Egyptian army deploys additional soldiers in Sinai

Forces join 800 current troops, will help guard natural gas pipeline to Israel against attack; Suez Canal workers demand better conditions.

By OREN KESSLER, AP
February 18, 2011 01:37
4 minute read.
Gas pipeline explosion in El-Arish, Egypt

Gas Pipeline Blast 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

The Egyptian army has deployed hundreds of additional soldiers to the northern Sinai Peninsula to guard a pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel, Egyptian security officials said Thursday.

An Israeli defense official said Jerusalem had agreed to the deployment, which followed a February 5 explosion at a gas terminal in the area that disrupted the flow of gas to Israel and Jordan. Security officials said a bomb had caused the blast at the el- Arish terminal, while Egypt’s natural gas company said it had been caused by a gas leak.

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The troop deployment is in addition to the roughly 800 troops Israel agreed to let Egypt move to north Sinai in late January for the first time since the countries made peace three decades ago. Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt, and in return, Egypt agreed to leave the area demilitarized.

The Egyptian security officials said the soldiers had been taking up positions along the line since Tuesday.

Also Thursday, at least 1,500 workers from the Suez Canal Authority protested in three Egyptian cities alongside the strategic waterway, demanding better pay and working conditions. The workers, however, vowed their protest would not disrupt traffic through the canal.

The workers, mainly administrative and technical employees with the canal authority, said they were not receiving the required government pay increases and that the authority adopts a two-tiered system that provides better benefits to professional employees.

About 500 people protested in front of the authority’s headquarters in the city of Ismailia, east of Cairo. There were similar protests in Suez to the south and Port Said to the north.

The canal links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and spares shipping the long journey around Africa to reach the Atlantic or the Indian oceans. About one million barrels of oil are shipped through the canal daily.

Also Thursday, anti-corruption campaigners pressed Egypt’s chief prosecutor for an investigation into the assets of former president Hosni Mubarak and his family, handing over documents that they said spotlighted the kind of potentially improper financial dealings that may have allowed the former ruler and his relatives to amass a large fortune.

The family’s wealth – speculation has put it at anywhere from $1 billion to $70b. – has come under growing scrutiny since Mubarak’s February 11 ouster as president opened the floodgates to three decades of pent-up anger at the regime.

Watchdog groups allege that under Mubarak, top officials and tycoons were given preferential treatment in land contracts, were allowed to buy state industries at a fraction of their value during Egypt’s privatization process launched in the early 1990s, and got other perks that enabled them to increase their wealth exponentially.

The perks came at a price – and the Mubaraks were major beneficiaries, the activists say.

“This is the single largest plot against Egypt’s wealth by one family,” said Mamdouh Hamza, a participant in Thursday’s meeting with the chief prosecutor.

Since his ouster, Mubarak has remained secluded in a gated villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, according to a government official who dismissed rumors that Egypt’s ruler of 30 years had left for exile.

The Mubaraks have not commented publicly on the issue and do not have a spokesman. No evidence has been published to back up claims that Mubarak and his sons hold a vast fortune. Mubarak’s salary as president was set by law, as stipulated under the constitution.

A report published by the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies said that in fiscal 2007-08, Mubarak’s salary, including stipends and various allowances, amounted to 4,500 Egyptian pounds ($765). Activists say the salary is now closer to 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,400).

The former president “was from a very modest family and didn’t inherit wealth from his father,” said Muhammad al-Damati, a member of the group. “Since the constitution prevents the president from using his position to do any business, any other wealth he has outside of his salary is considered acquired illegally.”

Unlike other Arab leaders, particularly those in the oilrich Gulf nations, Mubarak was far from ostentatious. Whatever wealth he and his family may have had was rarely – if ever – flaunted.

The most prominent symbol of their presumed fortune that has surfaced was a townhouse in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district, which is listed to Gamal Mubarak and where he was said to have lived while working as an investment banker in the early 1990s.

The townhouse has become a focal point for many in Egypt as foreign governments begin to either enact or consider imposing freezes on their assets.

Switzerland was the first to say it was moving to identify and freeze assets of Mubarak and his family.

The European Union said Tuesday it was considering a request from Egypt to freeze the assets of Mubarak’s top aides. The EU said, however, that no such request had been submitted about Mubarak or his family.

On Thursday, the US office in charge of preventing money laundering said it was ordering banks to apply greater scrutiny to accounts and transactions linked to Egypt political leaders.


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