(Beirut) – The Egyptian government is limiting electricity use with daily power cutbacks nationwide, putting people’s economic and social rights at risk, Human Rights Watch said today.
The cuts appear to last longer in rural areas, which have higher poverty rates, and have left many people without power amid soaring temperatures, hindering their ability to perform their jobs, including for some medical workers, and limiting access to water. The government should recognize everyone’s right to clean, accessible, and affordable electricity.
“Egypt’s government has long demanded implicitly that Egyptians sacrifice their civil and political rights in return for economic prosperity,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But electricity cuts dramatically reduce people’s ability to realize their rights including to food, water, and health care.”
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that the cuts, which began on July 22, 2023, following a week of sudden blackouts, are to reduce pressure on the country’s electricity infrastructure due to increased demand. However, government officials have also said that the electricity crisis was caused by an inadequate gas supply to run power plants. The government has been planning at least since August 2022 to ration electricity to enable the government to export natural gas as a way of shoring up foreign currency reserves.
On July 27, the government announced that the rationing plan would last at least until September, following the prime minister’s July 19 remarks that the cuts would end by July 25. To address the crisis, the government announced several measures including having some public sector employees work from home on Sundays, a workday in Egypt.
People posted videos on social media platforms complaining that the cuts are preventing them from performing their jobs, threatening their right to work. A parliament member stated during parliamentary questioning of the electricity and renewable energy minister that the power outages have prevented water from reaching higher floors in residential buildings at times in six cities in the Cairo area.
The government announced that hospitals are exempted from power cuts, but not private clinics. A doctor told BBC Arabic that he had to repeat a laparoscopy because the electricity was cut. Even the backup generator in the clinic did not work properly because of electrical current fluctuation, he said.
News outlets have reported that the cuts are lasting for longer periods in some areas. In greater Cairo, the cuts are lasting an entire hour four times a day, compared with five in Upper Egypt and the Delta region, New Arab reported. One parliament member said that residents in some areas of al-Omranay, Giza, were only receiving 2 hours of electricity over a 15-hour span, damaging electrical appliances.
An Electricity Ministry official was quoted in al-Shorouk, a local newspaper, saying that an outage may last for up to two hours in cities, but up to three hours in villages. The Council of Ministers spokesman, Ambassador Nader Saad, attributed the longer cuts in some villages to human error and technical issues. “Maybe the person responsible for cutting the electricity forgot to bring it back,” he said.
On July 31, the Council of Ministers issued schedules for cuts across the country, except for Marsa Matrouh, Red Sea, and South Sinai governorates. These three regions are exempt, the prime minister said, because their energy consumption is lower. The tourist and coastal areas will also be exempted, he said, because they generate public revenue.
Based on the schedules, cuts in all neighborhoods will amount to an hour a day, except in Alexandria Governorate, where the cuts can reach up to 140 minutes. The government did not provide justification for this discrepancy.
Though Prime Minister Madbouly said that the cuts were due to excessive demand, the Electricity Minister told local media that electricity consumption in the country did not exceed potential production capacity. He said the cuts were mainly driven by the inadequate supply of natural gas and fuel oil, to run power plants.
In 2019, Egypt achieved gas self-sufficiency and started to export liquefied natural gas, but the gas output reached its lowest level in three years in May, according to Middle East Economic Survey. To fill the gap, the government announced it would import an additional US$250–300 million worth of fuel oil until the end of August.
On July 19, an Electricity Ministry official told al-Shorouk that the ministry plans to reduce local natural gas consumption by 25 percent to preserve quantities of natural gas for export and ensure foreign currency payments to Egypt amid the country’s deep debt crisis.
On July 27, Madbouly said that the government halts natural gas exports during summer months, but Saheeh Masr, a fact-checking platform, disclosed that Egypt has exported gas over the past four summers, with a total value of $2.68 billion according to data from the Central Bank of Egypt.
The likelihood that the cuts are linked to the export of natural gas is also consistent with an August 2022 government plan to ration energy consumption nationwide to save 15 percent of the natural gas used in running power stations to export and obtain foreign currency. The government planned to increase the supply of electricity generated from renewables to 20 percent by 2022, but renewables only accounted for 11 percent that year.
The internationally protected right to an adequate standard of living includes the right of everyone, without discrimination, to sufficient, reliable, safe, clean, accessible, and affordable electricity, Human Rights Watch said. Access to electricity is critical to ensuring other rights, including but not limited to health, housing, water, and education, and should be recognized as a distinct human right.
Countries have a duty to ensure that everyone in their territory or jurisdiction has access to electricity. This means ensuring adequate and sustainable electricity generation and supply, and international cooperation to ensure reliable, affordable, and available electricity for the end user.
Almost half of Egypt’s greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity and heat production, 90 percent of which is produced from fossil fuels, largely gas. Egyptian authorities should take immediate and urgent steps to ensure that all residents have a continuous, affordable, and clean supply of electricity that does not contribute to the climate crisis, with a focus on increasing generation capacity from hydropower, wind, and solar, Human Rights Watch said. The quicker the transition to renewable energy, the more money Egypt will save, the more jobs created, and the less Egypt will be contributing to the climate crisis.
“The government has long known its planned natural gas exports are at odds with Egyptians’ electricity needs, yet it prefers to rely on power cuts rather than invest in renewable energy to make up the difference,” Coogle said. “If the government is forced to cut electricity, it should at least ensure that the burdens are shared equally, without discrimination.”