It was well after midnight when Mahmoud Hifny finally lost it.
He had sweated through traffic while his fuel needle hovered ominously over the red “E” and finally joined a snaking line leading to one of the few downtown gas stations still pumping fuel. Two hours later, he was still waiting, stranded in an exhaust-choked sea of cars whose drivers had also lost hours trying to fill their tanks.
“We’ll get rid of those sons of dogs!” Mr. Hifny, 42, yelled to no one in particular, though everyone knew he meant President Mohamed Morsi and his allies. Nearby drivers nodded their heads. “They’re responsible for all the problems in this country!”
A powerful confluence of crises is engulfing Egypt as summer temperatures reach punishing heights, fraying tempers and fueling anger among many toward the country’s leaders.
Economic malaise is spreading just before Ramadan, the year’s costliest season for Muslims who fast by day and celebrate at night. Adding to tensions, the government has failed to ease frequent electricity cuts and a worsening fuel crisis that has left gas lines clogging major thoroughfares for hours.
Underpinning the discontent is a deep sense of foreboding that mass protests planned for this weekend to call for Mr. Morsi’s ouster could set off new street violence or push the country deeper into political instability.
Protests and counterprotests are expected to pick up on Friday and peak on Sunday, the anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s inauguration as the country’s first freely elected president, though the opposition says it will stay in the streets until Mr. Morsi falls. On Wednesday, one man was killed in the city of Mansura in an attack on a Muslim Brotherhood march.
“There is so much tension between people over what is going on,” said Mohammed Ali, a film director who has accelerated his production schedule because of the protests. “It is like seeing gas next to a fire, but you’re not sure who will set it alight.”
Families are rushing to finish their Ramadan shopping early in case shops remain closed, and others are rushing to finish projects, fearing they may not get the chance once the protests begin. Egyptians have grown used to the gridlock that mass protests can produce, so they know to prepare.
“It’s not about what will happen during those three days,” Mr. Ali said. “It is what will happen after those three days. No one has any idea.”
That sense of discontent filled the air on a recent night around the gas station just off Galaa Square in Dokki, a neighborhood in central Cairo.
The square, named to commemorate the end of Britain’s occupation of Egypt after the 1952 revolution, had been transformed by the gas crisis, as hundreds of cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles unable to find fuel elsewhere crowded onto every patch of pavement near the gas station and formed maddeningly long lines that reached into the surrounding streets, clogging them.
The police had erected barriers to separate the gas lines from passing traffic, and they occasionally intervened to stop attempted line cutters and prevent fistfights. A man was shot dead Tuesday night in a gas station dispute elsewhere in Cairo.
The drivers passed time chatting and arguing with their neighbors, taking brief naps and playing on their cellphones. An old woman did brisk business selling newspapers.
“We try to laugh about it because what else can we do?” said Khalid Shaaban, 35, as he turned up the music and got his wife, sister and three children to clap and rock to the beat. “But we’re really, really tired of it.”
This was the sixth gas station he had visited, Mr. Shaaban said, and he had been in line more than an hour. Like many others waiting in line, he blamed Mr. Morsi.
“Under Mubarak, we knew that people were stealing, but we never had crises like this,” Mr. Shaaban said, referring to Hosni Mubarak, the president who was ousted in 2011. “It is all because the guy driving the country now doesn’t know how to drive.”
Two unemployed young men sat in a nearby car, one offering limited support for the president and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are good people and they fear God, but they do not have the right policies to run the country,” said the man, Ashraf al-Adawi, 27, adding that he would not protest because he feared instability.
“If the country has already fallen by 90 percent, it will fall by 100 percent if they topple the president,” Mr. Adawi said. “And if Morsi leaves, who will come next? There is no one that everyone will like.”
Most drivers had no idea what caused the crisis, though many exchanged conspiracy theories. Some accused Mr. Morsi’s enemies of interfering with supplies to build support for the protests. Others suggested that the president had limited distribution to strand potential demonstrators.
The government has done little to clarify the situation, and a number of ministers at a news conference on Tuesday placed blame for the crisis on news-media-fueled paranoia, black marketers and Egyptians themselves.
The petroleum minister, Sherif Haddara, played down the extent of the shortage, saying there had been a technical error at a storage facility and that the government’s introduction of a new “smart card” system to prevent illegal gas sales had slowed distribution. But few believe that these were really the reasons for long lines and empty pumps.
As for the frequent electricity cuts, the minister of local development, Mohammed Ali Beshr, suggested that Egyptians follow the example of Prime Minister Hesham Qandil, who works through the heat.
“We sweat in his office,” Mr. Beshr said, offering the kind of remark that was unlikely to cool tempers. “He takes off his tie, and he never agrees to turn the air-conditioning on.”
In a major speech on Wednesday, Mr. Morsi renewed his call to the opposition to offer constitutional amendments, but dismissed the protesters as seeking to undermine the democratic process to “turn back the clock.”
“If you don’t like the government, form a parliamentary majority and bring the government that you want,” he said.
Acknowledging the fuel crisis, he said he was empowering ministers and governors to crack down on illegal sales and to purge those benefiting from the crisis.
But ideology and politics had little place on the gasoline line, where tempers flared in the stagnant heat of the night. It appeared as if amnesia had taken hold, as many said the best solution was for the military to run the country, as it had after the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, at least until stability could be achieved. The military ran Egypt for a year before Mr. Morsi was elected, a period that was not exactly trouble-free.
“God willing, Morsi will fall and the army will take control,” said Hani Abdel-Fattah, 35, who had come to Cairo from Port Said and needed gas to get home.
He, too, was nervous about what the protests would bring.
“The day is approaching and there are those who want Morsi to be president and those who don’t,” he said. “Nobody really knows who is right.”
New York Times