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Protest, investment and BP: Egypt is open for business but not for accountability
Published in Daily News Egypt on 12 - 03 - 2015

img class="wp-image-254512" src="http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/beta/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/1.jpg" alt="Protesting citizens from Idku march with a banner that reads: "No to BP for a safer [environment]" (Photo Mika Minio-Paluello)" width="300" height="175"/
British Petroleum (BP) has announced a "significant discovery" from what they believe is the deepest well ever drilled in Egypt.
The announcement comes just days before BP's CEO Bob Dudley is due to take part in the Economic Summit.
Deepwater exploration in the East Mediterranean sea revealed a gas reservoir expected to exceed 5tr cubic feet of gas. Dudley announced: "Success in Atoll [well] further increases our confidence of the Nile Delta as a world class gas basin."
It was a success that came only three days after BP announced it will invest $12bn in gas fields in Egypt, alongside Russian-owned partner DEA. It called the largest foreign direct investment in Egypt a "vote of confidence" in the investment climate and economic potential of the country.
BP is seen by the government as a player for Egypt's high energy and economic needs, and Dudley's presence at the conference is fitting. The British company agrees. "BP has a long and successful track record in Egypt stretching back 50 years with investments exceeding $25 billion, making BP one of the largest foreign investors in the country," according to a press release.
Oil and energy industry projects are expected to take centre stage at the Economic Summit. The Ministry of Petroleum has announced that Egypt will present 12 projects with which it hopes to rack up $10bn worth of investment.
For a struggling economy and volatile political and environment, Egypt is doing all it can to attract foreign investment and win over international finance bodies. The IMF has praised Al-Sisi's reforms, including the slashing of public sector wages and key subsidies, and projected that GDP growth will reach 3.8% in the 2014/15 fiscal year.
Egypt is big business for BP, but recent history of energy production and civil activism highlights a legal environment that, whilst may be favourable for international corporations, leaves little room for citizens to voice their grievances.
In 2011, a residents' campaign started in the town of Idku on the Mediterranean coast that snowballed into halting BP plans to build sub-sea pipelines, oil platforms, and a new gas plant on their beach.
The small town, 35km east of Alexandria, lies where the Nile Delta enters the sea, and is primarily a fishing and agricultural community, highly dependent on the local environment. However, it also happens to sit on highly profitable energy and oil reserves. However, in an unlikely show of strength, the Idku residents fought off BP's plant that was part of an $11bn project.
Local activists, farmers and fishermen had had enough of years of their local environment being exploited by international business. They mobilised illegal industrial waste and pollution in their land and water, pointing the finger at nearby sewage canals and a Burullus Gas and Rashpetco gas plant. There were also industrial wave breakers that restrict access to fishing areas. Moreover, legal group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights commented that the ruination of agricultural land and death of sea life for business came "without any benefits to the local community".
However, with the ouster of one regime in July 2013, a new one headed-up Egypt with a warm view of business and a dim one towards collective action.
Protest Law: business without obstruction
With the introduction of the Protest Law, many perceived an end to local communities' ability to organise the assemblies, road blocks, sit-ins and office occupations that led a small community to halt a conglomerate's plans.
Soon after the Protest Law's introduction, BP announced they were backed in town and a new plan of expansion in Idku was given the green-light.
Mika Minio-Paluello, from the campaign and ecological research group Platform London, worked closely with the Idku campaigners and documented their movement. He told Daily News Egypt that, with regards to the return of BP: "The anti-protest law is central. There was significant grassroots mobilisation in Idku in the face of environmental destruction and human rights abuses. However, the crackdown on political protest since Sisi took power has made public opposition to BP almost impossible."
Photo by Mika Minio-Paluello
Investment Law: Deals above the courts
In the run-up to the Summit, the government has made other sweeping changes to Egypt's legal framework. To much fanfare, officials announced a slashing of much red-tape that they see as standing in the way of big deals needed to revive the economy, in a series of amendments to the Investment Legislation.
Egypt's bureaucracy is well-known to be over-bloated. Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman claims that investors previously had to be approved by 78 authorities to secure official approval on a project, a process that can take up to five years.
But others take a different opinion to the government stance on the new legislation. "What is being celebrated by the government is what is catastrophic," Heba Khalil, Head of economic research at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), told Daily News Egypt.
As part of the new framework, those outside of a government contract with a business, i.e. citizens, can no longer mount a legal challenge on the deal.
"It has removed corruption and bad business practice out of the courts; nobody can legally challenge a government deal. It is an attack not only on citizen's rights but also on the judicial system, but it's being celebrated by the government," Khalil said. "If there is corruption, malpractice or negligence, then grievances will go through ‘reconciliation committees', which re-characterises legal crimes as ‘mistakes'."
"For instance, if the government were to sell a piece of land to a company, who proceeded to build a coal fire plant there, residents on neighbouring land would not be able to challenge any deleterious effects on their lives and livelihoods. At most they may be able to get small compensation, but gone is the ability to actually structurally challenge the contracts," Khalil said.
Nadim Amin, director of the Media Unit at ECESR, believes that the new law threatens to create an environment in which contracting becomes "too easy". This, he previously told Daily News Egypt, would deplete the assets and natural resources of the country, which "ultimately undermine the only true stakeholder: the Egyptian citizen". The law would strip the Egyptian citizen, the judiciary, and especially the Administrative Courts, of their powers, he added.
Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were "one of the only avenues" for the public to learn about business malpractice and challenge corporate deals. "The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is," a researcher for the group said.
Egypt, the Future: The "two last nails in the coffin in defending rights and livelihoods"
Thus, for many there is much to be worried about as billions of dollars of investor money floods in to Egypt's towns and seas. With the protest law introduced, citizens can no longer take to the streets in towns like Idku to obstruct profitable industry that threatens their way of life. What adds further concern is that the investment legislation takes away the democratic citizen's only other method of holding the government and business to account, the courts.
"New laws introduced under Al-Sisi protect BP's profits at the expense of the local community. The anti-protest law and the investment law were two last nails in the coffin, destroying any chance of the people of the Delta defending their rights and livelihoods," Platform London's Minio-Paluello continued. "Egypt lost over $11bn due to corrupt contracts signed under Mubarak. BP's North Alexandria contract – also signed under Mubarak – has been widely questioned for diverting revenues away from the state. But the new investment law will prevent citizens from challenging weak or corrupt oil and gas contracts."
"BP is thriving on the culture of fear in Egypt – that's why Bob Dudley is coming to Egypt, to congratulate Al-Sisi."


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