21 - 28 January 1999
Issue No. 413
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Focus Economy Opinion Culture Features Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (269)
"Egypt, a thriving oil producer and exporter today, had its first oil crisis during World War I. It was not caused by the lack of oil wells but by the lack of materials required to build storage tanks and the equipment necessary for establishing a new refinery or upgrading the existing one. The government was compelled to impose a system of controls and checks to deal with the crisis. Military authorities were put in charge of oil distribution. In some areas like Alexandria, a rationing system was adopted, using coupons. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story on the basis of reports published by Al-Ahram "
Fuel crises have a long history in Egypt, perhaps as old as civilisation itself. However, one of the fullest portraits of pre-modern fuel provision is offered in the compilation of records left by Egyptians and foreign travellers around the time of the French expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century. What may strike the modern reader is the diversity of fuel sources, which one notes from the numerous occupations connected with fuel. Perhaps most important were the suppliers of organic coal, for long the main fuel for cooking. Burning coal, of course, produced great quantities of soot, with which, according to popular custom, women would smear their faces as a token of mourning or protest.
An important fuel-related craft was candle-making, candles being a main source of domestic lighting. Another was various types of vegetable oils which were furnished by the zayyatin or oil men. Wood, always a scarcity in Egypt, was only used for large furnaces such as those that heated the water in the public bathhouses or pottery kilns.
In his Description de l'Egypte, Chabrol writes that "the scarcity of fuel in Egypt, particularly in the countryside, gave rise to alimentary customs that depend on uncooked vegetables such as beets, cucumbers, onions soaked in vinegar, and, in summer, fenugreek sprouts, watermelon, cantaloupe, and, as dessert, slightly roasted corncobs." Description de l'Egypte also tells us that Egyptian fellahin used dried dung as their primary source of fuel for domestic ovens. Indeed, until only recently one could observe the stacks of dried dung on rural houses.
The 19th century brought major changes to the patterns of fuel consumption in Egypt, with the introduction of mineral coal and petroleum. The latter Egyptians called "American oil" since the primary source for this fuel, at first, was the new world.
The European communities, which began to expand in the age of the Khedive Ismail and then increasingly under the British occupation of Egypt which began in 1882, were the first to use these new elements, although they were soon followed by the emerging rural and urban upper classes who tended to imitate European lifestyles. It was, therefore, not odd that we should see in Al-Ahram towards the end of the 19th century advertisements for primus stoves and gas lamps which provided a cheap form of domestic lighting. It was also a time when large quantities of coal were imported from Great Britain, the primary use of which was to power the steamships passing through the Suez Canal. In fact, Port Said became the major depot for imported British coal which, in turn, gave rise to a large class of coal porters who came to occupy the Hayy Al-Arab neighbourhood of that city. Of course, coal also came to be used for domestic purposes, particularly with the spread of coal-stoked ovens in many of the finer homes.
It is curious that one does not come across advertisements for benzine or gasoline for automobiles in Al-Ahram, even though the new mode of transportation had already appeared among the European and Egyptian upper classes. Gasoline, which is extracted from petroleum, to power these vehicles was imported from abroad until 1911, when it began to be produced commercially in Egypt. A report in Al-Ahram of 15 March 1919 informs us that the most important sources of petroleum were the wells belonging to the Anglo-Egyptian Petroleum Company located between 150 to 188 miles south of Suez along the Red Sea coast. Efforts had been made to mine this "valuable substance" over the previous 25 years, but "the scope of operations only expanded when the above-mentioned company received the concession to exploit these wells in 1911."
From the modest beginning of just over a thousand tons of petroleum in its first year, the annual production increased to some 135,000 tons by 1917. The rapid expansion in production was in part due to the discovery of new wells in the area of Gamasa, known to contain oil "since ancient times." By 1914, however, these wells had virtually dried up, but they were quickly replaced by new discoveries in Hurghada. According to the Al-Ahram report, they produced copiously, from 12,586 tons in 1913 to 97,824 tons the following year. By 1914, of course, the world war replaced increased domestic demand as an
impetus for increased expansion in oil production, particularly in light of the drop in coal imports.
So encouraging were the Hurghada wells that the Anglo-Egyptian Petroleum Company constructed a port in Hurghada. "It built piers and brought in all the necessary construction equipment to build a small British colony." The company also built Egypt's first oil refineries in Suez, "for the extraction of gasoline, lighting oil, liquid fuel, machine oil and other such substances. Built in 1912, these refineries can refine 1,200 tons of petroleum per day. They are connected to Port Tawfik, two and a half miles away, by four pipelines and in Gamasa, Hurghada and Suez there are storage tanks that can hold 1,200 tons of oil."
Still, as the war raged on, it would bring one of the worst fuel shortages in Egypt's modern history. On 14 January 1918, the following communiqué was issued by the prime minister: "The petroleum question in Egypt is as follows: Only a small proportion of the amount necessary for consumption is extracted in this country, while the remainder is imported from abroad. When, in 1916, it became difficult to supply the country with this type of fuel, the government, in order to circumvent these difficulties, contracted the Asian Petroleum Company to supply the country's needs for petroleum for a certain period at a limited cost. This contract has been renewed twice and the price only increased in accordance with the rising costs of naval transport. The company has been able to furnish the stipulated quantities until October 1917. As of that date, it has become necessary to regulate consumption in light of the unavailability of sufficient ships to furnish the necessary quantities for the country. All steamers, including those used for transporting petroleum in the British Empire and the US, are now subject to government control in order to insure that the petroleum is distributed and freighted in a manner which will best serve the interests of the Allied powers. Although the Asian Petroleum Company is prepared to transport petroleum to Egypt, the ships permitted to do so are fewer than the number required to furnish the inhabitants with the quantities they have become accustomed to over past years. The amount that does arrive into the country can fulfil the nation's essential needs if the people, of all classes, strive earnestly to take all possible measures of economy. The company is prepared to continue to fulfil its commitment to supply Egypt's petroleum requirements."
Subsequent news about the oil crisis that winter was dominated by an incessant stream of complaints about the shortage of fuel. "Farshout, a village of 20,000 inhabitants, famous since antiquity for its production of honey, used to receive a tank of oil once a week. Now, it receives a tank of oil at best once a month and the price of a can of oil has climbed to 60 piastres." Another letter to Al-Ahram from a travelling salesman in Upper Egypt reported that "agents of the Asian Petroleum Company are keeping fuel in illicit storage tanks and selling at prices they dictate. Necessity obliges people to accept these prices." As is customary at times of such crises the Egyptians' irrepressible humour surfaces at its best. Al-Ahram, on 4 February, reports, "A group of musical artists have composed a new song called "The Gas Song" which begins, 'Dear sirs, take glee! A litre of kerosene sells for a rupee!'."
At one point, Egyptians were delighted at reports that a team of petroleum explorers were sent by the government to the Red Sea and returned with the news that they had discovered 17 new oil sites. "Many believed that these new sources of petroleum would end the crisis that is currently gripping the country," wrote Al-Ahram. However, the newspaper was also quick to dispel the illusion, informing its readers that an Asian Petroleum Company representative said that "the sources of petroleum cannot be transformed into productive wells until the war is over. This is because petroleum extraction requires large tanks next to the fields for the storage of the fluids. These tanks cannot be brought in from Europe at present and they cannot be produced locally. And even if the tanks could magically be made to appear, the petroleum that is extracted could not be used for lighting, cooking or the powering of machinery until after it has been refined, and the refineries in Suez are already working at their full capacity and cannot even keep pace with their current requirements. So where would the petroleum from the new wells be refined?"
Popular discontent, however it expressed itself, would soon goad the government into action. It tried to lay the blame for the shortage on black marketeers. Acting on this belief, the government passed an ordinance to "ensure the equitable distribution of refined petroleum (kerosene) in Egypt throughout the period of the war." Published on 18 February 1918, the new ordinance placed all oil supplies under the control of the military authorities. It was forbidden to transport it, "by land or sea or whatever means," without a licence issued by the controller-general. As of 5 March, it would be forbidden to sell oil without a licence issued by the controller-general and "no one shall be permitted to maintain a store of oil for industrial or occupational uses in excess of a 20-day supply." As of 18 February, "individuals will be prohibited from keeping at their disposal for domestic purposes more than a 10-day supply of oil." The controller-general was empowered to exact from any individual a statement disclosing the quantity of oil in his possession and the place of storage. Finally, the ordinance threatened all violators with prosecution and the confiscation of the stores of oil in their possession.
The ordinance did not prevent specific authorities from making interpretations that suited their needs. The municipality of Alexandria, which had to cater to the large European communities in that city, was particularly inventive. It passed a resolution for a coupon system for distribution. The government rejected it, causing a wave of protest among the Alexandrian populace. Al-Ahram's correspondent reports, "As we understand it, the responsible government circles themselves are not clear as to the reason the government did not approve the system and we, ourselves, are uncertain of the wisdom of refusing the proposal. We do understand, however, that the people are suffering from the lack of regular fuel distribution and no one seems able to resolve the problem in a satisfactory manner."
The Cairo correspondent had a different attitude toward the implementation of the new ordinance. "Residents in the city are obtaining their necessary allotments of fuel per week, whether delivered to their homes or to their stores, in response to which everyone has expressed the greatest praise for the government's action."
It was thus between expressions of relief and concern that Egypt lived out its first oil crisis, which only ended with the termination of World War I.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.