By Aidan Lewis and Hatem Maher
CAIRO (Reuters) – For Egyptians grown used to a decade of reliable power supplies and boasts of vast investments in generation, a wave of rolling blackouts came as a shock – shaking faith in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s record months before an election.
Along with record inflation and a sharp weakening of the currency, the outages have become a potent symptom of the worst economic crisis to hit Egypt since Sisi took power in 2014 on promises of stability and development.
A former army chief who has overseen a far-reaching crackdown on political dissent, Sisi is widely expected to secure a third term in elections due by early 2024, with the military and other security services in support.
But the country’s economic troubles have stirred grumbling among many Egyptians, who are seeing their living standards slide even as the state has spent heavily on mega projects.
“We forgot what a power cut was,” said Karim Mahrous, a resident of Al-Asmarat, a Cairo neighbourhood of social housing developed under Sisi where people said the power was being cut for an hour at a time.
“When electricity goes off once or twice a day and other places do not even have power cuts that last a quarter of an hour, this is called injustice.”
Power cuts have not been a significant problem since the turmoil that followed the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s 2011 uprising.
At that time, frequent outages helped turn opinion against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, before Sisi led his ouster in July 2013.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
Sisi’s critics see echoes of that time in the power cuts that began in July and have been implemented according to a published schedule since the start of August. Residents say they have hit some areas harder than others, fuelling a sense of inequality.
“Power cuts are an indication of failure in economic policies and in management,” said Gameela Ismail, head of Al-Dostour party, one of several marginalized opposition groups trying to press for economic and political change.
“There is a big feeling of danger, because social stability and security are threatened,” she said.
After 2014 Sisi moved swiftly to create a surplus of power generation capacity, building three giant gas-fired plants as his government leant heavily on heavy financial support from Gulf states and Western-based international lenders.
The government says the load shedding was required because of a surge in electricity consumption for air conditioning during unusually hot weather.
Officials say that alongside hospitals and strategic buildings, areas including the north coast and the Red Sea have been exempted to protect the tourism sector, a key source of foreign currency, which Egypt desperately needs after a chronic dollar shortage was exposed early last year.
Analysts say the electricity cuts are also caused by a dip in Egypt’s production of natural gas, which powers most of Egypt’s grid, and is another important earner of hard currency.
The government, which has denied that gas shortages triggered the power cuts, started urging people to limit electricity consumption last summer, as it sought to save gas for export while global energy prices were high.
Ever since, it has been scrambling to raise dollars through multiple schemes, including from Aug. 14 giving Egyptians abroad one month to deposit money in an Abu Dhabi bank account to gain exemption from military service.
Sisi has blamed current economic problems largely on external shocks including the coronavirus pandemic and the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Egyptian economy suffers from crises and problems which impacted citizens and their livelihoods, but who doesn’t?” pro-Sisi member of parliament Mostafa Bakry said in an interview.
“We can solve these crises gradually and the Egyptian people can bear the burden.”
Public spending on construction has helped keep the economy in growth and led to a rapid expansion of the road network, but economists say the military’s dominant role has stifled reform and the growing debt burden is a cause for concern.
Mega projects like a new capital outside Cairo and summer capital at El Alamein on the breezy north coast, where the elite traditionally spend the hottest months of the year, have also triggered popular ire.
Meanwhile, many Egyptians complain that life has become tougher due to subsidy reforms, taxes and soaring prices.
“Things were much better in the past – there is a huge difference,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a civil servant living in Al-Asmarat, lamenting a sharp rise in the cost of cigarettes since Mubarak’s time.
(Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Conor Humphries)