Flaming over gas
The campaign against the sale of natural gas to Israel is gathering momentum, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Opposition to the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel has gained momentum in recent weeks with the launch of a public campaign under the slogan "No to a Gas Setback". Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, a former MP and cousin of former president Anwar El-Sadat -- the first Arab ruler to sign a peace treaty with Israel -- is now spokesman for the campaign which seeks to raise public awareness of the consequences of gas sales to Israel.
Two days after the natural gas began to be pumped to Egypt on 1 May, campaign members met to denounce the move, issuing a statement claiming that "the agreement signed in 2005 to supply Israel with Egyptian natural gas is illegal and unconstitutional".
The agreement was signed between the Israel Electricity Corporation and the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), a joint venture led by investors that include business tycoon Hussein Salem from Egypt and Joseph Maiman from Israel. Under the agreement EMG is contracted to supply Israel annually with 1.7 billion cubic metres of Egyptian natural gas over 20 years. EMG constructed and operates the underwater pipeline that delivers natural gas to Israel and that began operations on 1 May, supplying gas to the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Ashdod. Israeli officials estimate that within a decade over 20 per cent of the electricity generated in Israel will be based on Egyptian natural gas.
News of the opening of the pipeline triggered sharp attacks in the People's Assembly. They were led by Muslim Brotherhood MPs who denounced the flow as a "scandal", especially at a time when Israel is besieging and murdering Palestinians. Opposition MPs, who claim that the gas is being sold at less than international prices, have demanded that the terms of the contract be made public.
El-Sadat believes that despite the strong attacks in parliament public awareness of the deal with Egypt remains week. The ultimate goal of the campaign, he says, is to "halt exports of Egyptian natural gas not only to Israel but to other countries."
"We are arguing that Egypt's reserves of natural gas are low. They are expected to be depleted within 20 years." The campaign, says El-Sadat, is therefore putting forward the case that the reserves Egypt possesses should be used exclusively to meet domestic demand.
Mobilising public support against gas sales to Israel will, El-Sadat reveals, be pursued on three fronts. The campaign organisers intend to pursue their aims through the established media, via the popular website Facebook, and in the process collect one million signatures, from both Egypt and other Arab countries, for a petition denouncing the deal. He also said the campaign was considering staging a public demonstration in March.
Campaign organisers say they have offered the government a grace period of one month, ending on 5 June, before they escalate any actions. "If the government insists on pursuing the deal the campaign will organise a series of sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Petroleum, EMG offices, the pipeline in Arish in Sinai and Egyptian embassies abroad," says El-Sadat.
In a conference on 7 May campaigners described the flow of Egyptian natural gas to Tel Aviv as a "precious present to Israel on its 60th anniversary".
Yehia El-Gamal, a professor of constitutional law, criticised the government for keeping parliament in the dark about the deal.
"This was an unconstitutional move, regardless of what officials say about the deal being between two private companies and the government playing no part in it."
El-Gamal argues that as a strategic commodity natural gas should not have been offered on a concessionary basis to private businessmen in the first place. He also questions the legality of fixing the price of gas exports to Israel for the next 20 years. He also alerted the government's attention to "the fact that businessman Hussein Salem had sold most of his shares in EMG to foreign investors even before it started pumping Egyptian gas to Israel".
Government estimates that Egypt's reserves of natural gas stand at 75 trillion cubic metres are entirely unfounded, says oil expert Ibrahim Zahran. "I have other international estimates that put Egypt's reserves at between 28 to 36 trillion cubic metres," says Zahran. "It is absurd for the government to supply Israel with subsidised gas while Egyptians get it at market prices," he says, adding that Egypt's own power stations desperately need every bit of natural gas they can get their hands on.
Joining forces with the campaign, on 9 May the Al-Azhar Clerics' Front (ACF) called on workers in the petroleum sector to oppose the deal. Led by Al-Azhar cleric Al-Agami El-Damanhouri, the Islamist grouping issued a statement saying, "the sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel is against Islam" and urged workers in the oil sector to boycott gas exports.
"Any money gained from exporting gas to the Zionist enemy is haram," cautioned ACF, which then went on to call on the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, to officially condemn gas sales to Israel.