Sunday, February 14, 2010

Butane wars in Egypt

From The Majlis:
Cooking gas riots -- or, as Al-Masry Al-Youm has dubbed them (عربي), "the butane war" -- have killed at least one person in Egypt and sent the mayor of Tanta to prison.

Cylinders of butane gas are ubiquitous in Egypt: they're used in homes, in restaurants, and by street vendors hawking fuul and roasted nuts. But the country is going through a severe butane shortage right now, brought on by last month's deadly flooding, which disrupted supply lines from major ports on the Mediterranean coast. (Government officials say illegal businesses are also contributing to the shortage by using large amounts of subsidized butane.)

The shortage has sent prices skyrocketing -- from LE10-15 (US$2-3) per cylinder, the official price, to as much as LE60 (US$11) on the burgeoning black market. Smugglers are getting their gas cylinders direct from the distributors: Al-Masry Al-Youm published some photos this week (not available online, sorry) of two trucks, owned by Dakahlia governorate, selling butane cylinders to black market vendors.

The suppliers are trying to turn a profit, too: Two butane factories in Damietta were caught underfilling the cylinders they ship to retailers.

Egyptians who can't afford the higher prices have been queuing up in long lines across the country. One of those lines, in Imbaba -- a neighborhood in Giza governorate -- turned into a riot yesterday. A group of men attacked each other with chains and knives; one of them was killed, and two more were injured. Al-Masry Al-Youm reports that elderly people have been fainting in lines in several cities.

The independent newspaper Al-Wafd reported yesterday that six men were injured in a gunfight over butane cylinders in Tanta. The town's mayor shot six people -- two of them, ironically, were his cousins -- after they accused him of hoarding cylinders. The mayor was arrested.

The Daily News Egypt's Al Khan cartoon savagely describes the violence over butane this way today:

And, of course, there is an anti-Israel angle. Israel already has an agreement with Egypt to receive natural gas supplies for a low price over the next 15 years, and Egyptians are complaining “We export natural gas at a low price [to Israel] and import butane gas for a high price."