Egypt: Running out of gas
Everyone in Egypt has a botagas story. These botagas stories are not the result of just the current shortage of botagas and gasoline that Egypt is currently struggling with. Botagas is a lifeline for many Egyptians. To understand why botagas is so important to the lives of so many, let me begin by providing some context. Botagas is essentially a propane gas tank (probably a mixture of propane and butane), just like what you would purchase for your outdoor grill. Egyptians buy botagas for two reasons, to cook, and to heat up water in a household bathroom. If you don’t have botagas, the stove doesn’t work, and you can’t take a shower, unless you like cold water. Virtually every Egyptian city depends on botagas being delivered to residential neighborhoods because gas lines to urban communities are a luxury that is only afforded to the most affluent parts of cities such as in Cairo and Alexandria. For everyone else you have to make do with botagas.
Growing up in Egypt, I always woke up to the sound of a man shouting “bekya” followed by a loud banging that sounded like someone smashing a steel drum. The man shouting “bekya” at about 7:00 am was the junk man. Egyptians haven’t caught on yet to the concept of weekend garage sales, so the only way you can get rid of your junk is to sell it to the junk man. And, he will buy anything. Plastic bottles, an old stroller, a worn out pair of shoes, yup, he’ll buy it. Not for much, but he’ll buy it. The loud banging that follows the “bekya” man is the botagas salesman telling you he’s in the neighborhood. What the botagas guy is essentially doing is hitting the propane gas tank with his wrench, a screeching noise I could hear from my seventh floor window. I often wondered in 100 degree temperatures how pounding a propane tank with a wrench didn’t cause an explosion. I think it’s merely the grace of God that allows those that sell botagas to live as long as they do.
Don’t get me wrong though, botagas has killed and maimed scores of Egyptians. It is not uncommon to read in the press weekly about the family that was blown to smithereens when their botagas tank exploded. Often you will also read about whole families that succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning because their botagas tank leaked. My sister, for example, was almost a botagas victim. She was taking a shower and stumbled out of the bathroom and collapsed on the floor in the hallway. Yes, it was carbon monoxide seeping out from the botagas tank connected to the bathroom water heater. From thereon, showers were taken with the bathroom door open in our household. Imagine how many lives could be saved by the simple mandating of carbon monoxide detectors.
Approximately 8 out of every 10 households in Egypt depend on botagas to cook and bathe. The remaining four households either have access to natural gas, or live in the dark ages. But, now botagas is becoming harder and harder to find, and if you’re looking for a propane tank, you can always go to the black market where you will have to pay an exorbitant price for one. Of course, the government subsidizes botagas with the subsidy now reaching several billion dollars annually. It would follow that if the government is broke, there will be a shortage of botagas. And, the current shortage of botagas should be that simple to explain. But, no, a prominent Egyptian Minister has now been quoted as saying that it is the father-in-law of President Mubarak’s eldest son that is behind the botagas shortage, and that this is all a conspiracy stemming from the former regime. Why is the father-in-law doing this? The Minister says to discredit the current government and to cause turmoil in Egypt. Well, this may be, but no one is even sure where the father-in-law is. And is there anyone else who can import propane, not even the government?
Putting conspiracy theories aside, what happens in a country like Egypt when botagas becomes scarce, and if you can find it on the black market, it is three or four times the government subsidized price. The law of substitution would imply that people would buy electric stoves and electric water heaters. Most of the well to do have already switched to electric appliances, even if they live in a district where they are connected to natural gas. But, what of the poor? They can’t afford expensive electric appliances, so what recourse do they have? Likely, not much. An Egypt in perpetual botagas shortages will likely anger the masses and according to the Minister, this is all part of the father-in-law’s master plan.
No botagas, and the common man can’t cook. No botagas, and you go to work, or school smelly. However, there is a silver lining to the botagas shortage. You don’t read as many stories about botagas fatalities, and this has to be a good thing.
A good friend told me that he waited two hours to fill up the gas tank of his car, only to go home to cold food and no running hot water. I asked him how he and the family were coping, and he replied, “I walk more, eat less, and cold showers seem to be replacing the need for early morning coffee. “ Yup, he always sees the bright side of life. As for everyone else, they will be much less forgiving.
An Egypt without adequate supplies of botagas is a country in real crisis. I am even told that you’re no longer awoken in the morning by the botagas man banging on his propane tank. As my sister put it, when we were kids growing up in New York, we would run out onto the street at the sound of the Good Humor ice cream man. Sadly, she said, you’re getting the same reaction from grown-ups now in Egypt, not to ice cream, but to the banging of a propane tank. Yes, people hear that banging and wherever they are they run to the street in the hope of getting that one botagas tank, and at the government subsidized price. According to my sister, meetings are now disrupted when the botagas banging is heard, and if you are lucky you just might be able to go home with a propane tank in your trunk, that’s if you have gas in your car. And, when you get there you can walk in the door with the botagas tank in tow, and shout out, “Kids, I’m home, and I have gas!”