Egypt says rolling blackouts to end in 4 months

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

CAIRO (AP) — Top officials in Egypt promised Wednesday to end the rolling blackouts hitting the country in four months, blaming the outages on a fuel shortage, hot weather and poor maintenance of power plants.

Neighborhoods in Egypt sink into darkness for hours during the day, leaving millions without power. The crisis has caused water cuts, affected hospitals and cut communications as many had difficulty recharging their mobile phones.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab described the outages as a "severe problem" and "complicated." He linked them to several factors, including a shortage of natural gas, out-of-service power plants needing maintenance and hot weather.

He earlier blamed 300 attacks by saboteurs on electrical lines for deepening the crisis, leading to a drop in production by up to 15 percent. At the time, he was referring to Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, removed from power by the military last year after millions staged demonstrations demanding him to step down. Power outages and fuel shortages blamed on Morsi's government sparked the protests, as did the government's decision at the time to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip, ruled by Muslim Brotherhood's sister group Hamas.

On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who led the overthrow of Morsi, told governors during five-hour meeting to guard electrical lines from attacks.

"The needy people are in pain because of attacks on pylons that cause blackouts for one, two or more hours," el-Sissi was quoted as saying during the meeting.

During a news conference Wednesday, Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker blamed the problem on a gap between consumption and production, but promised the government will add a total of 4,810 megawatts to its more than 22,000-megawatt total production by November. Shaker said that will be a "breakthrough" in the crisis. He said the government will end all power outages in the country in four years by building new power plants.

The blackouts in Cairo and other cities have increased amid an energy crunch linked to shrinking revenues and the government's inability to pay its debts to foreign oil companies. The crisis has caused public anger, especially with most Egyptians still reeling from an increase of fuel prices, a gradual increase in the price of electricity, a new property tax and a rise in cigarette prices.

The measures were part of government's attempts to decrease its budget deficit — which now stands at around 10 percent of Egypt's forecast gross domestic product for 2014-2015— and break free from a massive subsidies program that eats nearly a quarter of its budget.

Egypt's government has promised to introduce a minimum wage for public sector workers, increase pensions and make more food available in state-run outlets selling at discounted prices. El-Sissi also has been inaugurating several mega projects, including digging new section in the Suez Canal to increase its capacity.

The Egyptian economy has been hard-hit by more than three years of turmoil since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in the country's 2011 uprising. Both tourism and foreign investments, main sources of foreign currency in the country, were the first to collapse. After Morsi's ouster, oil-rich Gulf countries that opposed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, pledged $12 billion to Egypt in loans, grants and oil products to aid its economy.