It is somewhat unusual for a writer who normally ponders major strategic issues of war and peace or development and growth or globalisation and privacy to suddenly find himself reading a headline in Al-Ahram newspaper announcing: "Shops close; confused government, angered merchants." It must be a critical issue for a major newspaper to put it atop its list of priorities. Reading further into the dispute, it appears to encompass a substantial array of political and economic grudges.
In previous eras, preliminary discussion of this issue remained within the corridors of power because the state knew the details of the matter, including the size of energy consumption and the types and forms of prevalent unemployment.
After the government and officials decided on a direction that took into consideration all the facts, it might present the issue to public opinion to test reactions and also mobilise the people to deal with the new situation.
This was not the best method and many times, if not always, was dictatorial, but in the end, there was a decision that the people settled on even if they perpetually criticised it.
What is surprising is that in-between the folds of debate one discovers that the state’s problem is energy, but it does not want to clearly admit this and link it to forcing shops to close early, which is one of many alternatives, such as raising the price of energy to cover costs, and higher bills for those who consume energy after 10pm.
Merchants, for their part, constantly complain about bad conditions and a stunted market; but suddenly it appears that conditions are spectacular after 10pm, implying that Egyptians are nocturnal creatures who sleep all day and shop all night.
Labour unions have not yet confirmed that unemployment rates drop at night in Egypt because of nocturnal work, but instead continuously complain that no one in Egypt has a job.
Various political forces, meanwhile, are also confused. They do not know whether they should object to the decision by the government they disapprove of, or whether they should support it because this complies with their platform and goals. Everyone seems to know very little or is ignorant of the experience of other countries.
In fact, nowhere in the world are shops open all year round until after midnight. I just came back from the US, where all the malls, shops and shopping districts close at 9:30pm every day of the week, except on Sundays when they open at 11am until 7pm and sometimes 5pm. This is how the majority of shops in the US operate, but restaurants and cafés keep different hours since they mostly operate at night and therefore stay open until past midnight.
There are, of course, a handful of shops that are quasi-monopolies that are open 24 hours because on the one hand they serve anyone around the clock but they also pay higher energy bills. And thus, their prices are substantially higher.
At the same time, during special occasions, such as Christmas, shops remain open for longer hours, which is comparable to Ramadan and Eid for us.
We cannot reinvent the wheel. Not only because it has already been invented a long time ago but also because the issue of shop hours was already dealt with a long time ago. The heart of the matter is that the state, not the private sector, is the supplier of electricity and subsidies energy for the sake of the poor.
More importantly, since the state does not have many resources and therefore won’t be building power plants anytime soon, the options for the Egyptian people are either to close shops early or suffer longer blackouts.
But there is a third option. Shops could be encouraged to close at 10pm and anyone who wants to stay open later must pay for the extra electricity they use. There is a fourth option: deciding opening and closing hours can be a local issue and if a local government in a district or city decides to keep shops open then it might convince the private sector to build a small power plant. This would lift the onus from the shoulders of the central government and put it in the hands of local leadership to decide whether to keep shops closed or open depending on the needs of the people, their ability to pay, and their nocturnal habits.
Thus, there are several choices and the government can strike a balance between them or adopt appropriate measures. But the bigger issue remains: no country can grow, achieve development or social justice or human dignity in today’s world without sufficient levels of power for production, consumption and everyday life.
It does not make sense that in light of previous corruption it was possible to provide enough energy for shops, factories and homes, while under an honest and upright regime energy levels are depleting, and closing shops — after factories were voluntarily or forced to close — is the means of dealing with a bitter reality where the state’s basic capabilities and resources are dissipating every day.
This means that no matter what the solutions, they is no substitute for solving the issue at its root. Otherwise, Egypt will be lost.