Cairo court says Egyptian gas exports to Israel can continue

A Cairo court on Monday suspended a November verdict from a lower court barring Egypt from exporting gas to Israel, dpa reported.

In suspending the ruling, judges from Cairo's Supreme Administrative Court found that the lower court did not have jurisdiction over the case and ruled that decisions on exports to countries to the east of the Mediterranean, including Israel, were within the government's purview, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency reported.

The court suspended the November ruling so a panel of legal experts could study the case. It will reconvene to hear their findings on March 16.

A former Egyptian diplomat had filed a suit to stop the exports on the grounds that natural gas was being sold to Israel at below market value.

In November, a lower Cairo court agreed and ordered a halt to gas exports to Israel. But gas has continued flowing, pending conclusion of the appeals case now being considered by the Supreme Administrative Court.

"It wasn't worth going to court for this," Abdel Moneim Said, an analyst from Egypt's semi-official al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"This is a political and an economic issue. On the economic front, Egypt wants to increase its exports. On the political front, this is a message to Israel that it is accepted in the region."

Controvery over the deal has flared repeatedly in Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which, though banned, is Egypt's largest opposition group in Parliament.

Essam al-Arian, a senior member of the Brotherhood, told dpa that its members in parliament had unsuccessfully tried to introduce legislation that he said would have broadened public oversight over Egypt's export policies.

"The rulings from the first court should have been implemented immediately," he said. "This is a country that does not respect the law or the judiciary. A government that makes its people sue it to be heard is a failing government."

A 2001 agreement between the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), a joint Israeli-Egyptian venture, and the Israeli Electric Company, the EMG agreed to supply the IEC with natural gas at 2.75 dollars per million British thermal units (BTU), according to the Israeli business website Globes Online.

Natural gas futures were trading at 4.61 dollars per million BTU on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Monday.

According to the terms of a 2005 umbrella agreement that safeguarded the 2001 deal, EMG agreed to supply the Israeli utility with 1.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas over a period of between 15 and 20 years, at a total price of roughly 2.5 billion dollars.

The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company was initially backed by an investment fund managed by former Israeli intelligence officer Yossi Maiman and a fund managed by Hussein Salem, a close associate of President Hosni Mubarak.

But after gas began flowing from Egypt to Israel in May, Salem told the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm that he had sold his shares to American and Thai investors after the deal became the focus of controversy in the press and on the floor of Egypt's parliament in late 2007.

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