A massive blackout in the Egyptian capital of Cairo caused travel chaos and knocked TV stations off air this morning, in the largest event yet in an ongoing energy crisis that lawmakers are struggling to deal with.
The power failure began at 6 am local time and lasted for several hours. One of the city's metro lines ground to a complete halt as a result, trapping rush hour commuters underground, while communications infrastructure — including cell phone signal boosters and television transmitters — were also out of action.
Electricity Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Yamani described the outage as an "accident," when contacted by VICE News, but declined to provide more details, adding only that the cause was being investigated. Officials previously told the Associated Press that the ministry had been experimenting with redistributing electricity but had suffered a technical failure while doing so.
Yamani said that power had now been restored to priority locations like railways, roads, and hospitals, but that 20 percent of the affected areas were still without electricity. He added that Energy Minister Ahmed Shaker had been overseeing the situation from the ministry's main control center since 7 o'clock this morning.
Authorities have imposed regular rolling blackouts throughout Egypt for some time, but these became more frequent during the sweltering summer when the electricity supply failed to match increased use of fans and air conditioning.
Egypt has been prone to energy-supply issues as infrastructure struggled to keep up with a rapidly growing population and economic conditions continue to deteriorate. Today's incident, however, was the worst in years, both in terms of duration and scale, coming just a few days after officials claimed to have made progress in dealing with the issue and promised to put an end to blackouts within four months.
Previous problems, they said, were caused by power lines being targeted by opponents of the government. Some pro-government TV pundits also blamed today's outage on the Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist movement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi — accusing them of sabotaging the network.
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, told VICE News that this indicated both a reluctance on the part of the government to face up to the scale of the issue and also an indication of their inability to actually tackle it.
"Initially, Egyptian officials tried to blame the massive power outages on the Muslim Brotherhood, which suggested a lack of seriousness about taking responsibility. But part of the problem here is that there is no real silver bullet to addressing the electricity and energy shortages that have long plagued Egypt during the summer months," he said. "The nature of the problem is structural, and reflects a state apparatus that, as massive and powerful as it is, doesn't have any vision for dealing with the systemic rot at the heart of so many of Egypt's challenges."
Yamani downplayed the seriousness of today's incident, pointing out there had been fewer blackouts recently (although temperatures have also dropped somewhat) and suggesting that similar events could also occur in any Western country.
"The situation had improved in the last few days and gotten better a little bit, but this is just accidental. Things like this have happened in the US… and could happen in any country," he said.
However, Dr. Maha Azzam, Head of The Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC), a recently formed coalition of political factions and activists opposed to the current government, also told VICE News that the incident was part of a larger problem for lawmakers.
"The current military regime is perpetuating a major political and economic crisis," she said. "Not only is it violating the most basic political and human rights but it is also unable to deliver on the most basic economic expectations of ordinary Egyptians. It is being increasingly perceived as incompetent as well as brutal."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck