Egyptians face daily power cuts ahead of hot summer

The government had paused scheduled electricity disruptions during Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr

The Sun sets behind high-voltage power lines and electricity pylons at a highway northeast of Cairo, Egypt, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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Egyptians faced electricity shortages this week after the government resumed daily power cuts in an attempt to save money.

The daily power cuts, lasting up to two hours between 11am and 5pm, resumed on Monday.

Authorities had suspended the interruption of supplies during Ramadan, which began on March 11, and the week-long Eid Al Fitr holiday that followed.

The cuts were first introduced last summer, the hottest on record, and returned in November after a brief pause.

The latest round is to continue at least through the summer, which is expected to be hotter than last year, when temperatures of at least 40ºC were routine, forcing most Egyptians to stay home and switch on their fans and air conditioners.

Signs suggest that this summer will be even hotter, with temperatures in mid-April unseasonably around 35ºC in Cairo.

Most Egyptians rely on electricity supplied by the state, unlike other countries in the region like Lebanon and Iraq where power shortages have left residents relying almost entirely on privately owned generators or those run by local businessmen who charge monthly for power.

“It’s hard to imagine an end to power cuts, which are only likely to intensify as energy consumption peaks in the summer,” said Riccardo Fabiano, project director for North Africa at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“The outlook for the summer is quite pessimistic, with a potential intensification in power cuts or other measures to limit consumption.”

The government has been forced to resume the power cuts after facing pressure due to a slump in foreign currency revenue from two of Egypt’s main earners – Suez Canal transit fees and tourism, which have both been affected by the Gaza war and its fallout.

The government also cites a drop in production from its largest offshore natural gas field, Zohra.

The power cuts are described by the government as a small price to pay by Egyptians to save the nation’s precious foreign currency reserves, which are used to import fuel to fire up power stations as well as essential food items and industrial materials.

Last year, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said the move saved the country a total of $300 million a month that his government would have, otherwise, spent on importing fuel for its power stations.

But Egyptians have criticised the return of power cuts. Most of Egypt's 106 million people are struggling financially as they deal with record inflation and a local currency that has been sharply devalued since 2022.

At the heart of the criticism is that Egyptians have been paying significantly more for electricity in the last few years because authorities have been gradually reducing state subsidies. The government says it continues to subsidise electricity for home use.

Many Egyptians are also dismayed that they are enduring power cuts in spring, when consumption is moderate compared to July and August.

Others say they had hoped the recent injection into Egypt's coffers of more than $50 billion in investment, aid and loans would have considerably eased the foreign currency crunch that has crippled the economy for close to two years and allowed sufficient fuel imports.

“By God, it’s so unfair to cut power for two hours every day and you [the government] lightly give that the nickname ‘lightening the load’,” wrote Amir Abdel Fetouh on X. “Isn’t it enough that we have to deal with high prices and the hardship citizens endure?”

Another critic called Ragy Afwallah said on X that he was “dying to know how many dollars they save when they cut electricity for two hours and whether it’s worth tarnishing Egypt’s image and humiliating everyone in it”.

To ensure sufficient supplies to operate its power stations in the summer, Cairo has recently started buying liquefied natural gas cargoes unusually early to avoid chronic interruptions that could fuel popular discontent, according to a Bloomberg News report.

The purchases have been made possible by Egypt's recent financial bailout but the downside is that they could threaten to sap foreign currency reserves as the country faces a sharp decline in Suez Canal revenue and less-than-anticipated tourist arrivals.

The LNG purchases mark a major shift for Egypt, which largely stopped importing the fuel in 2018 after the discovery of the massive Zohr gasfield boosted domestic production and turned the country into an exporter.

President El Sisi, who has adopted a hands-on approach to the economy since taking office in 2014, has been particularly proud of his government's investment in the local energy sector.

It has spent billions of dollars over the past decade on cutting-edge power stations, distribution networks and the rapidly expanding production of clean energy.

A year ago, he told Egyptians that the nation’s power production – estimated at about 48,000 megawatts – exceeded its needs by 20 per cent and that he was happy to export the surplus to energy-starved neighbours.

However, at the height of summer last year, local consumption peaked to 34,650MW, which is below the total output but still dangerously close.

Updated: April 18, 2024, 7:29 AM