/ 23 March 2012

Petrol shortage in Egypt sets tempers off

Egyptians have been hit by an increasingly acute petrol shortage, which the government has blamed on black market sales of fuel.

Across Egypt, long lines of cars and trucks snake around the corner from petrol stations, drivers spend the night in their vehicles waiting for fuel at the pumps, and station attendants complain of receiving only half their usual quantity of fuel — or none at all.

Days into an increasingly acute fuel shortage, Egyptians are starting to feel the squeeze. Drivers are searching frantically for fuel, only to find filling stations sold out of key grades of petrol. In rural areas, witnesses say scuffles and knife fights have broken out among frustrated drivers. Some have even fired guns in the air.

The reasons behind the shortage — or even if there is one — are not clear. The government blames any shortfall on profiteers reselling subsidised fuel on the black market. But many Egyptians accuse the authorities of trying to cover up what they say is the government’s mismanagement of an ailing economy.

Petroleum Minister Abdullah Ghorab flatly dismissed talk of a shortage, saying fuel supplies exceed demand. He said the crisis stems from “mistrust between the government and the citizens”, according to the state-run MENA news agency.

Another Petroleum ministry official, Hani Dahi, was also quoted by MENA as saying that there is “a rise in the illegal use of fuel” and calling for tighter security measures to prevent black market dealers selling subsidised fuel at higher prices.

Sheer lies
But the manager of petrol gas station in Fayoum, a city south of Cairo, put the blame squarely on the government’s shoulders and its stewardship of the economy.

“I used to get a daily supply of 30 000 litres (7 900 gallons) of diesel, now I get 13 000 every three days,” said the manager, who asked not to be identified. “Any talk about smuggling is a sheer lie because if there is enough fuel in the market, none would buy from the black market.”

“Why blame the people? Why don’t you put it as simple as this: We don’t have foreign currency to buy the fuel,” he added.

Egypt’s economy has been badly battered by the political turmoil following last year’s uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Political instability and violent street protests over stalled reforms have hammered the tourism industry, a key source of foreign currency, and caused foreign investment to plummet.

Egypt’s budget deficit is expected to reach 114-billion Egyptian pounds ($19-billion) in the fiscal year to June 30, about 8.7% of gross domestic product. The country is negotiating a $3.2-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, and looking at other steps like selling state-held land, to help patch up the budget.

The fuel crisis is the second in Egypt since January, and may open the backdoor to changing the state subsidies on fuel and other basic commodities, which cost Egypt about 100-billion Egyptian pounds a year. On Thursday, Egypt’s petroleum minister used the current crisis to call for revisions to the subsidies.

Laying the blame
Two months ahead of presidential elections, the shortage has also fuelled finger pointing between Egypt’s military-backed government and Islamist-dominated Parliament. Some lawmakers accused the government of fabricating the crisis to embarrass Parliament.

“The military council, through its government, is telling the people, ‘Look, your representatives are not able to solve your problems’,” said Essam Sultan, a lawmaker from the Islamist al-Wasat party.

The country’s wider economic malaise is increasingly taking a toll on Egyptians in their daily life, with rising inflation and unemployment now compounded by the fuel shortage.

In Cairo, several petrol stations were shuttered on Thursday, while lines of cars waited for hours in line at those still pumping.

In Fayoum, a filling station assistant described a daily scene of dozens of cars parking overnight at the station until a fuel truck arrives.

“People amass like ants. All carrying plastic jerry cans and attack,” he said. The worker, who asked not to be identified, added that on one occasion angry taxi drivers opened fire in the air while police stood nearby. “The crisis has turned people into thugs.” — Sapa-AP