Power outages add to Egypt's woes

Campaign begins to boycott paying bills until outages – blamed on the nation's plummeting reserves of foreign currency – improve.

Mostafa Khaled studies by candlelight for his early morning exams during a power cut in Toukh, about 25 kilometres northeast of Cairo.
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CAIRO // When his neighbourhood is plunged into darkness, high school student Maximos Youssef is forced to study for his year-end exams – critical in determining his future job prospects - by the light of a candle.

Mr Youssef said he is in no mood to learn and the flame only makes sweltering summer nights without a fan or air conditioner even hotter.

"But there is no other option. We have exams. We need to study," he said.

The 18-year-old is one of millions of Egyptians whose tempers have been frayed by the recurrent power cuts that have hit the country in recent days, blamed on - and contributing to - the nation's plummeting reserves of foreign currency.

The outages have sparked scattered street protests across Egypt and prompted calls on social networking sites for people to stop paying electricity bills, compounding the challenges facing the president, Mohammed Morsi, and undermining the Islamist leader's attempts to restore a sense of normality after two years of turmoil since the country's 2011 uprising.

Mr Morsi said only 80 per cent of Egypt's electricity needs were met and that its turbines were outdated. "We have a real energy problem in Egypt," he said last weekend.

A surge in crime, persistent street violence and political instability have compounded the crisis by scaring away tourists and investors, leaving the country cash-strapped for fuel needed to keep power stations running.

In the southern city of Luxor, a popular tourist destination, the lights went out in the international airport and in ancient Egyptian temples recently - raising fears that the power outages will further sap tourism.

Fuel shortages have already impeded daily life for millions.

For months, drivers have had to wait hours in long lines to buy subsidised fuel with some factory owners having turned to the black market to cover their needs.

While blackouts occurred under Egypt's long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the uprising, they became more frequent last summer.

As temperatures climb again this year they have become part of daily life, even in the most upscale districts of the capital.

The outages have come to symbolise the disorder of the post-Mubarak era.

"It certainly is state mismanagement," said Saber Mohammed Saber, a 30-year-old chauffeur. "The president is not competent."

Mr Morsi said his government had arranged to cut off electricity for a maximum of two hours twice daily but residents of poorer towns and villages have complained that the outages have lasted much longer.

Amir El Deeb, 29, who lives in the poor Boulaq El Dakrour district of Giza near Cairo, said lights go out five times a day there. He is particularly concerned because the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in July and those who observe the daytime fast often stay up late at night for prayers and meals.

The government has urged citizens to reduce electricity use during the summer. Last year, Prime Minister Hesham Qandil was mocked for advising citizens to gather at home in one room and wear cotton as a way to cut down on air conditioning use.

Political satirists dubbed him "Hesham Cottonil", referring to one of Egypt's largest undergarment manufacturers.

Many have said that Mr Qandil's comments revealed that Mr Morsi's government does not have concrete solutions to the power crisis.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, for example, last week launched an initiative to allow students to study in their offices nationwide under battery-powered lights.

Mahmoud Ramzy of the party said Mr Morsi's government was approaching the problem in the same manner as Mubarak did, leaving "the citizen to bear everything".

Omar Wally, a founder of a campaign on Facebook to boycott paying electricity bills, said Mr Morsi had been in power for almost a year and the problem appeared to have worsened.

"The state must provide us with a service if it wants us to pay. If there is no service, we will not pay," Mr Wally said.

Mohab Helmy, a 21-year-old student who lives on the outskirts of Cairo, said the randomness of the outages is what irks him the most. Lebanon, for example, tells residents and businesses ahead of time when electricity was to be cut.

"Why don't they publicise a schedule of the cuts so we can be prepared when they come," Mr Helmy said. "Then we could either sleep or go out."