Morsi’s opponents after his ouster.
First of all, there have in fact been power cuts and long queues for gas since Morsi’s ouster. I experienced a power cut myself yesterday and I’m lucky enough to live in the quite pleasant island of Zamalek. Journalists who travelled to the Upper Egypt city of Beni Seuf in recent days also witnessed extended queues for gas at petrol stations there.
The second point, a technical but very important one, is that much of the gas used in cars is actually refined locally. It is not imported from other countries, so any explanation that has attributed the queues to fill up gas tanks to the wider economic downturn is inaccurate. Egypt imports gas and other types of energy products for factories, businesses and power stations, not for cars.
Thirdly, for those conspiracy theorists out there, it is very likely that the Gulf money to Egypt was part of quite a substantial reward arrangement. Therefore, the removal of Morsi would have seen the $12 billion (which includes a hefty supply of badly needed oil products) from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait funnelled through a few days earlier than it had been announced, lessening pressure on demand for energy locally.
Fourthly, the simplest answer is usually the right one.
Did anyone consider the fact that as millions of Egyptians took to the streets, very few people were actually at home or at work using electricity or filling up their cars? It is rational to expect that with business pretty much at a standstill on the anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency, the demand on domestic energy was actually quite low, meaning we were in a comfortable position for the days leading up and after his ouster. Electricity-generating power stations are by and large run with natural gas, and with demand much lower for that week, it’s likely the capacity would not have been overcome as it has in the past.
There are other “theories” out there that suggest the Army used its own funds to pay for fuel, and “Saved Egypt”. Groups blamed each other.
Some liberals suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the fuel shortage as an attempt to demobilise the masses and prevent large demonstrations from forming. But others who served under Morsi said there was a conspiracy to create a crisis from the opposition:
“This was preparing for the coup,” said Naser el-Farash, who served as the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Mr. Morsi. “Different circles in the state, from the storage facilities to the cars that transport petrol products to the gas stations, all participated in creating the crisis.”
Forget these hypotheses that are not proved and will probably remain that way.
What is clear is that the country’s addiction to subsidies is still very much a problem, and that this eclipses every single theory on how shortages may or may not have started or ended. Of course, Mohammed Morsi made many mistakes, as detailed here.
But Egypt, has for a long time, bought energy products at international prices, and sold these locally at a severely subsidised price, costing the nation billions of dollars (in fact energy subsidies swallow up to a quarter, and increasingly more, of the budget – more than what is spent on health and education combined).
Not only is this an expensive way of distributing subsidies, but the system is not targeted so effectively everyone gets cheap fuel – and the rich naturally consume more of it, leaving the poor still in need. Add to that, Egypt has actually begun consuming more energy than it is producing, exacerbating the problem. This problem may have been inherited by Morsi, but it is not his fault.
The painful truth is that when a new government convenes, it will be up against the same debilitating problems that Morsi’s administration was having difficulties with. Nasser created subsidies, but neither Sadat nor Mubarak or Morsi would touch them.
Who will dare to be the fact that is associated with these reforms?
Instead of focusing our energy on these pointless theories that are fabricated by those who are greedy for power, the interim government should focus on how to relieve pressure building up as a result of this system soon, before Egypt experiences another bout of shortages which will no doubt be blamed on one unsuspecting group.