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Blackouts in Egypt are also politics

While president Morsi's campaign calls on citizens to do the state's job, citizen campaigns are calling on the state to fulfil its responsibilities, from housing to water, electricity and garbage collection

Wael Gamal , Tuesday 31 Jul 2012
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In one week, there have been three calls of a new kind to mobilise the street. They are united by a common theme that is unrelated to the constitution or elections or transfer of power or any of these key political issues that have dominated the scene since the January revolution. “We want to live,” “We will not pay” and “A clean country” are three campaigns that focus on issues that are more tangible than the battles of previous months. They all focus on average citizens.

At the start of Ramadan the residents of Saft El-Laban in Giza surrounded the governorate’s headquarters to protest frequent water and power outages. But this was not the first for these locals; in August of last year, residents barricaded the ring road to protest water outages at the peak of summer and high demand. This time around, Saft El-Laban dwellers were protesting extended and frequent blackouts, and lack of garbage collection, as well as much broader problems in water services affecting the entire country.

The abused the Egyptian as a citizen and a consumer


The main themes of dispute since the January revolution have centered around the struggle of the Egyptian national as a political citizen. These confrontations have been about the elections and the transitional period, the role of the police, the creation of political parties, military tribunals and so on.

Meanwhile, continuous confrontations on the ground for rights of livelihood, production and consumption – including strikes and social protests – have never been in centre shot. They are at best ignored by politicians and the media, or at worst condemned and sometimes even suppressed in a manner that does not even provoke public anger.

In fact, this second sphere of confrontations is no less important than the first. They are linked together in more ways than the advocates of “let’s write a comprehensive constitution and everything else will fall in place” think. Meanwhile, the political rights of the Egyptian citizen – which are still in flux despite the huge leap accomplished by the revolution – remain truncated and superficial. They will remain that way if they are not accompanied by a change in the balance of power in favour of the Egyptian consumer.

The project to rule Egypt that was led by Gamal Mubarak needed political dictatorship in order to impose the dictatorship of large companies. The rule of companies is just as harsh and inhuman when it comes to controlling the lives and livelihoods of people. These companies created immense poverty and misery, which continues, as ballot boxes are not enough to dislodge them.

This type of dictatorship clearly manifests itself in the life of the Egyptian consumer who is helpless and has no control over the quality or type of products and services available for consumption. The Egyptian consumer is the victim of countless malpractices, some illegal, and is compelled to buy commodities, even food and sometimes medicine, that are substandard. Some used goods are promoted as new and there is no monitoring for pricing or regulation of monopolies.

In other words, companies and businessmen decide what is suitable profit – irrespective of how high – without due consideration to consumers, who are forced to spend what little money they have. This is compounded by the manipulation of people’s poverty, illiteracy and ignorance of their legal rights especially in rural areas and in Upper Egypt.

The same applies to public services, whose cost the state obsesses about – and in every budget attempts to raise fees and trim its responsibilities – while neglecting the quality and type of service. This is obvious when it comes to trains, hospitals and even garbage collection.

The consumer citizen stands alone against this politically enabled rampant exploitation. The revolution however, opened the door to changing this equation.

The revolution and electricity


The demands of the “We will not pay” campaign reveal the political dimension related to the balance of power in society – a balance of power propped up by the state and its laws. The campaign is demanding that districts declare their electricity usage to achieve equality in bearing the burden, as well as a publicised schedule of power outages and their duration: “It is unacceptable to surprise us without consideration for our dignity,” they declare. The campaign began in Saft El-Laban, but also in villages in the Delta and Upper Egypt, before it was adopted by the leftist Popular Alliance Party.

In addition, the campaign demands the publishing of contracts with the international garbage collection companies because “collecting garbage is the job of executive bodies, not citizens.”
Thus, the campaign is standing up to systematic biased policies: power outages that affect the poor only; blackouts in slum areas, provinces and small villages, while well-to-do areas like Mohandiseen, Heliopolis and Maadi, carry a much lighter burden.

Quite simply, some districts are able to completely dodge such outages. The rise in the demand for electricity is of course the product of bad planning by the government well before the revolution, but it is also the result of a huge upsurge in electricity usage by the wealthy after an unprecedented boom in the purchase of air conditioners. In fact, business tycoon and politician close to Mubarak Ahmed Ezz cited the fact of high usage of air conditioners before the revolution to prove that the lives of Egyptians are lavish.

Meanwhile, the price of electricity was floated for consumers according to a plan coordinated with the World Bank. Until today however, the state continues to subsidise electricity for factories owned by the cronies of capitalism. Now, we are facing a situation whereby a resident in Saft El-Laban, who is in contract with the state he funds with his income and taxes paid on every box of cheese he buys, pays market price for electricity that he does not receive.

In capitalism, the most basic rules of a contract state that the service provider should provide the service as agreed, otherwise the contract is void. Therefore, the campaign’s threat of refraining from paying bills is just one measure – albeit insufficient because the state is legally, constitutionally and politically obliged to guarantee that no citizen is denied basic services.

Herein lies the key difference between the “We want to live” and “We will not pay” campaigns on the one hand, and “A clean country” on the other. The state, its president and his ruling party are behind the third campaign, “A clean country.” It is a product of the authorities who are capable of changing policy and are indeed responsible for it, and not an effort by the neglected victim.

Unlike “We will not pay” and “We want to live” (which calls on citizens to organise themselves in defence of social justice in housing, wages, and other issues), the logic with “A clean country” is that the citizen is supposed to play the role of the state, fulfilling its obligations. These are the same obligations that citizen finances out of his pocket. It is to fulfill these obligations that the citizen chooses representatives.

The initiative of the president and his party fails to address changing the policies that discriminate against the poor and fails to address how to make these services efficient in the future. (Anyway, it is unreasonable for citizens to continue collecting garbage especially that they will not be able to complete the collection cycle).

We have not heard anything about reviewing the contracts with the failed European garbage collecting companies; we have not heard anything about how to raise the efficiency of the current system of garbage collection.

The residents of Saft El-Laban need for the unjust system in the consumption arena to change, while the state is reassigning the burden to them rather than dealing with the matter.

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Cochabamba is a city of one million residents in Bolivia’s Andes Mountains that waged a brave war in 1999-2000 against privatising water services. US company Bechtel would have taken ownership of the water under the pretext of improving services. The company raised prices by 35 per cent to nearly one fifth of the incomes of locals. The city rose up to defend their right to water, and the city revoked the contract and stopped the deal while the army killed one and injured dozens of residents in defence of Bechtel. The victory was inspirational across Latin American after locals efficiently managed the water.

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If our right to water, electricity, housing and a clean street is not a political matter, then what is political?

“Yes we will not pay anyone, understand that we are human beings”.

This article was first published in El-Shorouq newspaper.

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