Ahram Online - Blackouts in Egypt are also politics
- Ahram Online - Wednesday, 01 August 2012
Blackouts in Egypt are also politics
While president Morsi's campaign calls on citizens to do the state's
job, citizen campaigns are calling on the state to fulfil its
responsibilities, from housing to water, electricity and garbage collection
Wael Gamal , Tuesday 31 Jul 2012
In one week, there have been three calls of a new kind to mobilise the
street. They are united by a common theme that is unrelated to the
constitution or elections or transfer of power or any of these key
political issues that have dominated the scene since the January
revolution. “We want to live,” “We will not pay” and “A clean country”
are three campaigns that focus on issues that are more tangible than the
battles of previous months. They all focus on average citizens.
At the start of Ramadan the residents of Saft El-Laban in Giza
surrounded the governorate’s headquarters to protest frequent water and
power outages. But this was not the first for these locals; in August of
last year, residents barricaded the ring road to protest water outages
at the peak of summer and high demand. This time around, Saft El-Laban
dwellers were protesting extended and frequent blackouts, and lack of
garbage collection, as well as much broader problems in water services
affecting the entire country.
The abused the Egyptian as a citizen and a consumer
The main themes of dispute since the January revolution have centered
around the struggle of the Egyptian national as a political citizen.
These confrontations have been about the elections and the transitional
period, the role of the police, the creation of political parties,
military tribunals and so on.
Meanwhile, continuous confrontations on the ground for rights of
livelihood, production and consumption – including strikes and social
protests – have never been in centre shot. They are at best ignored by
politicians and the media, or at worst condemned and sometimes even
suppressed in a manner that does not even provoke public anger.
In fact, this second sphere of confrontations is no less important than
the first. They are linked together in more ways than the advocates of
“let’s write a comprehensive constitution and everything else will fall
in place” think. Meanwhile, the political rights of the Egyptian citizen
– which are still in flux despite the huge leap accomplished by the
revolution – remain truncated and superficial. They will remain that way
if they are not accompanied by a change in the balance of power in
favour of the Egyptian consumer.
The project to rule Egypt that was led by Gamal Mubarak needed political
dictatorship in order to impose the dictatorship of large companies. The
rule of companies is just as harsh and inhuman when it comes to
controlling the lives and livelihoods of people. These companies created
immense poverty and misery, which continues, as ballot boxes are not
enough to dislodge them.
This type of dictatorship clearly manifests itself in the life of the
Egyptian consumer who is helpless and has no control over the quality or
type of products and services available for consumption. The Egyptian
consumer is the victim of countless malpractices, some illegal, and is
compelled to buy commodities, even food and sometimes medicine, that are
substandard. Some used goods are promoted as new and there is no
monitoring for pricing or regulation of monopolies.
In other words, companies and businessmen decide what is suitable profit
– irrespective of how high – without due consideration to consumers, who
are forced to spend what little money they have. This is compounded by
the manipulation of people’s poverty, illiteracy and ignorance of their
legal rights especially in rural areas and in Upper Egypt.
The same applies to public services, whose cost the state obsesses about
– and in every budget attempts to raise fees and trim its
responsibilities – while neglecting the quality and type of service.
This is obvious when it comes to trains, hospitals and even garbage
The consumer citizen stands alone against this politically enabled
rampant exploitation. The revolution however, opened the door to
changing this equation.
The revolution and electricity
The demands of the “We will not pay” campaign reveal the political
dimension related to the balance of power in society – a balance of
power propped up by the state and its laws. The campaign is demanding
that districts declare their electricity usage to achieve equality in
bearing the burden, as well as a publicised schedule of power outages
and their duration: “It is unacceptable to surprise us without
consideration for our dignity,” they declare. The campaign began in Saft
El-Laban, but also in villages in the Delta and Upper Egypt, before it
was adopted by the leftist Popular Alliance Party.
In addition, the campaign demands the publishing of contracts with the
international garbage collection companies because “collecting garbage
is the job of executive bodies, not citizens.” Thus, the campaign is
standing up to systematic biased policies: power outages that affect the
poor only; blackouts in slum areas, provinces and small villages, while
well-to-do areas like Mohandiseen, Heliopolis and Maadi, carry a much
Quite simply, some districts are able to completely dodge such outages.
The rise in the demand for electricity is of course the product of bad
planning by the government well before the revolution, but it is also
the result of a huge upsurge in electricity usage by the wealthy after
an unprecedented boom in the purchase of air conditioners. In fact,
business tycoon and politician close to Mubarak Ahmed Ezz cited the fact
of high usage of air conditioners before the revolution to prove that
the lives of Egyptians are lavish.
Meanwhile, the price of electricity was floated for consumers according
to a plan coordinated with the World Bank. Until today however, the
state continues to subsidise electricity for factories owned by the
cronies of capitalism. Now, we are facing a situation whereby a resident
in Saft El-Laban, who is in contract with the state he funds with his
income and taxes paid on every box of cheese he buys, pays market price
for electricity that he does not receive.
In capitalism, the most basic rules of a contract state that the service
provider should provide the service as agreed, otherwise the contract is
void. Therefore, the campaign’s threat of refraining from paying bills
is just one measure – albeit insufficient because the state is legally,
constitutionally and politically obliged to guarantee that no citizen is
denied basic services.
Herein lies the key difference between the “We want to live” and “We
will not pay” campaigns on the one hand, and “A clean country” on the
other. The state, its president and his ruling party are behind the
third campaign, “A clean country.” It is a product of the authorities
who are capable of changing policy and are indeed responsible for it,
and not an effort by the neglected victim.
Unlike “We will not pay” and “We want to live” (which calls on citizens
to organise themselves in defence of social justice in housing, wages,
and other issues), the logic with “A clean country” is that the citizen
is supposed to play the role of the state, fulfilling its obligations.
These are the same obligations that citizen finances out of his pocket.
It is to fulfill these obligations that the citizen chooses representatives.
The initiative of the president and his party fails to address changing
the policies that discriminate against the poor and fails to address how
to make these services efficient in the future. (Anyway, it is
unreasonable for citizens to continue collecting garbage especially that
they will not be able to complete the collection cycle).
We have not heard anything about reviewing the contracts with the failed
European garbage collecting companies; we have not heard anything about
how to raise the efficiency of the current system of garbage collection.
The residents of Saft El-Laban need for the unjust system in the
consumption arena to change, while the state is reassigning the burden
to them rather than dealing with the matter.
Cochabamba is a city of one million residents in Bolivia’s Andes
Mountains that waged a brave war in 1999-2000 against privatising water
services. US company Bechtel would have taken ownership of the water
under the pretext of improving services. The company raised prices by 35
per cent to nearly one fifth of the incomes of locals. The city rose up
to defend their right to water, and the city revoked the contract and
stopped the deal while the army killed one and injured dozens of
residents in defence of Bechtel. The victory was inspirational across
Latin American after locals efficiently managed the water.
If our right to water, electricity, housing and a clean street is not a
political matter, then what is political?
“Yes we will not pay anyone, understand that we are human beings”.
This article was first published in El-Shorouq newspaper.