Jordan's energy minister arrived in Egypt on Tuesday for two days of talks aimed at resuming natural gas supply to the kingdom, after months of disruption some have blamed on the new, Islamist-led government in Cairo.
Concern has been mounting in Jordan that its one-time main supplier has intentionally cut off the gas, possibly in order to stoke popular anger to be channeled by the Jordanian offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, already at loggerheads with the government and driving street protests.
Egypt says it has been focusing its efforts on pipeline maintenance and rising domestic demand, and that it would resume full deliveries next month. But that hasn't eased Jordanian worries.
"We have the right to politically question the behavior of the Egyptian government with regards to its commitment" to a gas deal signed in 2004 which remains valid until 2016, Jordanian government spokesman Sameeh Maaytah said.
The visit by Alaa Batayneh would determine if the energy deal was to continue, or if Amman will seek a new supplier, said another government official, who requested anonymity as he is close to confidential negotiations over the supply's resumption.
The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is locked in a dispute with the state over an election law it says will undercut its representation in parliament in favor of pro-government loyalists. It is boycotting parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 23 and vowing to continue street protests to press for reforms.
If the Egyptian gas supply remains shut down and prices rise, the Brotherhood may grow in popularity if more Jordanians join anti-government street protests in the possible backlash. With four Arab leaders already overturned in the region's wave of uprisings that began last year, the government is wary of possible spillover.
Jordan's two main newspapers highlighted the tension with Egypt in a rare rebuke this week. Both the semi-independent Al-Rai, and the Islamic-liberal Ad-Dustour dailies used similar language in their editorials, accusing Egypt of "running out of excuses and justifications for resuming full gas supplies to Jordan."
The critique has also resonated further afield.
Last week, a columnist in London's Asharq Al Awsat newspaper accused Egypt of trying to fuel domestic instability in Jordan. Egypt seeks to "fan the fire of Jordan's domestic crisis" by further pressuring it economically to allow the country's Islamist opposition to continue street protests, wrote columnist Tareq Hmeid.
Even the weekly Jordanian Sheehan, normally a vocal critic of Jordan's government, wrote that the country's Muslim Brotherhood sought to "boost its opposition of Jordan's policy and reforms by moving from street protests to street violence," with the blessing of its mother group in Egypt.
Until Egypt's January 2011 uprising, it provided 80 percent of Jordan's needs for powering electricity plants. The supply was interrupted at least 20 times — sometimes for several weeks — over the past 16 months, often due to armed attacks on the gas pipeline in Egypt's Sinai desert. The pipeline network also supplies Israel.
Since this year began, the supply dropped to a mere 16 percent of the agreed amount, and the flow was cut off entirely last month, Jordanian energy ministry records show.
The official close to the negotiations said Amman "doubted" Egyptian officials "have the political will" to resume the gas exports. "The sabotage stopped, but the gas never returned," he said, insisting on anonymity, citing possible sensitivities with Egypt over his bold remarks.
With each disruption, Jordan has been forced to resort to costlier heavy fuel oil, which has pushed the state-owned national electricity company close to bankruptcy with a deficit reaching a record high $3.5 billion. The government continued to partially subsidize electricity at a cost of $7 million a day, forcing the state deficit — already burdened by a multibillion dollar foreign debt — to yet another record high. Authorities have given several warnings of imminent blackouts.
Egyptian officials did not comment on suggestions the Islamist-led government was purposely reducing Jordan's gas supply for political reasons. An official in Egypt's Ministry of Petroleum confirmed, however, that Batayneh and his Egyptian counterpart, Osama Kamal, agreed that Egypt would gradually re-pump gas to Jordan this month and resume full supplies starting next month.
The official blamed the inconsistent supply on maintenance, adding that Egypt suspended its gas export contracts amid soaring levels of domestic consumption. The priority will go to domestic Egyptian needs, particularly in the northern Sinai, he said, insisting on anonymity because he is not allowed to brief reporters.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.