CAIRO (AP) — A massive blackout hit many parts of the Egyptian capital on Thursday, briefly halting traffic on much of its crowded subway and delaying the start of trading on the stock exchange.
Egypt has been beset by frequent power outages across the country since the hot summer months began. The blackouts, together with water cuts, have enraged Egyptians, sending many to the streets to protest.
The decline in basic services have also led to criticism of the country's new President Mohammed Morsi, who is facing a slew of festering economic and social problems and a crippling budget deficit.
Morsi had promised to tackle during his first days in office problems affecting daily life, such as fuel shortages, lack of security and heaps of garbage that are piling up. Many of his critics say he has failed to deliver after 40 days as president.
Authorities have been hard pressed to explain the rising number of power outages, which have been particularly hard since the July 20 start of the holy month of Ramadan when devout Muslims fast dawn-to-dusk while coping with soaring temperatures.
Two of Cairo's three-line subway service stopped for over an hour because of a power outage during peak hours in the morning. Passengers stuck in trains forced the automatic doors open, and walked out on the rail tracks. The halt in the metro service used by millions caused traffic bottlenecks around the city of 18 million.
Ali Hussein, a senior official for the subway system told the state news agency that the power feeding the system from the local plant was cut. He said emergency power lines were opened, allowing the service to resume after a little over an hour.
Residents of different parts of Cairo reported power outages that lasted several hours on Thursday, a day when temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Authorities have given various reasons for the power outages, further confusing and angering the public and fuelling suspicion that the cuts were unnecessary or caused largely by incompetence and corruption that plagued governments under the rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
During Mubarak's last year in power, blackouts were frequent but not as recurrent as in this summer. A popular uprising forced Mubarak from office in February of last year.
Some government officials have said that excessive consumption due to this summer's heat coinciding with the fasting season is leading authorities to selectively shut down power to ease the load on the grid. They also said networks were failing under increased demand.
Mahmoud Balbaa, the new electricity minister sworn in on Aug.2, told the daily newspaper of the Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday that thieves have also been stealing high voltage cables coming from the Aswan Dam, further aggravating the electricity shortage. He urged security forces to protect the strategic cables.
The power outages and water cuts have also impacted hospitals and businesses. Some hospitals which were unprepared for the outages have reported medicines going bad in storage. Pharmacies have been reluctant to stock up on diabetic drugs for instance. Shop owners are also complaining that perishables are rotting in fridges and private generators have become a necessity.
The power outage in Cairo, which appears to be following a rolling scheme, has also extended beyond the capital. Earlier this month, much of Egypt's south plunged into total darkness for a least one day after a main power plant broke down and the boiler in another blew up, affecting 40 percent of the electricity to central and southern Egypt.
Angry residents blocked traffic and burned tree trunks in protests, and in one instance in Cairo, stormed a local government office.
In response, activists launched a campaign called "We won't pay," urging consumers not to pay electricity or garbage collection bills until they receive a detailed government explanation and a schedule of plans for rolling outages ahead of time.
Amr Abotawila, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance party, said the initiative is an effort to direct popular anger away from blocking roads and storming offices towards exerting pressure on the new government to be transparent.
"We want to know why it is recurrent and how they plan to solve it," Abotawila said. "We need to have a schedule of planned outages first to know if the burden is distributed equally among all Egyptians, or if only poor people suffer. This is our first elected government and they need to respond to the people."