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Aug 20, 10:48 AM EDT

Egypt says rolling blackouts to end in 4 months


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CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian officials promised Wednesday to end rolling power blackouts that have plagued the country within four months, blaming the outages on a fuel shortage, hot weather and poor maintenance of power plants.

Neighborhoods in Egypt sink into darkness for hours during the day, leaving millions without power. The crisis has caused water cuts, affected hospitals and cut communications as many had difficulty recharging their mobile phones.

Parts of the capital lose power numerous times a day, plunging entire neighborhoods into darkness for an hour or more each time.

In one incident, doctors were forced to carry out a two-hour surgical procedure to remove a woman's uterus at a public hospital in Ismailia city with only lights from cellphones to see with, after the frequent power cuts also ruined the building's generators. Pictures of the operation were posted by Egypt's official Doctors' Syndicate.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab described the outages as a "severe problem" and "complicated." He linked them to several factors, including a shortage of natural gas, out-of-service power plants needing maintenance and hot weather.

He had previously blamed some of the outages on 300 attacks by saboteurs on electrical lines, which he said had led up to a 15 percent reduction in production by up to 15 percent. At the time, Mehlab was referring to Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who led the overthrow of Morsi, told governors during five-hour meeting to guard electrical lines from attacks.

"The needy people are in pain because of attacks on pylons that cause blackouts for one, two or more hours," el-Sissi said during the meeting, parts of which were broadcast on state television.

Electricity Minister Mohammed Shaker on Wednesday blamed the problem on a gap between consumption and production, but promised the government will add a total of 4,810 megawatts to its more than 22,000-megawatt total production by November. Shaker said that will be a "breakthrough" in the crisis. He said the government will end all power outages in the country in four years by building new power plants.

The blackouts in Cairo and other cities have increased amid an energy crunch linked to shrinking revenues and the government's inability to pay its debts to foreign oil companies. The crisis has caused public anger, especially with most Egyptians still reeling from an increase in fuel prices, a gradual increase in the price of electricity, a new property tax and a rise in cigarette prices.

The measures were part of government's attempts to decrease its budget deficit - which now stands at around 10 percent of Egypt's forecast gross domestic product for 2014-2015- and break free from a massive subsidies program that eats nearly a quarter of its budget.

Egypt's government has promised to introduce a minimum wage for public sector workers, increase pensions and make more food available in state-run outlets selling at discounted prices.

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