Mubarak’s fall could trigger Egypt gold boom in Sinai

Egypt could be on the verge of a gold mining boom

 

Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

The fall of Hosni Mubarak could trigger an Egyptian gold boom as the government looks to carve up precious reserves in the Sinai desert which have remained untapped for decades. Officials have known about the potential for finding gold in Egypt’s mountain wilderness for years, yet a combination of security concerns and the complicated mining process have so far hampered serious progress.

Egyptian mining chiefs now plan to invite investors to carry out gold exploration in the Sinai – an area which was once occupied by the Israelis during the 1970s and which has been plagued by security problems since the uprising which toppled Mr Mubarak.

According to Dr Hassan Bakheit, the head of geological surveys in the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority, the government wants to start receiving contract bids next year.

“We’re trying to develop the Sinai desert,” he said. “I think in the future there will be more explorations. I hope that if the revolution goes the right way and is not stopped by any further problems, Egypt will become known as a big gold producer in the region.”

Egypt is no stranger to the gold mining industry. As long ago as the third century BC, workers living under the realm of the Old Kingdom were unearthing the precious mineral from the volcanic rocks that line the country’s Red Sea coast.

Yet since the 1950s there has been virtually no serious investment in the industry. Only one company is currently producing Egyptian gold, the Australian firm Centamin, which is listed in London and Toronto and which started commercial production last year.

With an estimated 6.7 million ounces of the metal lying under more than 100 possible mining sites around the country, analysts say the potential value of Egypt’s untapped reserves runs into billions of pounds – a literal gold mine in a nation which could sorely use the receipts of its own mineral wealth.

Louise Collinge, a mining analyst for Evolution Securities, said there was “a lot of interest” about investing in Egypt. She said its location in the Arabian- Nubian Shield – a band of rocks that stretches down from north of Cairo as far as the Horn of Africa – meant it was ripe for gold prospecting.

But she added that with the current political insecurity it would be difficult for the gold boom to really take off. “It’s a big worry for any investor,” she said. “In theory there should be no problems at all. But the market is a bit worried as to what might happen.”

Centamin lost millions of dollars during the Egyptian uprising and saw its stock plummet by more than 25 per cent following the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

“The worst case scenario for potential investors is whether they will still own their assets at the end of events like those in Egypt,” said Ms Collinge.

There are now six companies carrying out gold exploration at various locations along the Red Sea coast, though none have yet started producing commercially.

According to Centamin’s chief executive, Harry Michael, one of the main reasons Egypt did not open up to investors until only relatively recently is because previous governments simply did not think the industry was viable. When company bosses tried to tell Mr Mubarak’s officials that they were sitting on a fortune, the response was incredulous. “They said, ‘you guys are crazy’,” claimed Mr Michael.

“There is not much rainfall in Egypt,” he added. “A lot of the country is desert. Nobody goes there, and there was an opportunity for us to get something from that land for the nation and our investors. It was crying out for some kind of use.”

Yet according to Dr Bakheit, the reason that the Sinai desert’s reserves have so far remained off-limits is more political than economical.

He blamed the hidden “agenda” of Hosni Mubarak’s relations with Israel, saying he believed the government had a deal with Tel Aviv under the 1979 peace treaty not to develop large scale mining operations in the area.

It is a view not taken seriously by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, an expert on Egyptian-Israeli relations from Tel Aviv University. “It makes no sense,” he said. “After 1979, Israel was interested in Egypt developing economically.”

Nonetheless it is clear the precarious security situation in the Sinai has hamstrung economic development. Centamin’s Mr Michael said it had “definitely been an issue” when it came to the government failing to pursue mining projects in the region.

And there are other political ramifications of a future gold boom in Egypt. Under Centamin’s deal with the government, it is obliged to pump half of its profits back into the state treasury.

Given that geologists believe the nation’s gold reserves could be worth many billions of pounds, the next few years could be critical in determining how well Egypt’s first post-Mubarak government can exploit the nation’s substantial mineral resources.

In a nation where 40 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, a profitable gold mining industry – and the thousands of jobs needed to sustain it – could be a significant boon.

“I’m optimistic,” said Ibrahim Shalaby, the former deputy minister of the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority. “We just need someone with some money who is not afraid to come here, invest their cash and see the benefits.”

So, what do you think of your husband’s brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?

Asma al-Assad in a photo from the now-infamous Vogue shoot

 

Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

Vogue magazine famously called her a “rose in the desert”, while Paris Match proclaimed she was the “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”. But when Syria’s glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband’s regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad’s three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

“We told her about the killing of protesters,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital … There was no reaction. She didn’t react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day.”

Syrians working with aid agencies to try to help the thousands injured as Mr Assad’s security forces unleash tanks, guns and airpower to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule had hoped for a lot more. The First Lady’s office contacted them and said she wanted to hear about the difficulties they faced in the field. She met the humanitarians in Damascus.

“She asked us about the risks of working under the current conditions,” he added. But when she was told about the abuses of power being committed by her husband’s notorious secret police, Mrs Assad’s blank face left them unimpressed. “She sees everything happening here. Everything is all over the news. It’s impossible she doesn’t know,” said the volunteer. Yet even if Mrs Assad does know about the worst of the violence and the 3,000 civilians human rights groups accuse the regime of killing, many people who have met her question what she could possibly do about it.

“Whatever her own views, she is completely hamstrung,” said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding. “There is no way the regime would allow her any room to voice dissent or leave the country. You can forget it.”

Mrs Assad, who achieved a first class degree in computer science from King’s College University, was brought up in Britain by her Syrian-born parents, who were close friends of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. She started dating Bashar al-Assad in her twenties, and they eventually married in 2000, when she moved to Syria for the first time.

According to one prominent Western biographer of the Assad family, Bashar chose Asma against the determined opposition of his sister and mother. “He had lots of beautiful girlfriends before her,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named. “He faced opposition when he wanted Asma because she was Sunni and he is Alawite. Here was Bashar al-Assad marrying outside the clan.”

She championed several development initiatives, and delivered genuine change by helping to create NGOs in Syria, as well as highlighting the plight of disabled children and laying the groundwork for plans to rehabilitate dozens of Syria’s ramshackle museums.

For some, she is the modern, made-up face of a former pariah state; to others, an aloof, 21st-century Marie Antoinette. Either way, nothing perhaps crystallised the fate of Syria’s First Lady better than the disastrously-timed interview run by Vogue magazine in its March issue this year.

Amid obsequious descriptions of Chanel jewellery and her matey banter with Brad Pitt during the Hollywood star’s 2009 visit to Syria, the article described how the Assad household was run on “wildly democratic principles”. According to Mrs Assad: “we all vote on what we want, and where.”

Naturally, many outraged Syrians were left asking why the Assads could not extend them the same courtesy.

Egypt’s No.1 industry still struggling

Before the tourists: David Roberts's 19th Century view of the Sphinx - as it was and as it will never be again

 

Originally published at majalla.com, 21 September 2011

Tour guide Zaki Sultan knows as well as anyone how much Egyptians rely on the steady flow of tourists streaming into their country.

The 44-year-old, who scrapes a living from the tens of thousands of travelers who flock to see the Giza Pyramids each year, was hit hard by the tourism crash in the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising.

Back then, when foreigners shunned the country after being fed a nightly diet of violent clashes on the evening news, the situation got so bad that cash-strapped tour guides could not even feed their animals.

The grisly images of decomposing horses and camels lying just a short distance from the Pyramids became a terrible metaphor for a dying tourist industry.

According to Zaki, the situation now is not as bad as six months ago. Speaking to The Majalla just after taking some visitors on a tour around the Pyramids, he said things had improved. “There are around 25 percent of people compared to last year,” he said. “But compared to after the uprising it is getting better.”

However, official statistics released last week suggest that for the millions of Egyptians who, like Zaki, rely on tourism to make a living, the future is not looking rosy.

In the second quarter of the month there was a 35 percent drop in the numbers of foreigners visiting the country.

The shortfall amounted to well over one million fewer tourists coming to Egypt compared to 2010—a development which has been blamed on the instability following the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in March.

In total last year, Egypt received around 15 million visitors—a figure which shows why tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries, worth around £7.3billion and employing approximately 12 percent of the nation’s workforce.

All of which makes the latest figures so worrying, particularly given how Egypt’s tourist minister predicted in June that by September the flow of foreigners arriving in the country would be back up to pre-revolution levels.

Speaking to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour had said: “Data suggests that tourist activities are being restored to pre-revolution rates.”

Judging by the most recent statistics, he should probably sack his number crunchers.

And it’s all very well blaming the Egyptian uprising for the recent tourist turmoil. But how long will it continue for?

Right after the fall of Mubarak, there were numerous flare-ups which might have deterred even the most adventurous of travelers. After all, who wants to take happy snaps of the Sphinx when protesters are bleeding to death in the street nearby?

Yet there will be more problems. Parliamentary elections are due to be held in November, followed by a presidential poll next year. In between and afterwards there will inevitably be further bloodshed.

With the Luxor travel agent brochures gathering dust as a result, Egypt’s tourist industry will continue to flounder.

Why do we think Egypt’s generals will give up their power?

Protesters scale the walls of the Israeli embassy in Cairo

 

Originally published at majalla.com, 13 September 2011

Covering the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising (we should be reluctant to use the word ‘revolution’ until some heads begin to roll), every now and then I would ask a blindingly obvious question.

Imagine yourself as Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling military council and de facto leader of the country.

If you were in his position – head of a military elite which for three decades or more has enjoyed unfettered power and privilege under the rule of Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors – would you give it all up for an election?

On the occasions I would put this question to one or more of Egypt’s leading activists and politicians, the answer was invariably yes.

Strange, I used to think, seeing as the answer as far as I could tell was a resoundingly clear-cut no. “You want my lucrative land holdings for a liberal democracy? Tell that to my Kalashnikov.”

Or so I can imagine the all-powerful Field Marshall saying.

But now it seems some of the activists who were initially so accommodating towards the ruling military council are also beginning to have their doubts.

Take Shady al-Ghazaly Harb. He is a leading member of the 25 January Youth Coalition, an influential Egyptian activist group comprised of key figures behind the uprising.

He said demonstrators had been “naive” to assume that the ruling military council would happily oversee the transition to a democratic Egypt. “It’s not going to happen”, he added.

Al-Ghazaly said that the recent attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, when three people were killed after demonstrators knocked down a perimeter wall and broke into the building, revealed the military’s true intent.

“It was pre-planned by the military,” he claimed, saying that Egypt’s ruling generals allowed the attack to happen in order to justify further acquisitions of power.

His view was backed up by Ramy el-Swissy, one of the founding members of the April 6 Youth Movement, another key activist organisation. “The attack was just a hoax in order to make problems between the people and the army,” he said.

There is no evidence to support the claims of military acquiescence in the embassy attacks, and plenty of other politicians and analysts have supported the army’s right to ensure that the post-Mubarak phase doesn’t fall prey to chaos.

Yet the mistrust between activists and the generals is now greater than ever before. Al-Ghazaly said members of the 25 January Youth Coalition, who count among them so many leading lights of the pro-democracy movement, are now “confused” and do not know where to turn.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, they will have to figure out their direction quickly.

Egypt’s generals ‘fighting al-Qaida in the Sinai Desert’

Military vehicles guard a police station in North Sinai

 

Originally published in the Independent, 22 August 2011

Perched high on a sandbank overlooking the slums of Gaza, a man who calls himself Abu Nafaq points to a block of canary-yellow flats just beyond the Egyptian border fence.

“That is where the Israelis bombed a few days ago,” he says, referring to the Israeli bombing raid in response to last week’s ambush by terrorists in southern Israel. According to the Israelis, the gunmen who murdered eight people near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat came from Gaza – possibly sneaking out through the warren of smugglers’ tunnels leading into the nearby Egyptian shantytown of Rafah.

If anyone should know whether that is true, it is Abu Nafaq, whose nickname means “Father of the Tunnel” in Arabic, and whose livelihood depends on the network of subterranean routes used to ferry goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip. “During the January 25 revolution there were hundreds of Gazans coming through here,” he said. “Now it’s down to around 60 or 70 a day. Of course the Eilat attackers could have come through the tunnels. But they would need the support of the Bedouin people living here, because everywhere they will find checkpoints and roads they are not familiar with.”

Last week’s attack came only a few days after Egypt’s ruling military council – which took power after the president, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled in February – dispatched hundreds of tanks to the North Sinai region following outbreaks of violence in its provincial capital, Al-Arish, about an hour’s drive west from Rafah. Egypt’s generals said the operation was intended to drive out “al-Qa’ida-inspired militants” in the region. After the Eilat attack there was an added piquancy to the deployment.

Israel has been wary of its neighbour since the fall of its ally Mubarak, and suggested the military council had lost control of the Sinai. Tensions were further heightened when five Egyptian soldiers were killed during the Israeli response to the attack, sparking angry protests yesterday outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

But a recent visit to North Sinai by The Independent suggested the picture is far murkier than the official narrative provided by both Egypt’s generals and leaders in Tel Aviv.

No doubt, as the Israelis have claimed, there has been some movement of Palestinian militants across the border. But some say the al-Qa’ida threat is exaggerated. One military official based in North Sinai told The Independent it was not true that the Egyptian army was hunting for Islamist extremists inspired by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. “There is hardline Muslim sympathy here, but no al-Qa’ida,” he said.

Yet something is up. On 29 July, the same day thousands of conservative Muslims rallied in central Cairo and called for a greater Islamic role in post-Mubarak Egypt, gunmen laid siege to Al-Arish’s police station in a battle which lasted for nine hours. Some of the attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades at the 12ft-walled compound, yet when the fighting had finished, all the assailants escaped unharmed.

It was against this background – along with several unsolved bomb attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel – that the military sent its armour in. Locals who witnessed the fighting told The Independent they believed the attackers had local support. One man, a doctor who identified himself only as Hossam, said: “The people who attacked the police station were locals from Al-Arish. They used weapons from some of the big families here.”

The idea that locals nursing anti-government grievances were responsible for the operation has some credence. For years the vast expanses of the Sinai desert have been beyond the control of central authority in Egypt. Lawless Bedouin tribes hold sway in the central regions, while in the urban north there was never much respect for Mubarak or his policemen.

Yet, Hossam added, some of the attackers were fundamentalist Salafi Muslims, the hardline Islamists who eschewed politics under Mubarak but have become increasingly vocal since his toppling.

It is a view supported by Yahya Abu Nasira, a Bedouin tribal chief from Rafah, who claimed the threat from Salafi fundamentalists was growing. “The Salafi people want to separate from Egypt and to start an Islamic state from here,” he said. “After that they want to go from city to city. That’s why there was the action in Al-Arish.”

Others on the streets of Al-Arish pointed the finger of blame at Takfir wal-Hijra, a shadowy, amorphous offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, blamed for terrorist attacks around the world since the mid-1990s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Salafi sheikh in Al-Arish denied his followers were responsible for any violence. Mostafa Azzem said it was “the thugs and criminals in the Sinai who attacked the police station, not Salafis”.

Others are not convinced either. Lina Atallah, managing editor of Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, who has spent years covering the region around Al-Arish, said she was “in doubt” about the threat of an “Islamic emirate in the Sinai”. “Talk like that is taking it to the extreme,” she said. “I’m also extremely in doubt about the al-Qa’ida threat.”

Al-Arish itself has come under increasing Islamic influence since Mubarak’s fall. It remains a tourist city, but the niqab-wearing women who pack the streets at night during Ramadan lend it a distinctly provincial feel. And while government talk of “al-Qa’ida in the Sinai” seems far fetched, the military council has obviously been rattled by developments here.

Perhaps it genuinely fears the influence of hardline Islamism. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it simply wants to regain control of North Sinai after six months where police authority evaporated and the Bedouin stepped in to fill the vacuum. Either way, with Israelis rattling their sabres across the border over last week’s attack and Egyptians voicing their outrage at Tel Aviv’s response, the Sinai Desert – so often the theatre of the Middle East’s most pivotal conflicts – is on the frontline once again.

Thanks for nothing Vodafone: Egyptians vent anger on Twitter

Egyptians protest outside a Vodafone store during the revolution

 

Originally published in the Independent, 6 August 2002

When Vodafone executives unveiled their latest Egyptian ad campaign, it should have been a cause for celebration.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a goldmine for advertisers, with families glued to endless TV soap operas as they fast throughout the day.

But not for the first time since Egypt’s 25 January uprising, the global telecoms giant seems to have put its foot in it. The campaign has faced a vicious backlash, with many Egyptians taking to the internet in a bid to vent their fury.

The so-called “Thank you” campaign, which was launched across television and the internet in time for the August month of Ramadan, included a gimmick whereby Egyptians were encouraged to send thank you messages to friends and relatives on Twitter, using the hashtag #vodafoneshokran – “thank you Vodafone”.

It must have seemed like a great idea on the drawing board. But with many people still angry about Vodafone’s conduct during the revolution – when along with other mobile phone companies, it agreed to shut down networks on the orders of the president – some Egyptians have hijacked the campaign, tweeting sneering messages poking fun at the company under the pretext of thanking it.

One message, from a user called @stweeted, said: “Thanks for cutting off communications during the revolution, I was dead worried about my family and friends.” Another, from @laScheherazade, said: “Thanks for claiming you inspired the revolution when in fact you caused the death of martyrs by cutting off communication.”

The backlash is doubly embarrassing for Vodafone as it follows a similar wave of outrage in June, when Egyptians took umbrageat at an advert created by the company’s marketing agency, JWT, which appeared to take credit for the revolution. Egyptian blogger Ramy Raoof said people were still angry with Vodafone because of the way it was perceived to have exploited the revolution. “We all know that if they wanted to support the people they wouldn’t have shut off the phones,” he said, adding that the company’s actions had endangered protesters’ lives.

Clive Woodger, a British marketing expert who has worked in the Middle East, said Vodafone had been “naive”. He said: “You like to think these companies are global, cool and incredibly sophisticated, but sometimes they’re not as clever as they think.”

A spokeswoman for Vodafone Egypt said the backlash against the company was “not an issue of our popularity”. She emphasised that during the uprising it “had no option but to comply” with the Egyptian government.

Mubarak trial: the view from Egypt’s streets

Egyptians are divided on how Mubarak should be treated

 

Originally published in the Independent, August 4 2011

If history is written by the winners, then Zaki Sultan won’t be sharpening his pencil any time soon. In February, when the Egyptian uprising was in full swing, he was one of the pro-Mubarak supporters who charged his camel into Tahrir Square to try to turf out pro-democracy activists. He failed.

Yesterday, Zaki remained staunch in his support for his former leader. It was sad, he said, that the former leader was on trial.

“He was an important man, a military man,” he said. “He did some good things for Egypt.”

Many others who watched yesterday’s unprecedented court appearance disagreed. Standing outside the police academy in eastern Cairo where the trial was being held, Ali Abu Sria said he was pleased to see the former president in the dock.

Carrying a hangman’s noose – a stark illustration of his own thoughts on the case – the 49-year-old labourer said: “We’ve never seen a dictator in court like this before.”

It was a historical allusion appreciated by other Egyptians who recognised just how startling was the sight of a caged Hosni Mubarak being tried in a civilian court after a home-grown uprising.

Mohammad al-Azazi, 22, a pharmacist who watched the trial on a big screen outside the venue, said: “It’s a historical day. If somebody had hit you every day for 30 years, how would you feel? People are angry because they have had 30 years of poverty and torture.”

Yet there was still a degree of sympathy for a former war hero and long-term leader who yesterday was reduced to denying criminal charges from a hospital bed.

Walid Khalid owns a stationery shop not far from Tahrir Square, which yesterday was guarded by a ring of riot police and some armoured personnel carriers. As he used the photocopier in his cupboard-sized shop, he said that a measure of lenience was required for the aging ex-autocrat.

“In my life I never thought I would see him in court,” said the 30-year-old. “But I don’t want him executed. We should take money from him, because he took money from us.”

A taxi driver, who did not give his name, agreed. “Execution would be hard on him,” he said.

But not everybody was gripped by the courtroom drama. In his shop opposite a government ministry, a shopkeeper called Mahmoud had the trial showing on a fuzzy little television on top of the soft drinks fridge. What did he think of the landmark trial? “I’ve been sleeping,” he replied with a broad grin.

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