CAIRO – Egypt suffered a massive power outage that halted parts of the Cairo subway, took TV stations off the air and ground much of the country to a halt for several hours Thursday, as officials offered no clear explanation for how the country suddenly lost 50 per cent of its power generation.
The blackout comes barely three months after Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former army chief, was elected president on promises to restore order after three years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The government’s inability to pay for enough imported fuel, debts to foreign oil companies, and old and poorly maintained equipment have all contributed to a monthslong power crisis in which rolling blackouts have plunged entire neighbourhoods into darkness for several hours a day.
The government had recently promised to end the blackouts by the end of the year, partially blaming the outages on saboteurs. Over the past week there had been a noticeable reduction in the power cuts, coinciding with slightly cooler temperatures after a scorching August.
But the mass outage on Friday was far more severe and wide-ranging than any of the previous cuts.
Egypt’s Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker described Thursday’s blackout as a rare event caused by a technical failure which occurs every 15 years and said authorities hoped to restore power within hours. Earlier, officials claimed that the outage was a result of an experiment in redistributing electricity, saying a technical failure during the “manoeuvr” caused the blackout.
Two senior security and electricity officials told The Associated Press that the crisis erupted when one of the country’s main power generating stations, el-Kuraymat in southern Cairo, went out of service either because of human error or technical failure. That led to the collapse of the rest of the main power stations, since Egypt’s stations are all connected in one network.
The sudden power outage at 6:00 a.m. Cairo time (0300 GMT) caused paralysis in many areas across the country, including southern provinces. Widespread frustration led TV commentators to urge Egypt’s prime minister to sack the electricity minister. Others blamed the event on a plot by Islamists in the ranks of the ministry, something officials ruled out.
As army chief, El-Sissi led the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last year amid massive protests against his yearlong rule. The protests against Morsi were in part fueled by the decline in living standards following the 2011 uprising as the economy cratered and security deteriorated.
The minister told Egypt’s official news agency MENA that the country lost nearly half of its capacity Thursday and suffered a sudden drop from at least 20,000 MW to 11,000 MW. He stressed that the outage was not linked to a fuel shortage.
Shaker apologized to Egyptians, saying “we vow to exert all effort and God willing this will not happen again.” He added that authorities were investigating the outage, saying anyone found to have been at fault would be held accountable.
Local TV networks showed metro stations packed with commuters after trains stopped due to the electricity cut. The spokesman for the city’s metro system, Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, said the trains connecting Cairo’s southern suburbs to downtown were halted.
Hours later he said trains had resumed normal operations. By sundown, authorities said they had restored 75 per cent of the lost power.
Egypt’s mobile service providers Mobinil and Vodafone said thousands of towers went out of service, disrupting communications across the country. Khaled Hegazi of Vodafone said 2,000 towers were out of service across the country, as 85 per cent of the company’s towers depend on electricity.
In southern Egypt, governors set up operation rooms to receive citizens’ complaints and follow up on the crisis.
According to officials in the central and southern provinces of Assiut, Minya, and Sohag, hospitals suffered during the outages, which left dialysis machines, X-ray machines and operation rooms out of service.
After power was restored in many of the southern cities, the operation rooms were flooded with complaints from citizens that their electronic devices, such as refrigerators, washing machines and TV sets, were damaged, officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Associated Press Reporter Mamdouh Thabit contributed to this report from Assiut, Egypt.