Egypt president asks for patience over power cuts

AP News
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Posted: Sep 06, 2014 1:53 PM
Egypt president asks for patience over power cuts

CAIRO (AP) — In a nationally televised speech on Saturday, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi asked the public to be patient and grasp the extent of the challenges facing the country following a massive power outage that struck the capital and other cities.

The hours-long power outage on Thursday, which halted the Cairo subway and knocked TV stations off the air, was a huge embarrassment for the government, and officials struggled to offer a coherent explanation to an angry public.

The failure of el-Sissi's predecessor, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, to address regular small-scale power outages contributed to the public anger that built up during his year in power and culminated in massive protests demanding his ouster. El-Sissi, who was military chief at the time, removed Morsi from office in July 2013.

Less than a year later, el-Sissi ran for office, winning by a landslide and promising to restore law and order and improve daily life after three years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Authorities have meanwhile cracked down hard on Morsi's supporters since his ouster and imprisonment, detaining and sending thousands of people to trial, killing hundreds in street clashes and effectively banning most public demonstrations through a draconian protest law.

In the latest case against Morsi, Egypt's top prosecutor said Saturday that the Islamist president, with help from two of his assistants, leaked classified state security documents to Qatar as popular opposition to him rose.

The prosecutor said in a statement that Morsi and 10 others will be tried before a criminal court in what it described as "the biggest treason and espionage case in the country's history."

The leaked documents included intelligence on military deployments and armaments, as well as domestic and foreign policies. The statement said Morsi's assistants leaked the documents with the help of journalists from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel to a Qatari intelligence official in exchange for $1 million.

Morsi is already facing three trials, including on charges of cooperating with foreign militant groups. He faces a possible death penalty.

Egypt has accused Doha of backing Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group, which Cairo declared a terrorist organization late last year.

The Brotherhood denies it is behind a rising wave of violence since Morsi's ouster that has mainly targeted police and the military. Radical groups have claimed the attacks, saying they are avenging the death and jailing of protesters.

Egypt's security woes are compounded by an economy that is reeling from three years of unrest and decades of mismanagement. El-Sissi ran on a ticket focusing on economic improvement.

On Saturday, he formed a new presidential advisory body of economic and science experts to advise him on how to tackle the country's myriad of problems. The 16-member council includes at least four prominent Egyptian-US dual citizens, such as Nobel Prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail and economist and former CEO of global investment firm PIMCO, Mohamed el-Erian.

The council's formation comes after complaints in the media that three months into office, el-Sissi has yet to formally declare who advises him on policy and planning. Mostly western educated professionals, the group includes one woman and at least five Christians, and according to el-Sissi's decree they will work without remuneration. They are mostly in their 60s and 70s.

In his half-hour speech Saturday, el-Sissi said his government is working to eradicate the threat of terrorism, but he focused his "heart-to-heart" on Thursday's power outage, which he said was the most severe blackout in the country since the 1990s.

The Thursday outage halted the capital's subway, disrupted airport operations, took TV stations off the air and left entire cities without electricity for hours. El-Sissi said it was largely due to crumbling infrastructure that needs billions of dollars and time to fix.

He estimated the country needs about $12 billion over five years to upgrade and build new power plants to meet increasing demand, adding that he is already reaching out to investors.

"Why am I telling you this?" el-Sissi said, speaking off the cuff from his office in colloquial Arabic. "We must know this is not going to happen overnight."

El-Sissi said he understood the public's frustration but begged for patience. He said he wants to engage the public so as not to be taken to task in a year's time for lack of results.

"I am talking now to remind myself and to remind each other that we said we had many problems, and we said we will treat them together," he said. "Please be patient. You must be sure that we will overcome all this but not in a month or two or three."

El-Sissi said saboteurs were partially to blame for some of the recurrent power cuts, saying they aim to "stir the public's anger." Government officials have accused Morsi supporters of aggravating the power crisis through loyalists in the electricity sector.

El-Sissi said an investigation into Thursday's mass outage is underway and the results will be made public.

"We will hide nothing from you," he said. "We are confronting many things. We are fighting an existential battle."

The power cut prompted calls for Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker to resign, while some media reports accused him of being a member of the Brotherhood.

Shaker denied the allegations.

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Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report