The minister said Saturday an initial investigation showed a truck erupted in flames in the hold of the ship.
After the crew tried to put out the fire, the captain's efforts to turn the boat around caused it to tilt in heavy winds and ultimately sink.
Some survivors later described the tilting, saying it occurred slowly before the vessel sank.
Some survivors at a hospital in Hurghada told CNN they saw smoke, which smelled as if it came from an electrical fire, about two and a half hours into the trip. Hurghada is off Egypt's north-central Red Sea coast.
The seas were rough when the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 capsized, said Transport Minister Mohamed Loutfy Mansour.
Rescuers who plucked nearly 400 survivors from the 60-degree waters were continuing to search Saturday for nearly 1,000 other people feared dead.
State-run Nile Television said Saturday there were 389 survivors. By daylight Saturday, 185 bodies had been pulled from the 3,000-foot-deep waters, officials said.
Rescuers were pessimistic about finding more people alive. "There aren't expected to be many survivors, because it's been so long since the ship went down," a source close to the operations told Reuters.
In Safaga, one hysterical woman hammered on an iron gate to the port, where survivors from the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry were being brought ashore.
Some angry relatives threw rocks at police as they awaited information about passengers on the ferry.
The port officials were not distributing lists of survivor names to the crowd outside, who repeatedly tried to break through a line of police with sticks.
"No one is telling us anything," said Shaaban el-Qott, from the southern city of Qena, who was furious after waiting all night at the gates of the port in Safaga for news of his cousin.
"All I want to know (is) if he's dead or alive," he told The Associated Press.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to the port of Hurghada, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) further north of Safaga, on Saturday to oversee the rescue operation and visit survivors.
He told reporters the government would pay emergency compensation to survivors and relatives of the dead. Survivors are to receive 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,600 U.S.) and families of the dead are to get twice that.
A Maritime Transport spokesman said the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 was certified to carry passengers until 2010 and was fully compliant with maintenance regulations.
However, one man in the crowd told CNN he had taken the same ship on the same route a month ago and that the ship appeared overloaded on that trip, packed with passengers and laden with eight large trucks filled with freight, the man said.
He also said the clasps that secured lifeboats to the ship were rusted.
Other former passengers also reported that the ferry was antiquated.
"It's a roll-on, roll-off ferry, and there is big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship," David Osler, of the London shipping paper Lloyds List, told AP.
"It would only take a bit of water to get on board this ship and it would be all over. ... The percentage of this type of ferry involved in this type of disaster is huge."
Egypt's state-run Nile TV said the passengers included at least 115 foreigners, about 100 of them Saudi nationals. Most of those on board were Egyptian laborers returning from jobs in Saudi Arabia.
Four Egyptian frigates and a navy destroyer, along with coast guard boats and helicopters were at the search-and-rescue site, about 95 kilometers ( 57 miles) from Hurghada, said Adel Shoukri, a spokesman for the transport company.
Egyptian government officials asked mariners in the Saudi port of Jeddah for help, and Saudi Arabia sent two vessels.
Egypt turned down Britain's offer to send an amphibious assault ship, saying the ship was too large for the search effort.
The ship, which was built in 1970 and launched in Italy, flew a Panamanian flag.
It was refurbished in 1990 at an Egyptian shipyard. The vessel was involved in a collision in 1999, according to a ferry company spokesman.Last Mod: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16