Confusion and anger reigned over Egyptian streets following the rise in fuel prices announced by the government on 16 June. The rise in itself was foreseen; it had been predicted among the economic reform measures of lifting subsidies. But what hit Egyptians in the face was that the 43 – 55 per cent rise in fuel prices came on the heels of a series of price hikes in the space of a few weeks. The heavily-subsidised one-fare-for-all-distances underground metro tickets underwent a 50 – 350 per cent raise according to the distance travelled. Water and electricity prices saw rises of some 30 per cent on the average, and taxes were also raised.
It was small comfort to Egyptians to be informed by the government that subsidies still remain and have not been fully lifted. The only comfort was that subsidised bread would see no price hike.
The government said it still subsidises fuel by some 25 per cent of its cost price; the bill is especially high, it said, because oil has risen worldwide and Egypt imports 30 per cent of the oil it consumes to cover the needs of an ever-growing population
End of their tether
The price raise was announced to gas stations late on the evening of the first day of Eid al-Fitr Feast which concludes the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, and was effective midnight the same day. Many became aware of it only when they went for a gasoline fill the following morning, or for a bus or taxi ride. Brawls erupted between passengers and drivers; the police had to bring situations under control in many stations.
Public anger did not subside, however.
A cheerless Ibrahim Fahmy, a teacher, told Watani that the price raises were not acceptable under the already harsh fallout of economic reform. “People are at the end of their tether,” he said, “everyone is suffering from the crazy leap in prices.”
Sarah Sobhy, a housewife, also criticised the raise in fuel prices. “Now,” she said, “everything, practically everything will rise accordingly. How can we sustain this?”
Social researcher Michael Asaad, told Watani that, to allay the pain caused by the price rise, the government should compensate citizens by increasing subsidised food supplies or raising salaries. “This would help the State avoid public wrath which would definitely lead to instability in the country,” he said.
Voice of reason
A few Egyptians were understanding of the need to suffer the pain of lifting subsidies. On social media, one blogger used the popular proverb: “Q: What led you to endure the bitter? A: What was even more bitter.” A housewife commented that we pay exorbitant taxi and tuk-tuk fares for rather short distances then complain at a metro ticket that costs less than one-tenth such fares and takes us over distances 10 times lengthier.
A middle-aged government employee with a wife and four children wrote: “I know we’re all suffering hard, myself included. But a word of wisdom is needed. We need to rationalise our consumption of everything; and this is the only way we could handle the hardship. A look around will prove we’re not exactly living in abject poverty. Is there any teenager in Egypt who does not have one or more mobile phones, and expensive ones at that? When daughters or sons get married, isn’t it customary to have their new homes stacked with the most expensive appliances even if superfluous, since we mindlessly engage in stupid competition of ‘who has more, bigger, and better’? This also applies to the expensive weddings that have become the norm now, and woe unto anyone who doesn’t throw a prestigious party for a large number of invitees that breaks his back in expenses! We need to change all such behaviour before we complain of our ‘limited means’.” Predictably, some bloggers agreed, but others strongly objected.
A number of MPs have said they intend to question the government on the price raise, whereas political and rights movements issued statements voicing rejection of the fuel price raises and calling for a halt to the move which, they say, threatens social stability. The 25 – 30 movement has called for an alternative economic reform policy to the one dictated on Egypt by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
All the suffering and anger, however, could not quench the famous sense of humour of Egyptians, or their penchant to joke at whatever pained them. Social media exploded with jokes at the elevated fuel prices. “When frustrated,” one post said, “I used to go for a ride in my car. Now, I’ll just go for a round around it.”
Another touted the donkey as the best ever means of transport. “Keep this quiet,” one other blogger replied, “else the government gets wind of it and raises the price of fodder.”