When the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammad Mursi was elected president in June some Egyptians were horrified, but many others rejoiced and pretty much everyone said, “let’s give the guy a chance,” especially since “we” voted for him. Some were nonetheless dismayed when a full month passed before Mursi chose his Cabinet. When he announced his goals for his first 100 days of office including improved traffic conditions and cleaner, safer cities, Egyptians listened with both hope and incredulity, wondering if this government might actually turn rhetorical promises into something they could feel.
Since then the nation watched anxiously for signs of initiative. How would Mursi’s men (who outnumber female Cabinet members 10 to one) address the economic, institutional, social and environmental crises that are ruining their lives? What sort of thinking would be used to fulfill the President’s promise to “serve all Egyptians”?
The weeks flew by distractedly: insurgency in Sinai, sectarian strife nationwide, a scary budget deficit, workers in every sector striking for a living wage. An unflustered Mursi and his backers meanwhile shrewdly consolidated power – executive, legislative and, to some extent, judiciary – but what people really wanted to know was what were they going to do with it?
What about the so-called Renaissance project the Muslim Brother’s Freedom and Justice Party touted as their election platform, without of course, going into any details? Surely it would encompass some innovative, holistic planning to revitalize the economy in the short and long terms. What actions would be taken to ease the financial burden of average families who are having trouble feeding themselves, especially as global commodities prices rise? As the summer wore on with its water shortages, electricity cuts and burning garbage heaps, people searched in vain for signs of intelligent life in the ever-distant galaxies of power.
Then finally this week, they received a sample of the bright ideas they can look forward to in the years to come. Starting on Nov. 1, Trade and Industry Minister Hatem Saleh announced, all commercial establishments will be subjected to a curfew, 10 p.m. for shops and midnight for cafes and restaurants. Shutting all these businesses down early will save the government 6 billion Egyptian pounds in electricity subsidies annually, he said. Anyone caught disobeying will be subject to “harsh penalties” added Local Development Minister Ahmad Zaki Abdeen, probably fines, another potential source of income although he did not say so.
It is certainly true that Egyptian shops expend a ridiculous amount of wattage; they are often so brightly lit you could perform brain surgery inside them. But this decree suggests it is the government that needs its head examined. The concept of energy conservation has never been promoted in Egypt nor has energy distribution ever been equitable. Many Egyptians suffer sporadic service while large industries use massive amounts also at subsidized prices. The latter problem will be addressed in “phases,” Minister Saleh recently announced, aiming to gradually cut subsidies to some factories by the end of next year. If only small- and medium-sized business (mostly in the informal sector, which engages 82 percent of Egyptian entrepreneurs and is worth an estimated $347 billion) were offered such consideration. For them its lights out at 10 p.m. and that’s final.
Since Egyptian shops are typically open at least until midnight, with some grocers, restaurants and street cafes serving till dawn, this new ruling will demand a profound shift not only in business practice but in lifestyle. Given the heat and daytime traffic plus work and school schedules, people often shop at night when conditions are somewhat more conducive. Since Egyptians have virtually no options for free public entertainment, these shopping trips serve as family outings. Being obliged to finish by 10 p.m. represents yet another inconvenience in the obstacle course Egyptians call life, and will surely exacerbate nighttime traffic.
If I were someone living a crowded flat on a tight budget with no place to meet friends except a cafe, I’d resent being sent home at midnight by the trade and industry minister. As for the businesses, while the minister did not bother to offer figures regarding the amount of sales occurring after 10 p.m., even supposing it is minimal, countless employees working shorter hours will be forced to take pay cuts they can ill afford.
According to Saleh, businesses serving tourists will not be affected, and if you want to stay open after 10 p.m. you can get a special license, another bureaucratic nightmare for those with legitimate operations. As for the informal businesses, which the decree seems to target indirectly, it’s tough luck. Transgressors will presumably have to deal with the police, who will be tasked with enforcing the curfew, whether by imposing fines, making arrests or taking bribes to look the other way.
One might ask why Egypt’s government, which is rightly concerned with energy consumption and expenditures, could not have first addressed all the biggest consumers while using media campaigns and incentives to teach everyone else how to save energy, offering clear measures, tracking progress, instilling a sense of shared purpose and achievement. The answer is simple: They don’t know how.
They clearly have no trust in the public’s intelligence or ability to cooperate, and the feeling is all too mutual. This ruling demonstrates a familiar mentality, whereby the state treats citizens not as partners in solving a problem, but as the problem itself. And there’s little doubt how Egyptians will respond to being cast, yet again, as juvenile delinquents. They’ll do what they’ve always done: ignore it and take the consequences.
Maria Golia is the author of “Cairo, City of Sand” and “Photography and Egypt.” She lives in Downtown Cairo and blogs at www.mariagolia.wordpress.com. She wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.