Egyptians concerned by power cuts as temperatures soar

Country braces for hot summer as popular television host calls on government to stop outages

A dark road during a power cut in Cairo. Reuters
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Power cuts in Egypt are the focus of national conversation as the country braces for a summer of potentially record heat, with temperatures already above 40 degrees in May.

Egypt's government brought back mandatory daily power cuts last year amid the country's economic woes.

The government says it does not have the funds to buy enough diesel or natural gas to make full use of its new power stations to keep electricity running throughout the day, affecting, lighting power fans and air-conditioners when demand soars in the summer.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 106 million people, has experienced power cuts for decades.

Since 2018, however, Egyptians have had largely uninterrupted electricity due to the purchase of billions of dollars worth of power stations and the overhauling of the national grid.

Under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who came to power in 2014, authorities have aimed to transform a power-starved country into one of self-sufficiency. The government had previously said it would export Egypt's surplus electricity to neighbouring nations and talked of linking its grid to European nations.

Many praised Egypt's transformation in the energy field while officials responded to issues in neighbouring countries by saying they were ready to share their expertise.

This changed when the country plunged into an economic crisis after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, with a crippling dollar shortage, a declining local currency and the collapse of the nation’s lucrative debt market.

Since then, the rolling power cuts have not only returned but are also longer and less predictable than before. Egyptians have complained that many last longer than the two-hour limit set publicly by the government, have not occurred within the declared schedule and, in some cases, have happened more than once a day.

Government spokesman Mohamed El Homsany has said the daily power cuts will last for two hours but will occur between the hours of 3pm and 7pm, instead of the previous time of 11am to 5pm. The shift, which will remain in force until July, is to accommodate school pupils sitting their final exams in the morning.

Like everyone else in the government, Mr Al Homsany avoided using the term “power cuts” and instead used the term “reducing the burden”.

He has repeatedly said the power cuts would stop in the “nearest time possible” but has refused to be drawn into declaring a specific date or timetable.

“I have lowered my expectations and ambitions,” said Amr Adeeb, a television celebrity whose night-time talk show on the Saudi-owned MBC Egypt is possibly the Arab world’s most popular.

“I have called on the government to stop the power cuts during this very hot week. Now I am pleading with the government not to cut electricity for more than two hours. The power cuts now last more than two hours and are messing up home appliances,” he said on Monday.

“There is no longer a timetable. The power goes out any time of day and for whatever length of time. It’s become absurd. If you are insisting on cutting electricity, then you’d better do it right.”

To many Egyptians, it is disheartening to have power cuts in a country that has received a multi-sourced bail out of about $50 billion this year. Many have already suffered from the rising cost of living and new taxes in the last decade.

Finance Minister Mohamed Maait indirectly touched on the issue this week when he said state subsidies on fuel amounted to 220 billion Egyptian pounds (about $4.5 billion) in the current fiscal year.

“It’s a crime,” he told a conference in Cairo.

Government officials have complained that local power stations buy natural gas from the government at a price significantly lower than what is charged on world markets. However, there is no precise figure on how much money the government saves by cutting off power.

Estimates range from $35 million a month to $1 billion a year.

Economists, however, have argued that the money saved by buying less fuel for power stations is minimal compared to the losses incurred by small and medium-sized businesses due to power cuts. Many complain that millions of dollars are lost by households through ruined produce or when electrical appliances stop working due to repeated power disruptions.

“The power cut in my district lasts between 3 and 5pm,” said Hanaa Youssef, a 70-year-old retired government employee from central Cairo.

“Yesterday, I just went out on my balcony and lay on the floor to cool off. What else can you do in this weather.”

Updated: May 22, 2024, 11:01 AM