Feature: Power outages, electricity price hike bother Egyptian during Ramadan

Feature: Power outages, electricity price hike bother Egyptian during Ramadan

by Mahmoud Fouly

CAIRO, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Daily hours-long power outages along with unbearable summer heat are bothering Egyptians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where 90 percent of the country's 94 million people fast nearly all day long.

The electricity price hike announced on Thursday by Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker has fueled people's growing dissatisfaction, especially following the increase of natural gas prices and the intended fuel price hike.

"When the power goes out, all sewing machines at my factory stop, costing me time and money," said Khaled Hinnawi, a 38-year- old tailor and owner of a small clothing factory.

Hinnawi said that he still has to pay full wages for idle workers despite the power outage. "To make up for it, I have to raise the price of my products and they become less saleable. It's really a loss from all sides."

Recurrent power outages, shortage of gas and skyrocketing prices were among the reasons that stirred up popular uproar against former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, which ended up with his ouster by the military last July.

Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led Morsi's removal and took office last month, has urged the Egyptian people to tighten their belts. He also encouraged them to make sacrifices for a better future of the country.

Magdy, who owns a restaurant in Giza, wondered why the same energy and power crises are still going on after Morsi has already been deposed. "They said Morsi exported gas and electricity to Gaza. So, where are the gas and the electricity now?"

The 43-year-old man complained that the June bill for his restaurant natural gas consumption was three times higher than that of April and May, and he refused to pay.

Amid this wave of popular discontent, the cash-strapped government is struggling to contain at least a 10-percent budget deficit for the new fiscal year that started on Tuesday. The budget deficit amounts to more than 33.5 billion U.S. dollars this year.

Raising electricity price will be part of a plan to eliminate power subsidies within five years, the electricity minister said in Thursday's press conference. "The power sector suffers subsidized electricity tariff that hasn't seen real increase since 2012," he said.

Energy subsidies cost the country about 18 billion U.S. dollars every year, around 20 percent of its gross domestic product. The government aims to reduce it to 14 billion this fiscal year.

However, cutting energy subsidies is seen as a great test for the new president, as many Egyptians, especially those with low incomes, are opposed to the policies that will remove their decades-long welfare.

Mohamed al-Yamani, spokesman of the Electricity Ministry, said that higher electricity bills will be "insignificant" and that " people with low income have been considered in terms of the new energy prices."

Despite the dilemma the government is facing in minimizing the budget deficit, the citizens are unhappy with having iftar, or the fast-breaking meal, in the dark during Ramadan, or being unable to use fans or air conditions during a hot fasting day.

Social network websites have been full of Egyptians' sarcastic posts and tweets about the power outages before and during Ramadan.

"I go to work, the power goes out. I go back home, the power goes out. Perhaps there's something wrong with me," an Egyptian young man rhetorically posted on his Facebook page.

Alaa Ahmed, a cafe waiter in his 30s, seems to be more understanding of the ongoing challenges that are affecting the quality and price of the public service provided to the citizens.

"In Ramadan, the people are celebrating with hanging lines of lamps and lanterns in the streets without any rationalization," the man said, noting that the power outages are currently less than the first two days of Ramadan.

"But I was still unhappy to have my first Ramadan iftar meal in the dark," he added.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab has recently said that the electricity crisis will remain for two years, as the government aims to lift energy subsidies completely within three years. "The challenges are big and we cannot overcome them without the people's solidarity with the government," he said.