CAIRO -- The towering luxury office buildings that hover over the impoverished neighborhood of Ramlet Boulak used to blatantly symbolize the divisions between Cairo’s wealthy and its poor. Now the scene captures the closing gap between rich and poor, at least as it applies to the persistent shortages of electricity, water and gas that have swept across Egypt.
On a recent Sunday, a resident of Ramlet Boulak carried around a bar of soap looking for enough water to shower, while his wife used what little water they’d found to wash their clothes in tin buckets. Meanwhile, some of the businesses in the high rises were relying on generators when the power inevitably cut out; the rest went hours without power, losing money with every passing minute.
The issue of energy consumes both life and politics here. On the streets, both the rich and poor find that markets struggle to keep foods fresh and often close for lack of power. Miles-long lines of trucks snake toward gas stations in search of gasoline. Farmers lack power for irrigation. The shortages have cost the faltering economy an estimated $14 billon and threaten an already fragile political situation.
Basic services have become the most important issue of the day, exposing the limitations of Egypt’s first democratically elected government and making life here even more precarious.
“People had very high expectations and aspirations during the revolution, so if they become very frustrated you never know what will happen or how will people react. This could lead to more violence,” said Omina Helmy, the acting executive director and director of research at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. “We really have to take care and find solutions, we can’t keep on fighting over politics. People cannot eat politics.”
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has promised to improve electricity, gas and water supplies, and he told Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, a water expert, to examine the issue. In recent days, as the June 30 anniversary of Morsi’s ascent to power approaches, there has been some improvement. But even that has fueled more complaints about Morsi’s competence as Egypt braces for massive protests by his opponents.
The shortages have led to increasingly vitriolic language from Egyptian leaders. Amid fears that Ethiopia is building a $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam that could cut off water to Egypt, Morsi gave a defiant speech warning Ethiopia that “all options are open” if Egypt’s share of the Nile River is affected. “If one drop of water is lost, our blood is the alternative,” he said.
A week earlier, Egyptian politicians scheduled a meeting to discuss their response. Unaware that the meeting was televised, Younis Makhyoun, a senior leader of an ultraconservative Islamist party, said that Egypt should back rebels in Ethiopia as a bargaining chip or destroy the dam.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded an official explanation from Egypt, then ratified the project. The outbursts forced Egypt’s foreign minister to rush to Addis Ababa to try to repair relations.
While Egypt had spurts of service problems during former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the situation has gotten worse since his fall two years ago. In the year since Morsi ascended to the presidency, it’s gotten even worse – the $14 billion economic loss tied to power shortages is in just the last six months, economists say.