Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Challenges amid the celebration

As Ramadan begins, Dina Ezzat catalogues the administrative challenges of the holy month

Al-Ahram Weekly

“By the end of the first week of Ramadan many people will realise that they will not be facing the kinds of power cuts that plagued last year’s holy month,” says an energy industry source. “This year will be a bit better than last year,” he predicted, thanks largely to “a significant improvement” in the capacity to generate electricity.

Other sources say any marked improvement will be limited to the governorates of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Suez, where funds have been made available for the renovation of power plants. They add that shipments of fuel from the UAE will also help the situation, and more rational consumption patterns may emerge following an intensive radio and TV campaign.

A source at the Ministry of Electricity conceded that the good news will be limited to urban areas. “We are talking about an uneven scheme of cuts, with big cities hit less hard than, say, villages in Upper Egypt, where the disruption caused by outages is less,” he said.

Keeping the lights on as people sit around the iftar table and break their fast has been a priority for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, according to one presidential insider.

“The president is aware that many people will judge him on his ability to reduce power cuts,” he said. “He was directly involved in facilitating deals to ensure public anger over power cuts this Ramadan will be less than last year.”

According to the same source, Al-Sisi is well aware that “Ramadan this year will bring much higher bills, given the rise in the price of food and of services in general, and he did not want to add any other burdens that might foment discontent.”

Informed sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly say it is the desire to avoid aggravating public sentiments that led the president to delay the roll-out of smart cards to regulate the consumption of subsidised fuel for automobiles.

A source at the Ministry of Oil says the new system is now set to be introduced following the feast of Eid Al-Fitr (Lesser Bairam), which marks the end of Ramadan.

“The delay will allow difficulties that have emerged to be addressed. There have been problems with the computer system that records consumption,” says an oil industry insider.

The Oil Ministry source denies hiccups in the system are behind the postponement. “Security assessments were clear: there was a real threat that rumours over a shortage of car fuel would lead to a sudden increase in consumption.”

“In Ramadan and Eid people over-shop and over-consume in general. The consensus was that that this is not the best time to try and change consumption patterns,” he said.

Al-Sisi cut fuel subsidies soon after being elected. It is the second round of cuts, initially due in the first week of July, which is being put off due to Ramadan.

“Al-Sisi wanted to go ahead with them. He felt he had enough credit to push through the subsidy reduction but the security assessments he received advised caution and reluctantly he is bowing to them,” said a presidential source.

The security reports highlighted the possibility of unrest if fuel subsidies were further reduced during Ramadan, with an inevitable domino effect on food price inflation.

“This is the last thing that the president would want,” said the source.

For many people, the delay in further subsidy reductions is good news. “I hope that they will reconsider the cuts altogether,” says Eman, a middle-aged housewife with two children who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly while buying vegetables in Heliopolis.

“Everything is already so expensive. The last time they cut the fuel subsidy they promised to monitor the market to make sure consumers weren’t hammered, but the promise wasn’t kept and prices went through the roof.”

Eman, who voted for Al-Sisi, was convinced that once he was in office the economy would start to improve. Now, she says, she realises there is no magic wand to fix the economy and exaggerated expectations have to be scrapped. Still, she said, she hopes things will not get harder.

“We are barely making ends meet, and we stick to basics. I don’t know how we will manage if they increase the price of fuel. It will make everything more expensive — food, transport, even services like private lessons for the kids will go up.”

What is good news for Eman is contributing to the headaches of Minister of Finance Hani Kadri who must now juggle a state budget designed on the assumption that fuel subsidies would be reduced according to the initial timetable.

“The budget is up in the air. It needs to be reworked,” says an informed government source. He adds that the president still hopes to introduce the subsidy reductions “within months” — possibly in mid-August, following the opening of the Suez Canal extension which analysts expect to boost the president’s standing.

“It is disturbing that the budget is being adopted for a second year in the absence of parliament, but it would be even more disturbing for the budget to be delayed,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat. “This is not the kind of thing that encourages foreign investment.”

Problems over the budget are being compounded by infighting among the government’s economic team, say political and economic sources.

“There is a lack of cohesion in the economic group. They seem to be fighting with each other and the president often has to act as referee,” reports one.

“I know the president is considering a reshuffle,” he says, “but this is unlikely to happen before the inauguration of the Suez Canal extension.”

Many government sources say their departments have effectively declared a “state of emergency” as they attempt to guarantee the supplies of goods and services that the president has identified as a top priority during the holy month.

The prime minister, according to a source at his office, is closely monitoring the supplies of foodstuffs and the performance of the electricity, water and fuel sectors.

Security is also causing the government concern. During Ramadan security forces will be expected to keep tabs on thousands of mosques and ensure that their activities are restricted to prayer services. Together with the Ministry of Religious Endowments they will monitor sermons delivered by preachers, especially in areas known to have high concentrations of Islamists.

 Even Ramadan soap operas, an entertainment mainstay of the holy month in which state-run and private TV channels invest tens of millions of pounds, have not been without controversy.

“This year’s productions have kept a wide berth from anything that could be construed as a negative depiction of the police or judiciary,” says a senior administrative state-TV source. “We were keen to avoid any repeat of last year’s mistakes.”

In 2014 Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb halted the broadcast of a soap opera, People of Alexandria, because of what he said was its “unfavourable depiction of police officers.”

 Bilal Fadl, the author and scriptwriter of the offending soap, recently posted a message on social media announcing that attempts to have the soap opera broadcast this year had all failed. The sole concern now, he said, is to avoid any form of criticism on television screens.

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