CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's premier on Saturday partially blamed the country's worsening energy shortage -- with rolling blackouts of up to six hours in some Cairo neighborhoods -- on saboteurs seeking to undermine the government, a veiled reference to Islamist opponents.
In recent weeks, rolling blackouts in Cairo and other cities have increased amid an energy crunch linked to shrinking revenues, depleted natural gas resources, lack of maintenance on debilitated power plants, and the government's inability to pay its debts to foreign oil companies.
Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said 300 attacks on electricity pylons nationwide have deepened the crisis, leading to a drop in production by up to 15 percent. He called it "devilish planning" aimed at paralyzing the government.
"Without sabotage, we already have a problem," he said. "This is increasing the problem to paralyze us totally."
State television and private pro-government media have regularly reported such attacks, usually referring to the assailants as supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood group of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
Since Morsi's ouster last summer, his supporters have held near daily protests, demanding he be reinstated and denouncing the military for deposing him.
At the same time, the country has seen a rising wave of militant attacks against police and the military, with radical groups claiming responsibility and vowing to avenge the killing and detention of hundreds of Islamists.
The government has blamed the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has denied any involvement. The government has also declared the group a terrorist organization.
Mahlab said police have intensified their campaign to arrest saboteurs.
"Those who harm their country have no rights. We will continue to fight terrorism," he said.
The Interior Ministry, responsible for the police, accused the Brotherhood of gathering information about the electricity infrastructure through its supporters in the government in order to facilitate the attacks.
Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif said the police identified 40 suspects, divided into six different cells, who have planned attacks against electricity infrastructure.
He said that the Brotherhood has resorted to acts of violence and sabotage because it is no longer able to bring large numbers of supporters into the streets.
The electricity cuts were one of the main sources of public anger against Morsi during his turbulent year in office. The military overthrew Morsi -- Egypt's first democratically elected leader -- last summer amid massive protests calling for his resignation.
The death toll from violence during protests by Morsi supporters on Thursday and Friday has meanwhile risen to nine people, health ministry officials said Saturday.
Five were killed Friday and four others on Thursday in clashes with security forces and local residents during small, scattered protests mostly in and around the capital Cairo.
The demonstrations were marking the one-year anniversary of the Aug. 14 dispersal of two protest camps set up by Morsi supporters, which left hundreds of people dead in the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history.
More than 50 people were wounded during the clashes on Thursday and Friday. Police said the protesters clashed with local residents and police in a number of cities outside of Cairo as well, accusing some protesters of firing at security forces. Protesters also briefly blocked rural roads, setting tires on fire, and in one instant set municipal cars on fire.
Pro-Morsi protests have sharply declined in size over the past year, in part because of a security crackdown that has seen hundreds of people killed in clashes and tens of thousands detained.
Public hostility towards protests after three years of turmoil following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, as well as a draconian anti-protest law imposed last year, have also contributed to the decline in street rallies.