Hot night, dark city: How Egyptians cope with power cuts
Zeinab El-Gundy in Cairo , Hanan El-Masry in Alexandria and Yasser Abu El-Nil from Aswan, Thursday 28 Aug 2014
The summer heat is peaking, meaning Egyptians are forced to deal with power shortages - and all the problems that come with them

In August, Egypt witnessed an unprecedented wave of power outages across the country, lasting up to six hours per day in Cairo and twice that in some parts of Upper Egypt.

The frequency of the power cuts subsided in the past week. But that didn't stop Egypt's Electricity Minister Ahmed Shaker from issuing a statement expressing his wish to solve the problem – while still admitting that it will take four years to reach a solution dependent on a new power station and renewable solar energy – both of which carry high investment costs.

While some attribute Egypt's electricity problem to an outdated system and a lack of fuel, many talk show hosts and newspapers have blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for a series of attacks on electricity pylons – despite the power cuts having occurred frequently during the tenure of Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2012.

Beyond the political and economic debates – assigning blame, addressing causes and trying to find solutions – Egyptians are finding new ways to survive in the darkness brought on by the power cuts.

Dark hospitals

Last week, a photo of a team of surgeons using the light of their mobile phones to conduct a hysterectomy in Ismailiya governorate went viral – and sparked controversy.

One of the doctors, Nader Mohsen, published the photo on Facebook to bring attention to a recurring issue that he says surgeons must deal with at the public hospital where he works.

The electricity minister followed up this incident with a claim that public hospitals are exempt from power outages – which was refuted by the Doctors Syndicate.

"Why do patients have to suffer and live in fear that they may die because of a power outage in a public hospital or clinic?" Hossam Abdel-Rabou, a doctor from Alexandria asked.

Abdel-Rabou told Ahram Online that public hospitals and clinics cannot afford to buy heavy-duty power generators whose prices are above LE10,000 (about $1,400).

"Of course there is nothing compared to a power outage taking place while you are operating on a patient. When this happens, you either wait until the power comes back or have the patient die while you are waiting," he said, adding that many patients on ventilators and premature infants in incubators are at risk of death during power outages.

The fear that elderly patients could die during a power outage led Alexandria resident Mansour El-Hoseiny to pull his elderly mother out of the hospital.

"I fear she may die while I stand helpless as there are no fans or air conditioners working for hours [in the hospital] when there is a heat wave and high humidity in Alexandria," he said, referring to the two-hour power cuts that happen six times a day in the coastal city.


Outages and illegal construction

With millions flocking to the popular seaside town over the summer months, Alexandria's poor infrastructure has been strained by the additional burden of nation-wide power cuts that affect both electricity and water since many buildings use electrical-powered water reservoirs.

Alexandria resident Abdel-Hakim Ahmed said that elevator usage has also became an issue, with many people developing "elevator-phobias" – the fear of being locked inside for hours during power cuts.

The governor of Alexandria recently blamed hot August weather for increasing the strain on the government's electrical capacity, despite the fact that such weather and humidity occurs on an annual basis.

In addition to climate, experts and activists in Alexandria have also assigned blame to Alexandria's unlicensed buildings, estimated to number up to 200,000.

Architect Sahar Abdel-Mohsen points to a place like Agamai, a popular beach town west of Alexandria where his family owns a chalet. He says the electricity supply to Agami is allocated according to what the town used to be – a place of villas and chalets – and not what it is today: a resort overrun with large, multi-story buildings "constructed by greedy contractors".

Generator fever

Shops, cafes and restaurants in Alexandria have relied on power generators to avoid huge losses during the busy summer months.

The growing demand for generators has spawned a black market, said Karim El-Din Ramadan, a merchant from Alexandria.

Aside from the black market, the word "generators" has become the most-searched-for term on the internet in Egypt, according to Google trends in Arabic.

Yet the prices and availability of power generators – and diesel fuel – means that buying a generator isn't easy.

In Qena, 450 km south of Cairo, only restaurants, cafes and some workshops can afford diesel-powered generators. Most citizens suffer from power outages that last up to 12 hours in rural villages outside the city, according to software developer and internet marketer Mahmoud Ahmed.

"I was on the verge of losing my job as an internet marketer this month because of the constant outages that often occurred six times a day in Qena," Ahmed said. He described how the problem has gradually intensified over the past few years, hitting its peak this year.

Besides power generators, rechargeable and emergency light fans have become top selling products this summer – cheaper than air conditioners and yet still handy when the power goes out and your apartment heats up.

Along Abdel-Aziz Street in downtown Cairo – known for its abundance of electricity appliances for sale – the shops are full of Chinese rechargeable and emergency light fans, stacked up alongside the usual TVs and fridges.

A shop owner on the street said he usually sells at least 50 of the rechargeable fans a day, priced between LE300-350.
Another alternative are Japanese and Chinese UPS batteries.

The small- and medium-sized batteries range between LE400 to LE4000 (about $57 to $570), according to wattage, and are a short-term alternative to pricey generators – for those who can afford them.

Either way, Egyptians know it may be a long time before the power issue is addressed – let alone solved – despite promises from government officials.

Until then, they will find their own way to survive in the dark – and the heat.