Egypt's prime minister on Wednesday ordered a review of natural gas contracts to Israel and Jordan, the official news agency reported, in the latest bid by the government to appease growing frustrations that it was moving too slowly on reforms following President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
The move is the latest in a year-old battle over Egypt's natural gas exports to Israel _ deals which critics argued provided the Jewish state with sharply discounted gas. The deal became one of the symbols of the cronyism prominent in the former government.
The prime minister's spokesman, Ahmed El-Samman, said the premier ordered the review for all of Egypt's gas deals with other countries, which could bring in an additional $3 billion to $4 billion in income for Egypt, MENA reported.
The move, aimed at boosting revenues for the country, could also score the government sorely needed political points with a focus on reviewing the Israeli gas deal as it comes at a time when dissatisfaction is growing Egypt's new military rulers. The announcement comes on the same day that Mubarak and his two sons were detained amid investigations on accusations of corruption, abuse of power and killings of protesters.
The gas deal has been the subject of litigation in Egypt, most recently with an appellate court in February overturning a lower court ruling that would have halted gas exports to Israel. Opposition groups, that filed the suit in November, claimed that Israel got the gas too cheaply under the 15-year fixed price deal between a private Egyptian company, partly owned by the government, and the state-run Israel Electric Corporation.
Ibrahim Yousri, a former Egyptian diplomat who had brought the issue to court, cautiously welcomed the announcement, but voiced concern that it would amount to another unfulfilled pledge by officials.
"It's not a matter of reviewing, it's a matter of deciding," said Yousri. "Reviewing the contracts is something that's been told to us by (former oil minister) Sameh Fahmy hundreds of times and then they end up adding just two or three cents" to the export price.
Yousri said he would wait and see what steps were taken, but stressed that critics were ready to move forward and refer officials to court if they failed follow through on pledges to adjust the sales price to international levels.
"If not, we will use our prerogative to ask the court to imprison and remove the (oil) minister from his post," he said.
Under the 2005 deal, the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Co. agreed to sell 1.7 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the Israeli company at a price critics say is set at $1.50 per million British thermal units _ a measure of energy. Natural gas futures were trading at $4.15 per million BTU on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Wednesday.
A spokesman for eGas, the state-run company responsible for natural gas activities in Egypt, could not be reached for comment and calls to East Mediterranean Gas went unanswered late Wednesday.
In Israel, a government official said that "these sort of issues should be discussed directly between the two governments in the correct channels." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the government hadn't released an official comment on the matter.
A Jordanian government spokesman declined comment, saying the Cabinet must first hear directly from the Egyptian government before Jordan can make a comment. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Critics had pointed to the deal as an example of government mismanagement of public resources and the rampant cronyism many said came to define the Mubarak regime over the past decade. Among the shareholders of East Mediterranean is Hussein Salem, a close friend of Mubarak.
Associated Press writers Amy Teibel in Jerusalem and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed.