TIME Egypt

ISIS Claims Credit for Attacks on Egyptian Army Checkpoints That Kill 50

Egypt Sinai
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa—Reuters Smoke rises in Egypt's North Sinai as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt on July 1, 2015.

The attacks come two days after the assassination of the country's top prosecutor

(EL-ARISH, Egypt) — Islamist militants on Wednesday unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.

The coordinated morning assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt’s president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country’s state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo.

The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.

An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in the nearby city of el-Arish.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.

Except for the attack at the officers’ club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, the officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armored vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

At least 54 other soldiers were wounded, the officials said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armored carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.

Egypt’s military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, said clashes were still underway in the area between the armed forces and the militants. His statement put the number of soldiers killed so far at 10, but the conflicting numbers could not immediately be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of a major attack.

Samir’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, said some 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 off them and destroyed three all-terrain vehicles fitted with antiaircraft guns.

The officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside.

Northern Sinai has over the past two years witnessed a series of complex and successful attacks targeting Egyptian security forces, many of which have been claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.

Two of the six checkpoints attacked Wednesday were completely destroyed, the officials said. Army checkpoints in the area routinely have between 50 and 60 soldiers. The IS statement said the two checkpoints were hit by suicide bombers.

The attacks came just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and one day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.

Last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called in an audio message on IS followers to launch massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is now entering its third week.

Militants in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, have battled security forces for years but stepped up their attacks following the July 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after days of mass street protests against his rule.

El-Sissi, then the nation’s army chief, led the ouster and went to become Egypt’s president, winning a landslide election a year ago on a ticket that emphasized security and economic recovery.

Wednesday’s attacks came in swift response to el-Sissi’s pledge the previous day to carry out justice for the prosecutor general’s assassination — and possibly move to execute Muslim Brotherhood leaders, an Islamist group from which Morsi hails.

Pounding his fist as he spoke Tuesday at the funeral of Barakat, who led the prosecution and oversaw scores of cases against thousands of Islamists, el-Sissi’s comments seemed to signal an even tougher campaign on the Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamist group that is now outlawed and declared a terrorist organization.

Egypt has since Morsi’s ouster waged a crackdown that has led to thousands of arrests, mass convictions and death sentences. Morsi is among those condemned to die, but has a potentially lengthy appeal process ahead of him.

El-Sissi said the government was ready to brush aside criticisms and free the judiciary’s hand for a “battle” the country is prepared to wage.

“The judiciary is restricted by laws, and swift justice is also restricted by laws. We will not wait for that,” el-Sissi said.

Action will be taken within days “to enable us to execute the law, and bring justice as soon as possible,” he said. “We will stand in the face of the whole world, and fight the whole world.”

In a thinly veiled reference to jailed members of the Brotherhood, el-Sissi blamed the violence on those “issuing orders from behind bars,” and warned: “If there is a death sentence, it will be carried out.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt State Prosecutor Dies After Cairo Bomb Attack

Hisham Barakat
Anadolu Agency — Getty Images Members of the Egyptian security services inspect the scene of a bombing targeting the convoy of the Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, in a northern suburb of Heliopolis, Cairo, on June 29, 2015.

Hisham Barakat is first top official to be assassinated since President Morsi's ouster in 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s official news agency says the country’s state prosecutor has died of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his convoy in a Cairo suburb.

MENA says the 65-year-old Hisham Barakat died in a Cairo hospital on Monday after undergoing a critical surgery.

He is the first top Egyptian official to be assassinated since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi two years ago.

Hours earlier, a strong explosion had ripped through Barakat’s convoy in the busy upscale eastern suburb of Heliopolis as he was driving to his office in the downtown.

The attack came as Egyptian security forces were already on high alert on the eve of the second anniversary of massive anti-Islamist demonstrations that paved the way, days later, for the military’s ouster of Morsi.

TIME Germany

Al-Jazeera Journalist Detained in Germany to Be Freed

Ahmed Mansour
AP This undated handout photo provided courtesy of Al-Jazeera, shows Ahmed Mansour, 52, a prominent journalist with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera broadcaster's Arabic service.

Ahmed Mansour was detained in Berlin on an Egyptian warrant

(BERLIN) — Al-Jazeera says its journalist who was detained in Berlin on an Egyptian arrest warrant is being released from custody.

According to the Qatar-based broadcaster, Ahmed Mansour’s attorney said that German prosecutors had agreed to release the 52-year-old journalist on Monday afternoon. He was detained Saturday on an Egyptian warrant at Berlin’s Tegel airport as he tried to board a Qatar Airways flight to Doha.

Prosecutors could not immediately be reached to confirm the report and Mansour’s attorney Patrick Teubner declined to comment.

Mansour, who holds dual Egyptian-British nationality, was convicted in absentia in Egypt on charges that his lawyers and reporters’ groups call politically motivated.

TIME Egypt

Senior al-Jazeera Reporter Ahmed Mansour Detained in Germany on Egypt’s Request

JOHN MACDOUGALL—AFP/Getty Images Supporters of ousted Egyptian Islamist president Mohamed Morsi stage a demonstration to ask for the release of detained Al-Jazeera journalist Ahmed Mansour in front of the local court of Berlin's Tiergarten district, where Mansour is being held in custody on June 21, 2015

Protesters are demanding the 52-year-old's immediate release

Ahmed Mansour, a presenter for al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language channel, has been arrested in Berlin at the request of the Egyptian government.

The New York Times says it’s the first time a Western government has acted to comply with one of Egypt’s many extradition requests. An extradition hearing will take place on Monday, according to the BBC.

In 2014, Mansour was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia by an Egyptian court. The 52-year-old Egyptian national was convicted of torturing a lawyer during the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising. He denies the charges.

Mansour was arrested at Tegel airport in Berlin as he boarded a flight to Qatar, where his employer is based. Since former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013, al-Jazeera has been critical of the current government, headed by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the New York Times reports.

Protesters gathered outside the facility where Mansour is being held on Sunday to demand his release.

“It is quite ludicrous that a country like Germany would enforce and support such a request made by a dictatorial regime like the one we have in Egypt,” Mansour said in a video he recorded while in the Berlin prison.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Court Upholds Death Sentence for Ousted President Morsi

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi trial
Mohamed Mahmoud—Anadolu Agency—Getty Images Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gestures as he stands inside the defendants' cage in a courtroom during his trial in Cairo, June 02, 2015.

Over 2011 prison break

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court has confirmed a death sentence handed to ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi over a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising that eventually brought him to power.

Judge Shaaban al-Shami confirmed the ruling Tuesday after consulting with the country’s religious authority as required by Egyptian law in cases involving the death penalty. The religious authority issues non-binding opinions on such sentences.

The ruling will automatically be appealed. The judge also confirmed death sentences for five other jailed leading members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.

The military overthrew and detained Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, in July 2013 amid massive protests demanding his resignation.

TIME Egypt

Suicide Bomber Attacks Ancient Egyptian Temple in Luxor

Police and people stand near the scene of a foiled suicide attack in Luxor, Egypt on June 10, 2015.
Reuters Police and people stand near the scene of a foiled suicide attack in Luxor, Egypt on June 10, 2015.

Four people were injured at the popular tourist destination

LUXOR, Egypt — A suicide bomber blew himself up on Wednesday just steps away from the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak in Luxor, a southern city visited by millions of tourists every year, security and health officials said.

Shortly after the explosion, police exchanged fire with and killed two suspected Islamic militants who had arrived at the sprawling, Nile-side temple together with the suicide bomber, the officials said.

Four people, including two policemen, were wounded in the exchange, according to the Health Ministry.

There were only a handful of tourists and Egyptians inside the temple at the time of the late morning attack, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Wednesday’s attack was the first to target world-famous attractions in Luxor since November 1997, when Islamic militants opened fire on tourists at the city’s 3,400-year-old Hatshepsut Temple on the west bank of the Nile, killing 58.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Luxor, home to some of Egypt’s most famous ancient temples and pharaonic tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun. The city has been hit hard by a downturn in foreign visitors during the years of unrest since Egypt’s 2011 uprising.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, but it bore the hallmarks of Islamic militants who have been battling security forces in the strategic Sinai Peninsula for years. Extremists in Sinai have targeted tourism sites to try to deny the government a key source of revenue.

Last year, the Sinai-based insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, which has destroyed famed archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as idolatrous.

The campaign of violence in Sinai accelerated and spread to other parts of Egypt following the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The militants say the attacks are in revenge for a massive crackdown on Islamists underway in Egypt.

The attack on the Luxor temple, which sits on the east bank of the Nile, comes as tourism was beginning to show signs of recovery after a four-year slump following the uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

TIME Egypt

Egyptian Court Sentences 11 to Death Over 2012 Soccer Riot

Mideast Egypt al-ahly soccer
Hassan Ammar—AP A supporter of the Al-Ahly club awaits the verdict against 11 people for their role in a deadly 2012 soccer riot that killed more than 70 people in the city of Port Said, outside a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo, June 9, 2015.

The riot had caused more than 70 deaths and several hundred injuries

(CAIRO) — A criminal court in Egypt’s coastal city of Port Said on Tuesday sentenced 11 people to death over a 2012 soccer riot that left more than 70 dead and several hundreds injured.

The verdict, read by presiding judge Mohammed el-Said, came at the end of the retrial of 73 defendants in a case that sparked deadly riots in 2013 in Port Said, prompting then-President Mohammed Morsi to declare a state of emergency in the city.

Also Tuesday, the court sentenced 40 defendants to up to 15 years in prison and acquitted the rest.

The verdicts can be appealed.

The earlier trial ended in March 2013 when 21 defendants were sentenced to death, while others received jail terms that ranged from one to 25 years in prison. Twenty-eight were acquitted. The rulings were appealed and a retrial was ordered by Egypt’s Court of Cassation in February last year.

The February 2012 riot began at the end of a league match in Port Said between Cairo’s Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most successful club, and home side Al-Masry. The riot, Egypt’s worst and among the world’s deadliest, led to the temporary suspension of Egypt’s top flight soccer league. The league later resumed, but with matches played in empty stadiums.

The first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums was played in February this year, but that occasion was also marred by the death of 22 fans in a stampede outside the grounds. The stampede followed the use of tear gas by police to stop what authorities at the time said was an attempt by fans to storm the military-owned stadium in a suburb east of Cairo.

In the Port Said incident on Feb. 2, 2012, Al-Masry fans attacked Al-Ahly supporters with knives, clubs and rocks after the match. Witnesses and survivors described victims falling from the bleachers as they tried to escape. Hundreds of others fled into an exit passage, only to be crushed against a locked gate with their rivals attacking from behind.

At one point, the stadium lights went out, plunging it into darkness. The match’s TV sportscaster explained that authorities shut them off to “calm the situation.”

Among those sentenced on Tuesday were Port Said’s police chief and another senior police officer, both receiving five-year jail sentences. Al-Masry’s executive director Mohsen Shettah and a stadium official in charge of the lighting were also sentenced to five years in prison.

Most of the victims of the 2012 riot belonged to Al-Ahly’s “Ultras,” an association of hard-core fans who have long been at sharp odds with the nation’s highly militarized police, taunting them with offensive slogans during matches and fighting them in street battles. Hard-core fans of other clubs also identify themselves by variations on the Ultras name.

Ultras members have been credited with playing a major role in the 18-day popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well as subsequent street clashes with police. They were among the chief defenders of Tahrir Square, the uprising’s epicenter in central Cairo, when Mubarak loyalists charged protesters on Feb. 2, 2011, one of the deadliest days of the uprising.

Tuesday’s verdict followed a court ruling last month that banned the Ultras belonging to Al-Ahly and other sports clubs over charges that the groups are involved in terrorism.

Judge el-Said on Tuesday said the various Ultras associations have been led astray by individuals with “ulterior” motives, filling their heads with ideas like sacrificing their lives for their clubs as a duty.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Leader Tries to Rule as a One-Man Show After a Year in Office

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Bernd von Jutrczenka—picture-alliance/AP Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin on June 3, 2015.

A far cry from the democracy millions dreamed of

(CAIRO) — The words of the pro-government TV talk show host left no room for debate. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is synonymous with Egypt, he lectured his audience, and Egyptians are either on his side or are enemies of the nation.

“Whoever has a problem living in this country should grab his passport and leave,” said the TV host, Tamer Amin, telling viewers no one should complain about price hikes, power outages or other problems.

A year after the general-turned-politician took office in a landslide election win, el-Sissi largely has silenced political opposition and is trying to run the country as a one-man show, a far cry from the democracy millions dreamed of when they toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a stunning 2011 uprising.

A nation of some 90 million people, Egypt has had no parliament since 2012, political parties are quiescent and elections for a new legislature have been repeatedly delayed — meaning there’s little concrete debate on policy. Laws simply are issued by the presidency.

Police and powerful security agencies act with near impunity against opponents or those trying to engage in unwelcome political activity. Rights activists report a return of torture, abuses and arbitrary arrests surpassing even the 29-year Mubarak era. A strict law against protests in place since late 2013 effectively silenced street demonstrations.

The judiciary also has backed the security agencies’ heavy hand in ways unseen under Mubarak’s rule. Courts hand out mass death sentences — about 1,500 so far by some estimates — against Islamists, thousands of whom are in prison in a nearly 2-year-old crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular and leftist pro-democracy activists are jailed as well, some given long prison sentences for even small, peaceful protests.

“No one is certain now that we are on the right path or that there is hope at the end of a long tunnel,” prominent analyst Abdullah el-Sinawy, known for being close to the military, wrote last week in a column that harshly scrutinized el-Sissi’s legacy so far.

El-Sissi “does not have a magic wand to solve the insurmountable problems,” el-Sinawy wrote, but he said el-Sissi should do more to break with the Mubarak era. He pointed to how Mubarak-era businessmen have regained the power and impunity they enjoyed under the former president.

El-Sissi became Egypt’s most powerful figure when, as army chief, he led the July 2013 military ouster of the country’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after massive public protests against Morsi and the political domination of his Muslim Brotherhood. A bloody crackdown ensued, killing hundreds of Islamists.

Praised by many Egyptians as a hero for “rescuing” the country from the Brotherhood, el-Sissi vowed from the start to bring security and repair the economy, saying outright that demands for rights and needless political debate cannot be allowed to undermine those goals. That message vaulted him into the presidency in elections, and he was inaugurated on June 8, 2014.

He still seems to enjoy strong popularity among large sectors of the population who see him as the only figure strong enough to lead. What grumbling that has become public largely come from supporters like el-Sinawi, warning him that he needs to show progress and change.

Some have debated whether el-Sissi supports the silencing of dissent or can’t impose his will on the many centers of power in the Egyptian state, which he needs for support and which have their own agendas — like the judiciary, the media, wealthy businessmen and the security agencies.

“State institutions are the most powerful and dangerous opposition to el-Sissi,” read the headline of a column this week by Ibrahim Issa, a prominent commentator close to the government.

“What the president says and what happens on the ground are two different things,” Issa wrote in the Al-Maqal newspaper.

Issa’s assertion highlights the strength and resilience of Egypt’s “deep state,” the term many pro-democracy activists use for the powerful state bodies like the military, police and judiciary that have their own independent power and interests. El-Sissi is no outsider to the deep state, but his repeated demands for change and hard work and warnings that prosperity won’t come overnight could run against those institutions’ interests.

El-Sissi has been able to bring some improvements to the economy. Egypt’s relations with the United States and Europe have improved after a period of tension, a change attributed in large part to el-Sissi’s stand against Islamic militancy in the region. El-Sissi’s Egypt also has moved closer to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, bringing billions of dollars in badly needed aid.

El-Sissi has accompanied his tough stand on militancy with calls for far reaching reform in Islam’s discourse to weed out extremism and replace it with moderate practices. He has been a driving force behind ongoing efforts to create a joint Arab military force to fight extremism.

Security has been more difficult to establish. Army and police are battling Islamic militants concentrated in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, and there are frequent bombings — usually small but sometimes deadly — against security forces in Cairo and other parts of the country.

That “war on terrorism” has allowed a freer hand to security agencies and fuels the overwhelming message on television stations that now is not the time for dissent.

Die-hard supporters in the media demonize critics, accusing them of treason or being on the payroll of foreign powers. One private TV channel has aired recordings of private telephone conversations by political activists and rights campaigners, apparently leaked by security officials, to discredit them. TV hosts — or even shows — seen as insufficiently supportive of the government have been taken off the air.

Non-governmental organizations, which had a relatively wide leeway under Mubarak, are now under heavy security scrutiny and in some cases have halted any controversial activities. Multiple international rights organizations have left the country.

Prominent rights lawyer Negad Borai was questioned three times by prosecutors over the past two weeks because he and other activists drew up a proposed law against torture and sent it to el-Sissi’s office for consideration. Two senior judges who were briefly consulted on the draft are likely to be disciplined by judiciary authorities.

“Our predicament is deep. In Egypt, the only crime that goes unpunished is torture,” Borai said.

Some supporters of el-Sissi have called for the anti-protest law, which requires that any demonstration get prior police approval, be lifted or amended. But el-Sissi has staunchly stood by it. The law’s proponents argue it prevents the constant protests that had disrupted life since 2011.

After one court recently issued a rare acquittal of a group of activists charged under the law, prosecutors immediately appealed in a show of the state’s zero tolerance policy. The activists had been charged because of a small Cairo gathering in January in which one participant — a young mother — was shot dead by police.

“The inclination (by the judiciary) has consistently been to reach a guilty verdict, not acquittals,” said Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, who represents the defendants.

Further intimidating any critics, prosecutors now aggressively investigate almost any complaint raised by “concerned citizens” against people suspected of supporting Islamists, criticizing the judiciary, the presidency or religion — all potentially criminal acts.

Flashing the four-finger sign symbolizing support for the Brotherhood, now outlawed and labeled a terrorist group, has led to trials and jail sentences. With authorities concerned about showing they back public piety even as they crack down on Islamists, writing irreverently on Islam or shows of atheism online have been a cause for arrest.

El-Sissi’s rise to power was accompanied by a wave of nationalism not seen in Egypt since the country’s wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973. The sentiment has been kept alive with seemingly endless allegations that the Brotherhood is secretly favored by the United States or that secular pro-democracy activists are paid by foreign powers to destabilize Egypt.

A populist with a knack for melodramatic gestures, el-Sissi feeds this nationalist sentiment with personal touches of his own and repeated warnings that Egypt faced a host of existential threats. His slogan “long live Egypt” often concludes his speeches — and has even been painted on his presidential plane.

Meeting recently with party leaders, el-Sissi said parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year, according to his spokesman. But he also told them he would be prepared to back a coalition encompassing all the parties, suggesting he does not want an opposition bloc in the next legislature.

“The nation’s legislative institution has disappeared, political party activism is suspended and no one is left on the scene except the president,” wrote Cairo university political scientist Ahmed Abed-Rabbo in a recent article.


TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Former President To Be Retried Over Killing of Protesters

In his courtroom cage, Hosni Mubarak frowns as he listens to his life sentence verdict on June 2, 2012.
AP In his courtroom cage, Hosni Mubarak frowns as he listens to his life sentence verdict on June 2, 2012.

Hosni Mubarak will face a third trial in connection with the killing of 900 protesters in 2011

CAIRO — Egypt’s highest appeals court on Thursday ordered the retrial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak on charges that he failed to stop the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that ended his 29-year rule.

The ruling set Nov. 5 as the date for the start of the new trial, the verdict of which cannot be appealed. It would be the third time that Mubarak is tried in connection with the killings in 2011.

Mubarak, who is 86 and in failing health, has since his arrest in April 2011 been held in detention in a number of hospitals. He now resides at a Nile-side military hospital in a leafy suburb just south of Cairo.

The ruling came six months after a criminal court dismissed murder charges against Mubarak in connection with the killing of the protesters, citing the “inadmissibility” of the case due to a technicality.

That ruling marked a major setback for the young activists who spearheaded the Arab Spring uprising in January and February 2011, many of whom are now in jail or have withdrawn from politics in the face of an ongoing crackdown by authorities.

Judge Mahmoud al-Rashidi said at the time that he dismissed the case against Mubarak because his May 2011 referral to trial by prosecutors ignored the “implicit” decision that no criminal charges be filed against him when his security chief and six top aides were referred to trial by the same prosecutors two months earlier. Massive protests demanding that Mubarak be put on trial took place in April of that year.

An appeal demanding a retrial of Mubarak’s security chief and the six top police commanders, also acquitted in November, was rejected on Thursday.

The killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising remains a contentious issue, with activists and rights groups demanding that police be held accountable. Dozens of policemen charged with killing protesters have been acquitted or received suspended or light sentences.

Mohammed Morsi, a prominent Islamist, won Egypt’s first free presidential election in 2012, but ruled for just a year before the military overthrew him amid massive protests demanding his resignation. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief led Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, was elected president a year ago.

Since Morsi’s ouster, pro-government media have increasingly blamed the violence during the 2011 uprising on his Muslim Brotherhood, which is now outlawed as a terrorist group.


TIME energy

Could Middle East Switch From Oil to Renewable Superpower?

Getty Images

Decreasing prices in solar power could provide opportunities for oil-poor countries

Even as Saudi Arabian officials continue to tout its shift to renewable energy, it may be oil-poor countries in the region like Jordan and Egypt that can benefit sooner from falling prices in solar power.

“Costs have halved in just three years,” energy consultant Robin Mills noted last week, “meaning solar can now beat all conventional generation apart from the very cheapest gas.”

Mills cited the bids in Jordan’s recent solar auction, which were just over 6 US cents per kilowatt-hour. These were just slightly above the record 5.84 cents from Acwa Power last November for the 200 MW second phase of Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park.

It could be Egypt’s turn next, Mills suggested, as the North African country struggles with a gas and power crisis and is reportedly working on 6,500 MW of solar deals.

“Petroleum-poor countries such as Jordan should seize the opportunity now to boost their economic and energy security,” Mills, the head of consulting for Dubai-based Manaar Energy, urged in an article for Abu Dhabi’s “The National.”

In general, the expert said, any country burning oil for power – including oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran as well as oil-poor countries like Jordan and Egypt – should replace this with solar as much as possible.

Egypt, as well as Kuwait and Dubai, could also save on imported liquefied natural gas by switching to solar, even though LNG prices have dropped sharply, he said.

The prospects for solar in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region are even more promising than forecasted in Manaar’s optimistic 2012 study, “Sunrise in the Desert,” Mills said.

The new evidence of plunging costs for solar in MENA come as Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali al-Naimi reiterated the kingdom’s plans to become a “global power” in solar and wind energy.

“In Saudi Arabia, we recognize that eventually, one of these days, we’re not going to need fossil fuels,” Naimi said at a climate change conference this month [May] in Paris. “I don’t know when – 2040, 2050 or thereafter. So we have embarked on a program to develop solar energy.”

The recent decline in oil prices won’t make solar power uneconomic, the influential official said. “I believe solar will be even more economic than fossil fuels,” Naimi told those attending the Business & Climate Summit at Unesco headquarters.

With its previously announced plans to develop solar and wind power, Saudi Arabia hopes one day to be exporting “gigawatts of electric power” instead of fossil fuels.

The 2012 report from Manaar, produced in collaboration with PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Emirates Solar Industry Association, identified half a dozen different ways various countries in the MENA region can benefit from increased use of solar power.

For one group – Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and the northern emirates in United Arab Emirates – solar power can save on high-cost oil imports. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria, solar can free up domestic oil consumption for export. For others, like Dubai and Tunisia, it can save on high-cost gas imports.

Other countries – Iraq, Libya and Yemen – can rely on solar while developing domestic gas resources. Another group – including Algeria, Abu Dhabi, Iran, and Oman – can free up gas consumption for export. Qatar, which limits gas exports as a matter of policy, is a case apart and would not find solar economic in the immediate future.

In short, solar has enormous benefits for nearly all countries in the region, even when taking into consideration their different circumstances.

In his new article, Mills sees the region poised to enter a third generation of solar power development, after a first generation of heavily subsidized pilot projects and the current generation becoming the cheapest energy source on its own.

The third generation must address the problem of intermittency, he says – meeting the need for electricity outside periods of maximum solar output. Possible solutions include grid interconnections with countries that have different demand patterns; energy storage, especially if there are further breakthroughs on battery costs; and better demand management.

Another issue that needs to be addressed in the third generation, Mills said, is meeting the demand for desalinated water. This is currently dealt with by using the waste heat from gas-burning power plants. Possible solar solutions would use solar electricity to drive reverse osmosis plants or use the sun’s heat directly for desalination.

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

More from Oilprice.com:

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com