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Protests against utility prices go online

More and more people are protesting against high electricity, gas and water prices by flooding social media with pictures of their bills

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 6 Apr 2016
Catch a bill
"Catch a bill" slogan (Photo:Facebook)
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The water bills of Ahmed Mahmoud Anis, a resident of the Sheikh Zayed satellite neighbourhood west of Cairo, suddenly acquired additional importance earlier this week. Although his consumption had remained the same from July 2015 to February 2016, his bills had increased six fold from an average of EGP 39 every two months to EGP 260 this year.

Anis, like millions of others nationwide, is now on the receiving end of utility bills reflecting the government’s five-year plan announced in 2014 to cut electricity subsidies, which expanded recently to include subsidies on public services. The plan is a major departure from the country’s decades-old system of subsidies in a bid to relieve the daunting budget deficit, and it has come as a shock to many.

Hundreds of people have been complaining about the hikes on social media under the Arabic hashtag Emsek Fatoura (catch a bill), which, borrowing from the phrase “catch a thief,” does more than merely complain about expensive bills. It implies being ripped off.

What began as an individual, unorganised online venting spree on expensive utility bills rapidly gained traction once a few prominent social-media users had pitched in, encouraging people to take pictures of their bills and post them on social media under the hashtag.

“Gas was only EGP 3 and now it’s EGP 300,” wrote a Twitter user who goes by the name of Amani207. On Facebook, Samira El-Gendy posted pictures of the electricity bills she had received twice in the same month. One bill was EGP 567, and the other was EGP 1,154 for March alone.

The hashtag soon became a trending topic on Twitter, with a reach of more than 17 million; the number of times it has appeared on people’s timelines, according to the hashtag-tracking website keyhole.com.

“This is a good step,” wrote lawyer Gamal Eid on Twitter, “because of the way Egyptians have succeeded in using social media for important issues.” 

Acting on the campaign, MP Haitham El-Hariri filed an information request to the prime minister on the increases in electricity, water and gas bills. In his request, El-Hariri described the increases as unacceptable and unjustifiable. 

“This is not to demand that you lift the injustice against citizens, but to ask you to investigate the situation and to hold officials accountable for the public rage at the government and MPs,” he said. A number of other MPs soon joined El-Hariri, filing similar requests to the premier.

Because of its apolitical nature, the campaign also received ample airtime on scores of TV talk shows, and in the case of ONTV’s Gaber El-Karmouty sartorial support as well. El-Karmouty appeared on his programme covered in a giant bill with the hashtag “catch a bill” printed across his chest. 

In a telephone interview with the show, spokesman of the Ministry of Electricity Mohamed El-Yamani said the ministry had been following the campaign closely. While it acknowledged possible “errors” in some bills, it also denied introducing increases in electricity prices.

El-Yamani encouraged citizens who felt they had received bills that did not accurately reflect their consumption patterns to file complaints so the ministry could rectify them. 

“There are 32 million subscribers, and a one percent error affects 32,000 people, so mistakes happen due to multiple reasons such as misreading electricity metres, dated metres that require replacement, and accumulated bills, among other possibilities,” El-Yamani said.

But critics see things differently. “People don’t trust the government, and they can see the contradictions when the rich are favoured or exempted and the poor bear the brunt of austerity,” said Mustafa El-Naggar, a former MP and columnist actively supporting the campaign.

Last month, the government lowered gas prices for steel and iron manufacturers by almost 36 percent. Officials said the decision aimed at reducing the country’s import bill, and the news had an immediate effect on top steel producer Ezz Steel, whose shares jumped by 20 per cent before raising steel prices. 

According to a recent report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO, the government reduced energy prices in 2015-2016 for commercial industries by a third while increasing electricity prices for households by around 22 percent on most tranches, including low-income families. 

Why subsidise profitable businesses and then cut government subsidies on non-profit home consumption, the report asked. 

Officials insist that austerity measures are not being applied to the poor, who constitute 26 percent of the population, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

However, the government’s method for detecting poor areas is associated with energy consumption patterns. The smaller the consumption is, the more likely it is that the area contains poor households. 

“This method unwittingly equates beach houses with normally low-energy consumption, since they’re occupied for short periods only, with poor tranches of the population,” said Salma Hussein, an economics researcher with the EIPR. 

“Both areas are billed using the same skewed criteria.” 

But the larger problem and the driving force behind the growing outrage at rising utility bills is the widespread mistrust towards the government, said Hussein.

El-Naggar says many people are sabotaging their electricity metres because they are convinced the government is deliberately ripping them off.

“Oil prices have fallen from $100 to $30 a barrel, so why has that not been reflected in energy prices,” he asked. 

The government plans to cut the budget deficit to 9 to 10 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2017/2018, compared to the current 11.5 percent, and to 8 to 9 percent by the end of fiscal year 2019/2020, according to Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.

Its long-delayed subsidy cuts coincide with an ongoing economic crisis. Last month, the central bank devalued the Egyptian pound by almost 13 percent amid a crippling dollar crunch. 

Foreign reserves have more than halved since 2011 to $16.4 billion in January, exacerbated by plummeting tourism revenues since the crash of a Russian airliner over Sinai last October. 

The pound’s devaluation and the 9.5 percent inflation rate have been reflected in price hikes. The government also intends to introduce a value added tax (VAT), which pundits say will cause another surge in prices.

“Wages are the same, while price hikes are unstoppable. How can the average person make ends meet?” asked Ahmed Fathi, the administrator of the hashtag’s Facebook page.

It is presently unclear what the “catch a bill” campaign may lead to, but the momentum and the conversations it has started are the nearest thing to popular oversight at the moment, El-Naggar said.

The crisis is also not likely to go away anytime soon. The new fiscal year begins in July when the summer heat peaks to soaring temperatures and new and more expensive electricity rates will come into force.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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