Egyptians Fear Power Outages Could Fuel More Unrest

The oil and natural gas that Egypt depends on for power generation is heavily subsidized. But the state doesn't want to raise prices and anger a population already frustrated by political uncertainty.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Sometimes in the evening in Cairo, Egypt, people take a sailboat ride on the Nile. I got to do this once, Renee. It's amazing. The river cuts through the center of the city and you can see the lights of Cairo spreading along each bank. Except, of course, when the lights are out.

MONTAGNE: And power outages are a feature of daily life, I gather. The electrical grid needs repair. Power plants need fuel. And the government is short of money to respond, partly because of political turmoil. NPR's Leila Fadel has more.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This is a common scene in Cairo these days, people in the dark talking about how to get the lights on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FADEL: It's an upscale Lebanese restaurant in a wealthy district of Cairo a group of young professionals eat dinner and chat to the light of flickering birthday candles that the server scrounged up when the power went out.

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FADEL: The typically dazzling street is pitch black, save a few spots of light powered by generators. And that's great for Fadi Wassef's business in downtown Cairo.

FADI WASSEF: (speaking Arabic)

FADEL: He can't keep generators on the shelves at his hardware store as power cuts plague the capital of more than 17 million people. Wassef says his customers used to just be farmers out in the country and off the grid. But now it's families purchasing the generators to keep the refrigerators and air conditioning on.

WASSEF: Now everybody wants to have a generator in his own house, because, you know, summer is coming and we have very hot summers. So you in your house, you're going to have to get one generator.

FADEL: He says his customers are angry that they have to shell so much cash just to keep the lights on. And experts say there is no quick fix to a problem that has been years in the making.

MOHAMMED SHOEIB: This summer, as we said, it is the darkest summer in Egypt have ever Egypt saw before. But this is not the end of the life. We should prepare ourselves to avoid that next summer.

FADEL: That's Mohammed Shoeib, Managing Director for the Energy Sector at Citadel Capital. Here's the problem, he says. The power infrastructure is deteriorating but the state doesn't have the money to upgrade it because it is already in debt. And the oil and natural gas that Egypt depends on for power generation is heavily subsidized. But the state doesn't want to raise the prices and anger a population already frustrated by more than three years of political unrest and economic turmoil, making for a wasteful system that's just not working.

SHOEIB: Because most of its revenue, which is huge, is going directly to the subsidy. Then - and this subsidy is not directed properly to the poor people who deserve it.

FADEL: And if people get too angry about blackouts and soaring temperatures, it could lead to further political upheaval.

JUSTIN DARGIN: As we saw during the ouster of the previous administration, power cuts did play a role, even though it wasn't the only reason. But it did play a role.

FADEL: That's Justin Dargin, an Energy and Middle East scholar at Oxford University. Now, Dargin says, Egypt's military chief turned presidential candidate, Abdel Fattah el Sissi, knows he has to do everything he can to stave off power cuts in the heat of the summer or possibly face mass unrest against his expected rule.

DARGIN: The Egyptian government is doing everything in its power in order to make certain that doesn't happen and that there's no repeat of mass protests that occurred during the ouster of the previous administration.

FADEL: He says the government is diverting natural gas that would typically be exported for a much higher profit, to use it internally for power generation. But it's not enough to keep up with the demand of some 80 million people, and that demand is growing by eight percent a year.

DARGIN: We have significant erosion of the state's ability to even provide basic electricity services, and then we also have, on the other hand, this increased consumption that occurs during the summer. So it's going to be a tough time.

FADEL: Meanwhile, foreign investors are alarmed by the billions of dollars Egypt owes to energy companies. The government is negotiating new timetables to pay off the debt while signing exploration deals to restore confidence in the energy sector. But for now, people seem willing to live with outages because they still have confidence in the military leadership. But their confidence will be tested by a very long, very hot summer. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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