With Ramadan power outages, Egypt begins to question its new president

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2012 

Residents of the Cairo slum of Massara enjoy electricity, which has become a luxury during the holy month of Ramadan. Egypt's has experienced unprecedented power and water outages during the fasting month, making breaking fast and decorating the streets all the more difficult.

AMINA ISMAIL — McClatchy Newspapers

— Hind Ali, 27, was among those who took to Tahrir Square and successfully demanded the end of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. She voted for his successor, former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president. And up until this past month, she thought the days of demanding change were behind.

But as she waited for sunset during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, she wondered if there would be enough power to prepare a meal to break fast, to see the food in front of her, and enough water to drink. The days of protesting, she decided were not over. The 2011 revolution was a call for a better Egyptian government. But since the election and the end of the Mubarak regime, Ali said, she believes it's time for a new revolution – one that demands the government bring back basic services like electricity, water and security. A major protest over the Morsi government’s overall performance is scheduled for Friday.

“If there were a protest for water and electricity, I would join them,” Ali said, one day recently as she waited for the sun to set so she could eat. “Morsi’s face is bad luck for us. Since he took over, the power and electricity keep cutting off.” Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has come to an end, with Sunday's Eid al-Fidr celebration. It's a month when Muslims to reflect on what they have and how the less fortunate live. This year, it has also been a reminder of what they have lost despite the promise of democratic reforms. The month was marked by unprecedented electricity and water shortages, all as the average temperature was 100 degrees or higher. Those who went all day with no drink often had to scrounge for water in the evenings because there also has been a shortage of bottled water.

Seeing their loved ones while enjoying the evening meal, or iftar, was a luxury for many Egyptians this Ramadan season. Many ate in the dark. At times the subways stopped, forcing fasting commuters to walk around the track under the scorching heat. Security remained a problem. Hospitals closed to prevent thugs from breaking in. And despite stagnant wages and rising unemployment, food prices kept rising in a nation where the average Egyptian earns $200 a month.

Ali’s mother, Fathya Saad, fretted that the cost of one kilo of potatoes had climbed to the equivalent of 66 cents.

The government has blamed the electricity problem on a 10 percent drop in electricity production and growing demand. At one point, Morsi’s prime minster, Hesham Qandil, the former minister of water and irrigation, urged families to wear cotton and sit in one room to conserve energy, leading Egyptians to mock their new government rather than embrace it.

"It’s so important to reduce electricity consumption. This year rationing is optional but in the long run it will be obligatory," Qandil told a news conference.

Qandil also told residents to call an Egyptian hotline, which Ali said she has tried several times. But no one answers. Instead, she spent her fasting days sitting outside during power outages along with neighbors since it was cooler than indoors. Sometimes, the family cooked iftar by candlelight.

Ali lives in Maasara, a Cairo slum near the impoverished Helwan district, where thousands of residents suffered daily without power. But she said her relatives in other wealthier districts often suffered from outages, even if they were shorter.

“Before the revolution, it didn’t cut off at all. But things are getting worse. When I went to Tahrir, I wasn’t thinking about services. I am now,” she said. Ali, her three-year old daughter, her mother and her older brother and sister live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Only their aging mother has a job, as a housekeeper, earning $148 a month.

The bathroom sink and one dresser are in the hallway. Ali and her daughter sleep in one room, which also serves as the living room. Her brother and sister share the bed in the other room, while her mother sleeps on that bedroom's floor. That room also holds the refrigerator since the kitchen is only big enough for one appliance, the stove. They eat together in the living room area.

Yet Ali, a pet lover, has found enough room for 12 birds in six cages, a fish tank and two cats.

“Every time the power cuts off, I worry about the fish because the tank is motorized,” she explained.

Ali liked to follow iftar by watching Red Lines, a soap opera produced strictly for Ramadan. Among the plots was the water shortage, peppered with the tale of a police officer who accidently kills his partner and then marries his partner's widow, who did not know o her new husband's role in her first husband's demise. When the power is not on during the first airing, Ali stays up late for the second showing, a time when power is generally reliable.

While some are quick to blame Morsi, many including Ali, are convinced that technocrats who once served under Mubarak are purposely sabotaging the electricity to make the newly elected president lose popular support. Yet their anger at Morsi appears to be growing.

Morsi “said he would do something for us. He fooled us,” Ali complained but then quickly added: “I think Mubarak’s men and some who were released from prison are provoking a crisis to put Morsi in an embarrassing situation.”

Regardless, for Ali, the experience of the past month has soured her on democratic reforms.

“Where is the change?” she asked looking around. “Do you see it?” Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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