Egypt’s blackouts: Who will turn the lights back on?

At the same press conference, Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker and Petroleum Minister Ashraf Ismail explained how the crisis would be tackled

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

On Aug. 20, Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said power cuts would decrease from the following week as the government increases supply to the national electricity network.

At the same press conference, Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker and Petroleum Minister Ashraf Ismail explained how the crisis would be tackled.

“Around 4.8 megawatts of electricity will be added to the national grid, and this is expected to narrow the widening gap between production and consumption,” said Shaker.

Ismail said: “The supply of natural gas to electricity stations has already increased by 100 million cubic feet at the beginning of August, while an additional 60 [million] will be supplied in the coming few days.

There will also be another 220 million in September and 235 [million] in October.” Mahlab said: “We admit that there is a serious and complicated problem, but we are dealing with it.”

The blackouts, which have been occurring across the country as frequently as six times a day in some areas, have not only been a source of misery for Egyptians - particularly during the summer heat - but also a mystery, with the public pondering the causes.

Ahmed Heikal, an energy expert and chairman of Citadel Capital, said Egypt is suffering from “a triple attack.” First, there is an acute shortage of natural gas, which is used to run power stations.

“This shortage is partly the result of the Egyptian government’s failure to pay its dues to international oil companies operating in the country, and which would’ve otherwise developed new natural gas fields,” he said. “As a result, Egypt’s production of natural gas has been dropping drastically.”

Heikal also blamed the subsidy system, from which big industries benefited through paying much less for electricity than it cost the state.

“The state pays 0.75 Egyptian pounds per electricity unit, then sells it for 0.3. That is why I commend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for reducing fuel subsidies.”

The third factor contributing, Heikel said, is the negligence of power stations across the country: “Existing power stations haven’t been properly maintained for years, and new ones haven’t been built to face the increasing demand.”

Heikal mainly blamed ousted President Hosni Mubarak for the accumulated shortcomings that led to the current electricity crisis, while saying the lowest rate of natural gas production took place under President Mohamed Mursi.

Kareem Fahim and Merna Thomas wrote in the New York Times that the crisis was not a surprise.

“Experts have been warning of a looming energy disaster for more than a decade, saying there was little long-term planning to accommodate the country’s galloping growth,” they wrote.

“In the last few years, as shortages of natural gas and government funds became desperate and as the aging power infrastructure failed, policy mistakes and postponed decisions made everything worse.”


Mistakes of previous regimes are, however, not seen as the only cause for the unprecedented power cuts. Electricity Ministry spokesman Mohamed al-Yamani said saboteurs were also responsible.

Security expert Mahmoud Qatari said the Muslim Brotherhood’s main objective was to control the state’s vital institutions, which they tried to do by appointing as many of its members as possible in those institutions.

“They succeeded in making this happen in several ministries,” including that of electricity, he said. “Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is ousted, its members remain in their positions, and from there work on their scheme to topple the Egyptian state.”

Security expert Osama al-Tawil said there were “sleeper cells” in ministries that control main services such as electricity. “Those people are very dangerous because they have access to maps of Egypt’s electricity networks,” he said, calling on the security apparatus to identify and dismiss them.

Mahlab said power stations across Egypt were subjected to 300 sabotage attempts in July alone. “For this reason, new legislation will be issued to determine the penalty for such crimes,” he said. A few days later, the cabinet approved a modification of the penal code that includes sabotaging electricity towers and networks.

In the same vein, the Interior Ministry announced the identification of six cells that specialize in sabotaging electricity stations. “Those cells include 40 members of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the ministry said.

According to ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif, “leaders of the international [Brotherhood] organization scolded senior members of the group in Egypt for no longer being able to mobilize the people, and devised an alternative scheme that revolves around targeting the country’s vital facilities like power stations.”

Meanwhile, the Egyptian independent daily Al-Watan ran a major story that 160 Brotherhood members work at the Electricity Ministry, many in senior positions.


However, in her article “Amateur ministers and fuel shortage cause power cuts,” Noha al-Nahhas dismisses the link between the blackouts and the Brotherhood.

She wrote that power cuts were among the reasons for the uprising against Mursi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

“Egyptians assumed that Mursi’s departure will be accompanied by a lifting of the darkness that had been shrouding the whole country since it was believed that he exported electricity to Gaza,” she wrote. “Now it’s been more than a year since Mursi left and the darkness remains and Egyptians are left wondering why the blackouts are becoming more frequent.”

Nahhas quoted oil expert Ramadan Abul Ela, who said: “The ministers of electricity and petroleum are a failure and have no clear strategy to deal with the crisis.

They are just amateurs.” Abul Ela downplayed the damage incurred by sabotage: “Even if electricity stations are targeted, this would never result in power cuts throughout the entire country.”

Revolutionary movements have also expressed indignation at what they consider excuses from the government to shift blame.

“Electricity officials know nothing about electricity and do nothing except issue ludicrous statements,” said the April 6 Youth Movement. Mohamed Salah, a member of the movement’s politburo, slammed the subsidy cuts that the government applied abruptly.

“Instead of coming up with a fair plan that applies those cuts to the rich only, the government made a decision that would increase the suffering of the poor,” he said.

“The government has utterly failed in dealing with the electricity problem and officials only sit in their air-conditioned offices while the people remain in this darkness.”