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Will Egypt’s gas to Lebanon end the East Med energy dispute?

December 25, 2021 at 3:28 pm

A view of the platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea is pictured from the Israeli northern coastal city of Caesarea on 19 December, 2019 [JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images]

The last quarter of 2021 has witnessed Egypt striking a deal with Lebanon to export natural gas to the country in the first quarter of 2022.

The first time the agreement was made public was through the US State Department’s senior advisor for global energy security Amos Hochstein. His announcment was a clear indication that the plan was essentially an American construct designed to be a “conflict resolution” measure to help decrease the impact of Lebanon’s economic free-fall.

Apart from its control by a militia whose prolonged regional wars have stifled economic growth, Lebanon’s latest political nightmare is reflected in the energy and electricity outages that  have it the country. Lebanese citizens have been struggling with the state’s electric company, Electricité du Liban, and the complete shut down of the country’s electricity grid after its two main power stations ran out of fuel.

According to Bel Trew, a Beirut-based journalist, Lebanon now has zero state power, meaning the entire country is running on private generators.

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“The generators are prohibitively expensive: my last month’s bill was 3.75 million Lira which is $2,500 on official rate and about $250 on the black market. How is the airport running? What about hospitals?” She pionted to these to highlight Lebanon’s chaotic energy situation.

While Lebanon has been experiencing a very difficult energy crisis, the country is also enagaged in a bitter rivalry with other countries, especially Israel over the East Mediterranean’s energy reserves. Attempts to resolve the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel are still in a state of constant flux. In 2019, Lebanon did not sign the East Mediterranean Forum Agreement because it was organised by Israel. As the US is the main supporter of this proposed gas pump from Egypt, the key question is whether the move would be important enough to impact on US mediation efforts between Israel and Lebanon.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (R), Greece's Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis (2nd-R), Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla (2nd-L) and Cypriot Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis (L) attend the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on January 16, 2020 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (R), Greece’s Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis (2nd-R), Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla (2nd-L) and Cypriot Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis (L) attend the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on January 16, 2020 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Although Israel wants to engage with Lebanon on East Med energy policies, Lebanon does not want to join the club because it is still technically at war with Israel. Last May, former ambassador to Cyprus Michael Harari said an Israeli diplomat invited Lebanon to the East Med Forum but Lebanon was reluctant to join under the current circumstances. The US, it appears, is prepared to help Lebanon instead of encouraging hostility from Israel. The main reason for this soft US diplomatic approach towards Lebanon is the support offered by Egypt and France, both of whom exercise considerable political influence in Lebanon.

Ultimately, the US services to Lebanon is intended to connect it to a framework that is beneficial for the region in general, and for Israel especially. After all, Lebanese energy reserves (oil and gas) in the East Med would contribute to the regional potential and aid in Lebanon’s rehabilitation. For the US, it is also vital to support the “wave of normalisation” between Israel and Arab states. This process was created by Abraham Accords despite Israel’s never ending occupations.

Last September, when Ambassador Dorothy Shea met with the energy ministers of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, she said her country had a plan through which Washington would facilitate energy payments to Cairo, on behalf of Beirut, using World Bank assistance funds budgeted for Lebanon. President Michel Aoun, on his part, boasted that Lebanon’s electricity crisis was soon coming to an end.

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On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the Syrian regime is included in this energy plan, despite the Caeser Act. In line with the project, Egyptian gas will be shielded from the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Law. Syrian officials have so far expressed their willingness to facilitate the US plan. Accordingly, Egyptian natural gas will be piped to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria to help boost its electricity output under a plan agreed by the four governments to ease the severe power crisis. If this plan materialises, it will be to the credt of the Biden administration that it was able to reconcile Lebanon with Assad’s Syria in a manner that would end the energy crisis in Lebanon.

To sum up, by using the electricity crisis as a tool of conflict resolution, Washington stands to gain a huge mediating role between Israel and Lebanon in the East Mediterranean energy dispute. And secondly, by sidestepping the Caesar Act, the Biden administration would in effect recognise and grant support to the Assad regime, which is responsible for killing more than 500,000 people during the last 11 years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.