CAIRO, March 26 (Reuters) - A second wave of fuel shortages in Egypt this year has left drivers fuming in long queues at gas stations, disrupted business and led the financially-stretched government to blame speculators for hoarding subsidised petroleum.
Dozens of diesel goods trucks lined up outside filling stations on highways out of Cairo and newspapers reported empty pumps in the north, south and east of the mostly desert country. In the capital, drivers queued from before dawn to fill tanks.
In the southern tourist city of Luxor, some drivers said they had waited at filling stations from noon to 2 a.m. the following morning. Cairo taxi drivers complained bitterly of lost earnings.
“It was horrible,” said Hassan, a 39-year old taxi driver. “We stayed in line for five hours and at the end we found all the gas was gone. People came with jars to buy extra fuel, which made the problem even worse.”
Business groups blamed weather-related disruption to fuel imports for the shortages, which first appeared in January.
However, some Egyptians pointed to panic buying by consumers convinced the government will be forced to slash the state subsidies that keep fuel affordable for the population.
The government is struggling to finance a budget deficit which has grown since last year’s popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Spending on fuel subsidies has soared as world prices and domestic consumption rose but the authorities have been reluctant to cut them for fear of a popular backlash.
The government, which is negotiating a $3.2 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, has denied talk that it can no longer afford to pay the fuel bill and officials said the shortages would be over by Thursday after security forces launched a crackdown on fuel hoarding.
Some 3 million litres of diesel and benzene were seized over the past three weeks before it could be sold on the black market, an unnamed official told Al Masry al Youm newspaper.
A further 20,000 litres of diesel were confiscated on Monday, state news agency MENA reported.
“There are strong actions to confront this crisis that is manufactured, in my opinion, particularly given that the amount of diesel offered was increased from 34 tonnes a day to 38 tonnes a day,” Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said in an interview with newspaper Al-Akhbar.
He blamed profiteers for spreading rumours of price increases to inflate demand for hoarded fuel.
About 44 percent of government subsidies go to diesel, used mainly by transport and industry, according to figures provided by a Cairo-based energy firm. ($1 = 6.0361 Egyptian pounds) (Reporting by Tom Pfeiffer; Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Marwa Awad and Dina Zayed; Editing by Toby Chopra)