Egypt’s blackouts: Who will turn the lights back on?

On Aug. 20, Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said power cuts would decrease from the following week as the government increases supply to the national electricity network.

At the same press conference, Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker and Petroleum Minister Ashraf Ismail explained how the crisis would be tackled.

“Around 4.8 megawatts of electricity will be added to the national grid, and this is expected to narrow the widening gap between production and consumption,” said Shaker.

Ismail said: “The supply of natural gas to electricity stations has already increased by 100 million cubic feet at the beginning of August, while an additional 60 [million] will be supplied in the coming few days.

There will also be another 220 million in September and 235 [million] in October.” Mahlab said: “We admit that there is a serious and complicated problem, but we are dealing with it.”

The blackouts, which have been occurring across the country as frequently as six times a day in some areas, have not only been a source of misery for Egyptians – particularly during the summer heat – but also a mystery, with the public pondering the causes.

Ahmed Heikal, an energy expert and chairman of Citadel Capital, said Egypt is suffering from “a triple attack.” First, there is an acute shortage of natural gas, which is used to run power stations.

“This shortage is partly the result of the Egyptian government’s failure to pay its dues to international oil companies operating in the country, and which would’ve otherwise developed new natural gas fields,” he said. “As a result, Egypt’s production of natural gas has been dropping drastically.”

Heikal also blamed the subsidy system, from which big industries benefited through paying much less for electricity than it cost the state.

“The state pays 0.75 Egyptian pounds per electricity unit, then sells it for 0.3. That is why I commend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for reducing fuel subsidies.”

The third factor contributing, Heikel said, is the negligence of power stations across the country: “Existing power stations haven’t been properly maintained for years, and new ones haven’t been built to face the increasing demand.”

Heikal mainly blamed ousted President Hosni Mubarak for the accumulated shortcomings that led to the current electricity crisis, while saying the lowest rate of natural gas production took place under President Mohamed Mursi.

Kareem Fahim and Merna Thomas wrote in the New York Times that the crisis was not a surprise.

“Experts have been warning of a looming energy disaster for more than a decade, saying there was little long-term planning to accommodate the country’s galloping growth,” they wrote.

“In the last few years, as shortages of natural gas and government funds became desperate and as the aging power infrastructure failed, policy mistakes and postponed decisions made everything worse.”


Mistakes of previous regimes are, however, not seen as the only cause for the unprecedented power cuts. Electricity Ministry spokesman Mohamed al-Yamani said saboteurs were also responsible.

Security expert Mahmoud Qatari said the Muslim Brotherhood’s main objective was to control the state’s vital institutions, which they tried to do by appointing as many of its members as possible in those institutions.

“They succeeded in making this happen in several ministries,” including that of electricity, he said. “Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is ousted, its members remain in their positions, and from there work on their scheme to topple the Egyptian state.”

Security expert Osama al-Tawil said there were “sleeper cells” in ministries that control main services such as electricity. “Those people are very dangerous because they have access to maps of Egypt’s electricity networks,” he said, calling on the security apparatus to identify and dismiss them.

Mahlab said power stations across Egypt were subjected to 300 sabotage attempts in July alone. “For this reason, new legislation will be issued to determine the penalty for such crimes,” he said. A few days later, the cabinet approved a modification of the penal code that includes sabotaging electricity towers and networks.

In the same vein, the Interior Ministry announced the identification of six cells that specialize in sabotaging electricity stations. “Those cells include 40 members of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the ministry said.

According to ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif, “leaders of the international [Brotherhood] organization scolded senior members of the group in Egypt for no longer being able to mobilize the people, and devised an alternative scheme that revolves around targeting the country’s vital facilities like power stations.”

Meanwhile, the Egyptian independent daily Al-Watan ran a major story that 160 Brotherhood members work at the Electricity Ministry, many in senior positions.


However, in her article “Amateur ministers and fuel shortage cause power cuts,” Noha al-Nahhas dismisses the link between the blackouts and the Brotherhood.

She wrote that power cuts were among the reasons for the uprising against Mursi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

“Egyptians assumed that Mursi’s departure will be accompanied by a lifting of the darkness that had been shrouding the whole country since it was believed that he exported electricity to Gaza,” she wrote. “Now it’s been more than a year since Mursi left and the darkness remains and Egyptians are left wondering why the blackouts are becoming more frequent.”

Nahhas quoted oil expert Ramadan Abul Ela, who said: “The ministers of electricity and petroleum are a failure and have no clear strategy to deal with the crisis.

They are just amateurs.” Abul Ela downplayed the damage incurred by sabotage: “Even if electricity stations are targeted, this would never result in power cuts throughout the entire country.”

Revolutionary movements have also expressed indignation at what they consider excuses from the government to shift blame.

“Electricity officials know nothing about electricity and do nothing except issue ludicrous statements,” said the April 6 Youth Movement. Mohamed Salah, a member of the movement’s politburo, slammed the subsidy cuts that the government applied abruptly.

“Instead of coming up with a fair plan that applies those cuts to the rich only, the government made a decision that would increase the suffering of the poor,” he said.

“The government has utterly failed in dealing with the electricity problem and officials only sit in their air-conditioned offices while the people remain in this darkness.”

Mubarak’s trial and Egypt’s ‘Jan. 25 conspiracy’

“The ouster of Hosni Mubarak was not a revolution, but a ‘conspiracy’ that “took advantage of some people’s discontent in order to add fuel to the fire,” said his lawyer Farid al-Deeb at the August 2 hearing of the former Egyptian president’s trial.

The objective “was not reform as the case appeared to be, but rather chaos,” said Deeb.

He quoted several officials to back his case, including the then-chief of military police, the current head of national security, and former Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal al-Deen.

Deeb’s statement has caused widespread controversy. Columnist Mohamed Rushdi wrote: “The Egyptian constitution stresses that [Jan. 25] was a noble and great revolution… Who is right then, Deeb or the constitution?”

Rushdi said if Deeb was right, it would necessitate modifying the constitution and putting the army and religious institutions on trial “on charges of taking part in a conspiracy to undermine the Egyptian state.”

Rushdi added: “On June 27, 2011, and in his defense statement in the same case, Deeb actually said the Jan. 25 revolution was an honorable one that was endorsed by Mubarak, who fully acknowledged the people’s legitimate demands and did not attempt to stop their peaceful protests.”

Rushdi expressed surprise that while an Egyptian belly dancer was summoned to the General Prosecutor’s office for wearing “an indecent dance outfit” modeled after the Egyptian flag, Deeb is getting away with a much greater crime.

“Article 98 B of the Penal Code states that whoever attempts to undermine the basic principles of the constitution is to be punished by jail or fine or both. So shouldn’t some action be taken to protect our constitution from the whims of opportunists?” asked Rushdi.

Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said Deeb “insulted the Egyptian constitution, which honors the revolution, and this is a crime.”

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, professor of political science, blamed the judge for not taking action against the lawyer.

“Shouldn’t the judge have stopped Deeb’s defense statement on the basis that it violated the constitution?” Sayed asked.

Israa Abdel Fattah, an activist and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, said Deeb not only violated the constitution, but also the “power hand-over document” given by former interim President Adly Mansour to current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon the latter’s electoral victory.

Former MP Gamal Zahran said Deeb “insulted the Egyptian people by portraying them as a ‘herd’ that responds to any external plots dictated to it. He tarnished the image of Egyptians and derided their willpower.”

The Guardians of the Revolution Party accused Deeb of “belittling the sacrifice of Egyptian youths who lost their lives in defense of the revolution.”

In addition to calls to put Deeb on trial, there are demands to revoke his membership in the Lawyers’ Syndicate.

The head of the syndicate, Sameh Ashour, received a letter signed by hundreds of lawyers accusing Deeb of tarnishing the image of the law by “turning it from a profession for the defense of the innocent to one for the defense of tyrants.”

The letter, which called for the syndicate’s General Assembly to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the matter, underlined Deeb’s “shameful history,” referring to his defense of Israeli spy Azzam Azzam.

This point was also raised by writer Tarek Abbas, who said Deeb has always been known for defending cases considered by the public to be high treason.

In Azzam’s case, “the Israeli embassy in Cairo asked for Deeb by name,” Abbas wrote.

Journalist Mohamed Amin wrote an article in which he said calling the Jan. 25 revolution a conspiracy is one of Deeb’s strategies to get Mubarak acquitted.

“Deeb does not want Mubarak to be pardoned. He wants him acquitted. He wants him to eventually get a massive funeral like the one [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser got,” Amin wrote.

That is why Deeb used testimonies from Mubarak’s men, the journalist added.

“None of those whose testimonies are included in the defense statement were expected to denounce the man who was the reason for all the power they had gotten,” he wrote.

Deeb took advantage of the fact that Egyptian public opinion is not as fiercely against Mubarak’s acquittal as it had been before, Amin added.

“He knows that people are not keen on seeking revenge against an ailing man in his mid-80s, and he tries to garner as much sympathy for him as possible,” the journalist wrote.

Amin’s article, published in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm, led Deeb to file a lawsuit against him, accusing the journalist of trying to influence the court by questioning the validity of witnesses’ testimony.

Deeb responded to his critics: “Those who criticize my defense arguments are ignorant and have ulterior motives. They know nothing about the basics of legal arguments. I ask everyone who wants to sue me to please go ahead.”

Egypt’s Rafah crossing predicament: A policy dilemma?

A few days after the start of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, former ambassador and deputy foreign minister Ibrahim Yousri announced his intention to sue the Egyptian government over its closure of the Rafah Crossing between the beleaguered strip and Egypt.

Yousri, who filed a similar lawsuit against ousted President Hosni Mubarak for the same reason, called the closing of the crossing “a crime against humanity” and cited an earlier report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs under the title “The Humanitarian impact of reduced access between Gaza and Egypt” and which traced the repercussions of the closure since September 2013, that is two months after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood rule.

“The Egyptian government is taking part in the blockade on Gaza and is actually implementing till this moment a decision taken by late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” he said in the press interview. Yousri demanded that the crossing be opened on permanent basis and argued that partial opening is not enough in the light of the daily casualties of the Israeli aggression. “Gaza is being heavily bombed and opening the crossing for limited times does not help with the urgent need for medical supplies and the increasing number of the injured,” he explained.

Yousri, who previously led a campaign against the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, insisted that the Egyptian authorities have no good reason for keep the crossing closed. “What is the point of closing the crossing as long as no security threat in involved?” asked Yousri, thus underlining the crux of the entire controversy over the opening/closure of Gaza’s only gate to the outside world and which basically revolves around the conflict between urgency of opening the border for humanitarian reasons and the apprehension of doing so for security concerns.

Egyptian political community on Gaza

A group of Egyptian parties and revolutionary movements issued a joint statement calling upon President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to order the permanent and unconditional opening the Rafah crossing. “The crossing should remain open at all times regardless of whether there is an Israeli aggression or not,” said the statement. “It is a matter of survival for the Palestinian people and should not be subject to negotiation.” The statement added that Egypt’s position on Palestine should not be associated with factional infighting.

“The relationship between Egypt and Palestine must rise above any disagreements with one faction or another for the people of both countries have fought the same battles and the Palestinian cause will remain the Arabs’ major concern.” Signatories to the statement, which included leftist, liberal, and Islamist parties, argued that the closure of the crossing implies an endorsement on the part of the current Egyptian regime of the aggression on Gaza. “Closing the only exit for the people of Gaza and imposing restrictions on aid passing through it means that the regime is supporting this aggression.” The statement also saw no contradiction between opening the crossing and “taking all the necessary measures to maintain Egypt’s national security.”

Palestinian reaction to closure of Rafah

Ayad al-Bazam, spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, criticized the Egyptian government over the abrupt closure of the Rafah Crossing on July 11 after announcing its partial opening on July 10. “The crossing was closed once again in the face of the injured without any reasons after ambulances and buses were all ready to cross after the opening was announced,” he wrote. “We regret this step on the part of the Egyptian authorities and which demonstrates indifference towards the suffering of the injured.” Bazam added that hundreds of Gazans were wounded and needed urgent medical care as medical supplies in the strip are running out.

In his article “Egypt’s hard line over border,” Lee Keath argued that by insisting on not opening the border, the Egyptian government could at some point be partially held accountable for the increase of the casualties of the Israeli aggression. “As civilian casualties rise in Gaza, Egypt’s government runs the risk that Egyptians will blame it for not making concessions that could stop the bloodshed,” he wrote. It is for this reason, Lee argues, that Egyptian media has been engaged in constant demonization of Hamas. “The vilification of Hamas in Egypt has only increased since the Gaza war erupted,” Lee explained. “Egyptian TV stations and newspapers—which are overwhelmingly pro-government—have issued a stream of commentary that sounds a lot like what is coming from Israel: Hamas is to blame for the fighting and is exploiting civilian deaths for its own gain.”

Egypt’s explanation for closure

For Egyptian authorities, the Rafah Crossing “is a red line,” as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri put it. Shoukri explained that Egyptian policy as far as the crossing is concerned is related to the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula. “We are not in any way party to the blockade on Gaza and we will do our best to help the Palestinian people,” he said. Shoukri added that it is thanks to Egypt that a ground war was not launched in Gaza and that the international community is praising Egypt’s ceasefire initiative. “However, if the initiative fails, those who reject it will be held accountable for the current situation,” he added in reference to Hamas.

He also said that Egypt rejects any suggestion of international supervision on the crossing, also in reference to a proposal by Hamas. Several Egyptian analysts see Hamas’s insistence on the opening of the crossing while knowing that Egypt would not grant this demand as a strategy to keep the conflict going in a way that serves its interests.

“Hamas does not want to solve the problem, but rather to achieve political victory at the expense of Palestinian blood,” said military expert and former governor of North Sinai Ali Hefzi. “If Egypt opens the crossing Hamas will resume using smuggling tunnels, which made them extremely rich. They even established an authority for the management of tunnels and imposed taxes on the use of these tunnels.” Hefzi criticized Hamas for demanding that the crossing be placed under international supervision, another request the movement knows beforehand would not be granted. “Hamas knows that Egypt will never accept that,” he said. “Would Hamas dare to request the same from Israel?” According to Hefzi, Hamas aims at embarrassing both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

According to Peter Beaumont, the main reason for Egypt’s unwillingness to open the Rafah crossing is the fact that this is a major Hamas demand in the ceasefire negotiations or because “Egypt does not want to gift Hamas something that would increase its popularity—which had been on the wane in part as a result of the hardship resulting from the Egyptian border closure,” as he put it. Beaumont quotes Hamas official Hamad Nahal, who complained that since July 2013, the crossing would remain closed for up to 40 consecutive days: “It is our lifeline. It is why it is so important in the ceasefire talks.”

In the same article, published in The Guardian, Beaumont quotes Palestinian analyst Omar Shaban, who does not agree that the Rafah Crossing is the main plight of Palestinians in Gaza, especially when compared to other pressing problems like water shortage, unemployment, and poverty, and argues that Hamas wants it open mainly to further its own agenda. “Hamas focuses on itself, which is why Rafah is important to it,” he said. “Of course, they want Rafah to open to ease the lives of people here and to show it was them that got it [open].” Gaza-based political scientist Mkhaimar Abu Sadr, also quoted by Beaumont, begs to differ as he views the opening of the crossing as vital. “In the end the only thing that can really end the bloodshed is a lifting of the siege,” he said.

For Beaumont, Hamas’s escalation of attacks on Israel could be seen as the group’s strategy to provoke a ground incursion that would earn it a stronger position in the talks, in which all demands “are negotiable, but not Rafah.” Egyptian authorities, on the other hand, are not yielding to pressure from Hamas in any way. “Egypt has clamped down on smuggling tunnels that for several years made the town of Rafah and Hamas rich,” Beaumont explained. “It does not want the crossing controlled by Hamas, but by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.”

In his article “The tragedy of Rafah Crossing,” Motasem A. Dalloul also conceded that the current standoff over the crossing is linked to the current tension between Hamas and the Egyptian regime, particularly president elect Sisi. “The new Egyptian president Sisi, who closed the Rafah crossing after carrying out a military coup last July against the first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, has problems with Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for years, because of the Islamic resistance movement’s close relations with his enemy—the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote.