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Massive blackout hits Cairo, sparking new anger at Egyptian government

August 9, 2012 |  9:06 am

Egypt was plunged into its worst blackout in months when a power outage swept across much of the capital
CAIRO -- Egypt was plunged into its worst blackout in months Thursday when a power outage swept across much of the capital, crippling the Egyptian Stock Exchange, stranding passengers in subway cars and creating fresh anger at the embattled government.

The outage was the latest in a spate of blackouts that have paralyzed cities across the nation this summer. Egyptians also are becoming less patient with ubiquitous shortages of water and fuel, especially because they have been occurring when tempers are short in the sweltering heat during the fasting month of Ramadan.

The crisis adds to new President Mohamed Morsi's challenges because many Egyptians attribute the problems to the state's poor management. Power disruptions have been maddeningly more frequent than in past summers and appear to symbolize a fledgling democracy in trouble.

"I am sorry for the power cuts. I have the same problem at home, and I promise it will be solved as soon as possible," Morsi told Egyptians this week.

After trading stalled for almost two hours, stocks on the Egyptian Exchange fell by $164 million in the early hours before regaining some of their value. Cairo's underground Metro was paralyzed in the morning as hundreds of thousands of people tried to head to work and go about their day. Passengers were reported to be stuck in crowded cars and on platforms waiting to get out. 

"Every time I step into a lift, I pray to God that I will reach my destination safely. I am not claustrophobic. I am just worried that a sudden power cut, the likes of which are frequent nowadays in Egypt, will leave me trapped inside a metal box for endless hours," columnist Ramadan A. Kader wrote in the Egyptian Gazette.

He added: "As far as I know, no area in Egypt, poor or fashionable, has been spared this niggling problem, which seems, bizarrely, to respect social justice. There is no clear explanation for the widespread power outages."

The latest blackout was caused by gas and diesel shortages in a power plant on the outskirts of Cairo, according to officials. Egyptian authorities have repeatedly vowed to resolve the crisis, but with fuel shortages and a scorching summer season, the problem has escalated. 

Experts have repeatedly suggested that Egypt reform its energy subsidy program, considered one of the most wasteful in the world.  

"There have been several measures suggested a while ago for reforming subsidies and other energy activities that the government needs to consider," said Mohab Hallouda, an energy specialist with the World Bank in Cairo.

In a move to implement austerity measures, Egypt's government cut subsidies for energy-intensive factories last January. Hallouda said that political turmoil has kept previous transitional governments from applying more budget reforms.

The country has seen at least three Cabinet reshuffles since the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak early last year. With almost half of the population living under the poverty line, more citizens felt the blow to the economy during the ongoing political turmoil.

Despite the obstacles, Hallouda said he believes that more concrete policies need to be implemented immediately: "Reforms obviously mean increasing tariffs to some sectors and those who can afford it, but we must make sure that those who need subsidies aren't denied." 

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-- Reem Abdellatif

Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report.

Photo: An Egyptian recites verses of the Koran in a crowded subway car stalled by a massive power outage that hit large parts of Cairo on Thursday. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Press

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