Fuel shortages strike Egypt again ahead of protests

Deya Abaza, Tuesday 25 Jun 2013

Lines at petrol stations get longer as government minister blames temporary technical issues for disrupted supply amid reports of deeper crisis

Drivers wait alongside their vehicles in long queues at a gas station during a fuel shortage in the country, in Alexandria June 24, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Long lines of fuel-hungry motorists have once more paralysed traffic in Egypt as yet another wave of fuel shortages hits the country. 

Though the lines have been a recurring feature of Egypt's post-revolutionary landscape, the latest shortages have caused particular public anxiety as they come ahead of planned anti-government protests on Sunday.

Nihad Shelbaya, public affairs officer at Exxon Mobil, said she heard Egypt's petroleum minister on the radio on Tuesday morning blaming the crisis on technical issues which delayed the distribution of fuel from Cairo's main depot in Mostorod over the past days.

"The delays probably sparked a buying panic as motorists grew worried that fuel would not be available in the coming days, so people are rushing to fill their tanks," Shelbaya said.

The country is bracing for massive protests on 30 June, as well as pre-emptive demonstrations by Islamist forces in support of President Morsi over the weekend.

"But whatever the reasons it is clear that the volumes of fuel received by stations in the past days are not the usual ones," Shelbaya added.

The quantities of fuel, particularly petrol, supplied to stations by the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation in the past days have been 20 to 30 percent below normal levels, said an anonymous source at state-run COOP (Petroleum Cooperative Society Company).

But on Saturday, officials at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil had affirmed the contrary.

"Fuel quantities distributed to gas stations exceed consumption by 20 to 30 percent,” said Tarek El-Barkatawi, head of the Egyptian General Petroleum Company, who blamed the shortages on smuggling activities.

In April, then-Petroleum Minister Osama Kamal told Ahram Online that he estimated that smuggling and black markets accounted for not less than 20 percent of all fuel that the ministry provided to the market. 

Last week, government officials announced that the fuel-rationing smart cards to be introduced in July and August would be used primarily to combat smuggling.  

"The real reason behind the shortages is the lack of dollar liquidity, which has affected fuel imports," the COOP source said. 

The Egyptian pound, which has steadily been slipping against the dollar since the Central Bank of Egypt began auctioning foreign currency in late December, fell below LE7 to the US dollar on the official exchange market on 19 June.

Last week, Turkish news agency Anadolu cited Petroleum Minister Sherif Haddara saying that Egypt's strategic reserves of three vital fuel products would run out by the end of this month.

According to Haddara, Egypt has enough diesel fuel to last eight days, butane for ten days and petrol for 14 days.

Ministry officials declined to comment on the Anadolu report when contacted by Ahram Online.

According to the agency, the government has been providing the nation's petrol stations with 18,000 tonnes of octane per day and 37,000 tonnes of diesel fuel, while also providing the country's power stations with 23,000 tonnes of low-quality mazut fuel.

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