Gas shortage raises Egyptians' anger at government

CAIRO: It's something Egyptians rely on daily: the "ambooba," the steel canister of government-subsidized cooking and heating gas, hooked to the stove or water heater in the cramped homes of nearly everyone in this country's large population of poor.

So in recent weeks, when the amboobas stopped coming, the angry outcry spread fast.

A winter shortage has sent authorities scrambling to find a solution and has once again fueled criticism that the government of this key Mideast U.S. ally is unable to deal with the problems of its people. For many, it raises memories of acute shortages of cheap subsidized bread in 2008 that raised similar frustration and anger.

"Every year this butane crisis gets a little worse, so why doesn't the government take a stand and provide for its people," said Mahmoud al-Askalani, a spokesman with the consumer group Citizens Against the High Cost of Living.

In Cairo's low-income neighborhood of Bashteel this week, women helped each other balance the empty 3-gallon (12-liter) cylinders on their heads as young boys pushed bicycles laden with cylinders to a government distribution center, where they are supposed to get them refilled or exchange them for new ones at a subsidized price.

Hundreds of men and women lined up for hours into the night waiting for fuel tanks and trucks carrying cylinders to arrive. "All the women here have walked here to sit for hours hoping that a truck of butane will show up today," said one woman, Um Ahmad, sitting on her empty ambooba as she waited in line for two hours at Bashteel.

When the trucks did arrive, people swarmed over them, elbowing their way to grab a cylinder before they all disappeared.

In the past two weeks, local papers reported clashes between frustrated consumers armed with switchblades. Police say two people were killed last week, crushed as they clung to a moving truck loaded with cylinders. On a radio show, a young boy called in saying all he hoped for was for his family to get an ambooba so his mother could cook dinner — prompting the host to mourn, "Is this what Egyptians' hopes are reduced to, gas to cook with?"

The troubles fuel what has been a frequent public refrain in recent years — that the government, headed for the past 29 years by President Hosni Mubarak, has grown out of touch with the population as the influence of powerful businessmen has grown. More than 40 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million lives on less than $2 a day.

At the same time, the government is burdened with a rickety, decades-old system of subsidies and other benefits meant to provide cheap basics of food and supplies for the poor. The system is riddled with inefficiency and disorganization, as well as corruption and black markets.

"The crisis of the gas cylinders embodies the government's failure to draw up a realistic plan to resolve the problems in Egypt," wrote Mohammad Shordi in the daily al-Wafd newspaper. "It is a simple matter of supply and demand, and the government should simply close the gap between the two."

The cause of the shortage remains unclear.

According to a study performed by al-Askalani's group, demand for butane only increased by 8 percent this winter, which he said shouldn't have caused such stark shortages in poor neighborhoods in Cairo, where some were left without butane cylinders for weeks. The study found that government delays in paying for imported butane caused a delay in shipments sent to Egypt.

The government, in turn, has blamed bad weather, which it said forced ports to close this month, delaying gas shipments. The shortage was exacerbated by the black market, where factory owners buy the subsidized butane meant for home use.

The government has ordered four more distribution stations set up to handle the spike in demand, and while residents of some areas closer to downtown Cairo claimed the crisis was slightly lifting, others are still waiting in lines for as long as eight hours in many suburbs of the city.

The shortages at distribution centers, where a cylinder costs the equivalent of about 50 cents, has forced many people to resort to the black market, where the price soars to nearly $12.

Even though Egypt produces close to 48 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, it lacks the refineries to process the gas into usable butane. For this, Egypt must import 2 million tons of butane at a cost of $3 billion from countries like Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

For many Egyptians the current gas shortage smells similar to 2008's subsidized bread crisis in which at least seven people died in clashes while waiting in bread lines. It got so bad, Mubarak ordered the army to increase the production and distribution of subsidized bread to cope with the shortages. The army and the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, own bakeries that they normally use to feed their own employees.

"We dealt with the bread crisis by eating rice and pasta," Badreya Hamdy, a woman from the Cairo slum of Kit Kat, told local media. "But what should we use to make up for this kind of shortage?"