PROFILE: Meet Egypt’s new prime minister-designate Sherif Ismail goes from petroleum minister to second premier of Egypt's al-Sisi era

Egypt - Cabinet

Egypt – Cabinet

CAIRO (AA) – Credited with partially resolving the country’s longstanding energy crisis, Egypt’s outgoing petroleum minister, Sherif Ismail, has now been tasked with drawing up a new government.

On Saturday, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi assigned Ismail to form a new cabinet. The move came shortly after Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb tendered his resignation – along with that of his government – in the wake of a wide-ranging corruption scandal.
Ismail, now prime minister-designate, will come to the premiership on the heels of a landmark natural gas discovery – estimated at some 30 trillion cubic feet – in the Mediterranean Sea off Egypt’s north coast.
Nevertheless, he remains haunted by the role he played in a controversial deal – penned under former President Hosni Mubarak – to sell natural gas to Israel at below-market prices.
A mechanical engineer by profession, Ismail received his engineering degree in 1978 before starting his career at multinational oil company Mobil.
He later held senior positions at several state-run energy firms, including the chairmanship of the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) and the Ganoub El Wadi Petroleum Holding Company.
In July 2013, Ismail was tasked with heading up the Petroleum Ministry under Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s first freely elected president – by the army.
He retained his position as petroleum minister in the two governments drawn up by Mehleb last year.
Unpopular reforms
As petroleum minister, Ismail oversaw a number of politically sensitive reforms, including a highly-unpopular 78-percent increase in the price of subsidized fuel – a step the government defended as necessary to relieve Egypt’s sprawling budget deficit.
During his time at the petroleum ministry, Ismail also paid back some of Egypt’s outstanding debt to foreign energy firms in a bid to improve the country’s image among international investors.
While Egypt still owes some $2.9 billion to foreign oil companies, Ismail said last week that he hoped to reduce this figure to $2.5 billion by the end of this year.
Perhaps most significantly for Ismail’s tenure as oil minister, Italian energy group Enni announced earlier this month that it had discovered a whopping 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – one of the largest finds ever – in the Mediterranean Sea off Egypt’s coast.
‘Limited options’
Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor and prominent Egyptian political commentator, for his part, said it remained unclear why Ismail had been chosen to head up the next government.
“It appears al-Sisi had limited options for Mahlab’s successor,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Nafaa went on to cite a recent corruption scandal involving Egypt’s Agriculture Ministry as the main reason behind al-Sisi’s decision on Saturday to accept the resignations of the premier and his government.
“But this will hardly settle the issue [of government corruption],” he said. “On the contrary, I believe the quagmire will persist.”
Last week, Egyptian security forces arrested Agriculture Minister Salah Helal – who was immediately sacked – amid allegations of widespread corruption at his ministry.
Local media, meanwhile, reported the names of several other ministers allegedly involved in the scandal.
Israel gas deal
Controversy, meanwhile, still haunts the new prime minister-designate over his role in a 2005 gas export deal between Egypt and Israel by which Cairo sold gas to the self-proclaimed Jewish state at bargain-basement prices.
In 2005, Ismail had served as undersecretary of Egypt’s Petroleum Ministry, also serving as CEO of EGAS until 2007. In both positions, Ismail played a central role in the controversial agreement.
In 2013, Sameh Fahmy, a Mubarak-era petroleum minister, and Hussein Salem, a businessman with close ties to Mubarak, were both slapped with 15-year jail terms for “squandering public funds” in connection with the gas deal.
Mubarak himself, meanwhile, was acquitted in the same case.
In 2014, during a retrial, Ismail testified in court that Mubarak had played no role in the gas export agreement. He also asserted – somewhat controversially – that Egypt had not incurred any financial losses as a result of the deal.
Later the same year, Ismail surprised many observers when he said in a television interview that he had no objections to importing gas from Israel.
“Generally speaking, we need not reject the idea – especially if it brings added value to Egypt’s economy and contributes to the development of our energy infrastructure,” he told the private Al-Nahar television channel.
Nafaa, for his part, ruled out the likelihood that Ismail’s new government would register any major achievements before parliamentary polls slated for next month.
“He doesn’t have to make any achievements,” he said. “I believe his main role is to offset the repercussions of the corruption scandal that shook the outgoing government.”

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