Sunday, 10 July 2011

Egypt-Israel gas pipeline targeted…again

CAIRO, July 7 (IPS) – The pipeline that carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel was attacked by unknown perpetrators on Monday (July 4), the third such incident since the January 25 Revolution that ended the rule of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak.

“We still don’t know who’s responsible,” North Sinai Security Director Saleh al-Masri told reporters in the immediate wake of the incident. “But the methods employed were the same as those used in previous attacks.”

The pipeline was first attacked on February 5, at the height of the Tahrir Uprising and six days before Mubarak’s departure. Reportedly carried out by unidentified gunmen not far from the city of Al-Arish in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, the attack halted the flow of gas to both Israel and Jordan for almost six weeks.

On March 27, a second attack on the pipeline was thwarted when Egyptian authorities managed to disarm explosive devices set by unknown perpetrators. Exactly one month later, however, masked gunmen again succeeded in blowing up a section of the pipeline near Al-Sabil (some 50 kilometers west of Al-Arish), again bringing gas flows to Israel and Jordan to a standstill for almost six weeks.
The most recent attack, which occurred before dawn on Monday at the Bir al-Abd terminal (some 80 kilometers west of Al-Arish), was also reportedly the work of a handful of masked attackers. According to initial reports, the perpetrators tied up security guards — who were later released unharmed — while explosive devices were planted in the terminal and detonated from a distance.
North Sinai Governor Abdelwahab Mabrouk condemned the attack, which he described as “an act of terrorism targeting the security and stability of Sinai.”

Petroleum ministry sources said repairs would take up to 15 days.

The latest attack has reportedly stopped the flow of Egyptian gas to Israel, Jordan and much of the Sinai Peninsula itself.

Egypt first began selling natural gas to Israel in 2008 despite widespread public opposition. An export deal hammered out three years earlier allows Egyptian-Israeli energy consortium East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) to sell Egyptian gas to Israeli buyers, including the government-run Israel Electric Corporation (IEC).

Notably, one day before the latest attack, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that IEC planned to raise consumer electricity prices by 20 percent “due in part to the lack of Egyptian gas.” The IEC, Israel’s main electricity supplier, relies on Egyptian gas for some 45 percent of its production capacity.
Along with its obvious political implications, the gas-to-Israel export scheme also drew fierce public criticism due to the fact that sale prices were never divulged by the government. Reports in the international media, however, indicated that Israeli buyers were purchasing Egyptian gas at prices well below international rates.

“There’s no excuse for selling Egyptian gas at prices less than those paid by the Egyptian public, especially when 40 percent of the Egyptian population is living in poverty,” Ibrahim Zahran, energy expert and former chairman of Khalda Petroleum Company, told IPS.

In late 2008, an administrative court ruled that the export scheme was illegal, on grounds that it had never been approved by Egypt’s parliament. The ruling, however, was never implemented, and was overturned in 2010 by Egypt’s High Administrative Court following an appeal by Mubarak regime officials.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), meanwhile, which has governed the country since Mubarak’s ouster, has continued to keep the sale price a secret.

On July 26, an administrative court is expected to rule on a new case brought against the transitional government to demand the enforcement of the initial court ruling against the export scheme.

Notably, on June 16, Hussein Salem, former EMG co-owner and close associate of the deposed president, was arrested in Spain on corruption charges. Salem, along with Mubarak and former petrol minister Sameh Fahmi, stand accused of making illicit profits through the gas-export scheme at the expense of the public purse. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for July 16.

“Egyptian gas exports to Israel have cost the country some $10 billion annually,” Ibrahim Youssri, former Egyptian deputy FM and long-time critic of the export scheme, told IPS. “The architects of this deal committed high treason and should be punished accordingly.”

According to petroleum ministry officials, negotiations with Israel over a revised pricing scheme are ongoing. Further details, however, have not been forthcoming.

Many energy experts, meanwhile, say Egyptian natural gas should be used to meet domestic consumption needs rather than being sold to foreign buyers at reduced prices. They point to a recent shortage of butane gas — the main source of fuel in most Egyptian households — which caused black-market prices for butane cylinders to skyrocket more than 600 percent.

“If Egyptian gas went to the domestic market instead of export, Egypt would save itself the cost of subsidizing petroleum products, which accounts for more than 100 billion Egyptian pounds (US$16.8 billion) of the current budget,” said Zahran.

He went on to call for the halt of all natural gas exports, noting that Egypt also sells gas — at only slightly higher prices — to Jordan, Lebanon, France, Spain, Malaysia and the US.

The perpetrators of the recent string of attacks, meanwhile, remain at large.

According to Hatem al-Buluk, an Egyptian journalist based in North Sinai, the bombings might have been the work of “Sinai-based revolutionaries” opposed to the notion of selling gas to Israel — particularly in light of the latter’s continued abuse of the Palestinian people. “This theory is supported by the fact that none of the attacks resulted in any deaths or injuries,” al-Buluk told IPS.

In an indication of the deep popular opposition to the export arrangement, some prominent public figures praised the attacks, calling them “acts of patriotism.”

“These acts constitute a legitimate response to the sale of Egyptian gas — at reduced prices — to an enemy of Egypt,” Mahmoud al-Khodeiri, former deputy head of Egypt’s Supreme Court, said on Monday.

By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

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