On an unremarkable morning in mid-January of the current year, several cities across Egypt suddenly found themselves half-paralyzed and in a state of anxiety, owing to a sudden gasoline shortage that hit gas stations simultaneously. The shortage gradually developed into a crisis in the days that followed, and the public’s anxiety evolved into panic. Immense queues built up and tensions reached boiling point, leading to several violent clashes and a reported death. Meanwhile, the political leadership claimed innocence from the debacle and blamed circumstances and rumors, justifications which several private sector operators contradicted.

The crisis has now abated, to the huge relief of Egyptians who can hardly tolerate the addition of another burden to their sizeable list, but the confusion remains. The origin of the crisis remains unclear despite several attempts by officials to explain the situation, and the process of its resolution is no clearer. In fact, one will find a number of statements and quotations from ministers and government representatives dealing with the crisis, but no coherent official story has been communicated openly and deliberately to the public from the moment the crisis emerged until now.

This crisis serves as a perfect demonstration of the lack of transparency evident in the dealings of the Egyptian petroleum sector, particularly government entities; It’s a reflection of the fact that transparency and disclosure of information are elements sorely missing from Egyptian governmental policy in general. The secretive, distant nature of Egyptian authorities and their insistence on keeping the public at arm’s length is a trait of the country’s governmental history, and it has repeatedly brought harm to both the people and the governments that rule them in parental fashion.

Egyptian authorities have traditionally been reactive rather than proactive in their communication with the public. There is little in the way of official channels of communication and no organized, legalized system of mandatory information disclosure. As the fuel crisis broke out, officials came out to clarify, justify and comment on the situation, but there was no official line of communication opened between government and public to handle the crisis, not even in the form of a high-profile press conference dealing clearly and specifically with the problem, its causes and its solution.

Maintaining administration and crisis-management as processes that remain outside the public eye, naturally withers the accountability of officials to the people, but perhaps more dangerously it foments skepticism and lack of trust. The absence of an established link between government and public prompts the public to draw their own conclusions from whatever situation may arise and act accordingly, and to be wary of trusting government explanations.

In the particular case of the fuel crisis, government response in terms of communication was clumsy, doing little to alleviate the situation. Petroleum Minister Abdullah Ghorab claimed that supply was adequate and blamed the crisis on rumors, but the Ministry did not release any numbers or discuss supply in detail in order to substantiate such claims.

Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga echoed the Minister’s claims of rumors and reasserted that the problem was “artificial” and that there was no actual shortage, owing to the fact that most of Egypt’s fuel needs are met domestically. She identified the source of the rumors to be the IMF delegation in Egypt at the time, which she believed sparked fears of a cut in subsidies, thus spurring panic-buying.

Mrs. Abul Naga’s statement does not take into account that supply can be disrupted even if it is domestic. This was not helped by the fact that the private sector made claims that directly contradicts the official denials of a shortage, a crucial indicator of lack of transparency in the sector.

Managers and workers at petrol stations denied receiving their regular quota of fuel, citing a significant cutback which triggered a hike in prices. This is in direct contradiction of consistent official assurances that supply was unaffected. The Ministry of Petroleum accused the retailers of taking advantage of the situation to increase prices and thus profits. This clash reveals a real breakdown in communication between the private sector retailers and the government, and confirms that at least one of the two sides is not telling the truth.
If indeed supply had deteriorated, the government was required to divulge as much to the public and justify the shortage, particularly since it was causing fuel prices to surge.

Denying a situation that was having an actual and significant effect on everyday life is irresponsible to say the least, and only serves to further dilute the already fragile link of trust between the government and the public.

If, on the other hand, the government’s accusations of private sector profiteering are true, the problem can still be attributed to the absence of systematized transparency through which both private sector and government can be easily held accountable. The exchange of allegations is itself evidence to the distinct need for a system that transparently regulates all actors, making any anomalies easily identifiable to the authorities, who are by extension responsible for immediately informing the public and so containing the problem.

The official response of shifting blame and citing factors which are essentially uncontrollable as the causes of the problem only served to hamper the government’s credibility. This was compounded by promises that the crisis would end in the space of a few days-and claims by state TV that it had indeed ended after the passing of the foretold period-which simply did not materialize. Informing citizens that the crisis was over while they were still suffering its consequences is unarguably detrimental to building trust.

The lack of transparency (and honesty) of Egyptian government entities that is demonstrated by the crisis and is extant in all areas of government for decades creates ripe ground for conspiracy theories and speculation, which can exacerbate problems like the fuel shortage and even develop into wider political crises. The reason claimed by some officials to be behind the rumors of an increase in prices, the IMF delegation mentioned by the Minister of International Cooperation, is itself a cause for rumors and concern due to the traditional lack of transparency.

The IMF delegation, here to negotiate an emergency aid package to Egypt due to the economic bottleneck the country is finding itself in, had reportedly conveyed the international organization’s demand that Egypt remove fuel subsidies in order to approve the loan. If it was indeed the rumors originating from this request that led to the crisis, it is due to the ambiguity of the government in openly communicating to the people its intentions, and the relationship of deep distrust of authority that has developed in the Egyptian street. The public believed that the government would take the sudden, dangerous step requested by the IMF because they simply did not trust those in power to protect their rights or to clearly relay their moves, plans, and intentions.

The reaction to the crisis was merely another showcase of the hopelessly out of date and out of touch approach to crisis management adopted by Egyptian government entities, an approach which destroys credibility and places the public on the problem’s side of the equation rather than as a potential element in its resolution.

Even in the wake of the crisis, its inception and its end are still not entirely clear, leaving the public to speculate and leaving the door open for a similar occurrence to transpire in the future. The tanks may be filling up again, but the system remains fundamentally flawed and the risk of sudden breakouts of panic-buying, paranoia, confusion, and profiteering remains alarming.

By Ahmed Maaty