CAIRO (AP) — 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 percent of its power generation.
The blackout came 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 neighborhoods into darkness for several hours a day.
The government had recently promised to restore electricity 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 weather after a scorching August.
But the mass outage on Thursday was far more severe and wide-ranging than any of the previous cuts.
The outage happened suddenly at 6 a.m., causing paralysis in many areas across the country including the Nile Delta and southern provinces. Nearly 12 hours later, electricity officials said they had restored 85 percent of the lost power.
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.
Local TV networks showed metro stations packed with commuters after trains stopped. The spokesman for the city's metro system, Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, said the trains connecting Cairo's southern suburbs to downtown were halted.
Tourism Minister Hisham Zazoua complained that he was stranded in a high-rise office building because the elevators had stopped, forcing him to arrive late to a news conference. State radio apologized for not airing regular traffic bulletins after a surveillance system broke down. Steel factories and ports in Suez city, located at the southern tip of the Suez Canal, lost at least 100 million Egyptian pounds ($14 million) largely because work was halted.
Two senior security and electricity officials told The Associated Press that the loss of electricity reached 65 percent more than what authorities announced. They added 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.
Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker described the blackout as a rare event caused by a technical failure that occurs every 15 years, and his remarks triggered a wave of mockery among Egyptians on social media. "How come we keep a minister like this one whose imagination is bigger than Steven Spielberg just because he is part of Long Live Egypt," satire blogger Ibrahim el-Garhey posted on his Twitter account. Long Live Egypt was the name of el-Sissi's presidential campaign. "How would Egypt live long in such darkness," he added.
Others expressed frustration over the government's not giving a clear explanation for the outage. Hazem Hosni, a political science professor at Cairo University, wrote on his Facebook page: "how long the ruler will deal with the ruled, in such lightness ... when would they understand that revealing causes even in simple terms is a good deed."
Earlier in the day, Egyptian officials claimed that the outage was a result of an experiment in redistributing electricity, saying a technical failure during the "maneuver" caused the blackout.
But a high-ranking electricity official later dismissed this explanation. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief reporters, he said the crisis was instead largely the result of the increasing inability of Egypt's power stations to meet the energy needs of the country's growing population, now at 85 million. With the cash-strapped government unable to pay for necessary spare parts, power stations are being put out of service.
Associated Press Reporter Mamdouh Thabit contributed to this report from Assiut, Egypt.