Damietta port reopens but MOPCO dispute far from resolved

Ahram Online, reuters , Friday 18 Nov 2011

Protesters against environmentally damaging factory allow reopening of port after 11 days; negotiations continue amid demands for investigation into factory's environmental impact

Demietta port
Hundreds of Damiettans have been closing the Damietta port for 11 days in protest of what they describe as the Death Factories referring to an environmentally damaging petrochemicals factory inside the port (photo by: Bassam El Zughby)

Egypt’s Damietta port reopened its gates on Friday morning following negotiations between protesters, the government and factory management.  

Hundreds of protesters had forced the Mediterranean port’s closure for eleven days in protest at environmentally damaging petrochemical “death factories.” 

Omar Abdel-Salam, a leading protester against MOPCO, the company that owns the factories, told Ahram Online that following negotiations protesters had agreed to remove roadblocks leading to the port and this would be officially announced in the city’s mosques at Friday prayers.

Prominent architect and political activist Mamdouh Hamza who played a major role in mediating the deal, said further negotiations are expected concerning the factory’s future and he would demand the formation of an international committee to study its environmental impact.

The ruling military council announced early this week that MOPCO would close the factory, but this did not satisfy the protesters who demanded the factory be dismantled  immediately because they don't trust the government’s promises.

Conflicts between local people and the authorities have been ongoing since 2008, when ‎Agrium, a Canadian company, began constructing a petrochemical plant near the Damietta seaport in a ‎deal signed with the government in 2006. Despite suggestions that it would be shut down and ‎the company compensated, the factory has continued to operate after being sold to MOPCO.

‎"Reopening the port and unblocking the road does not mean our protests is over," protester Ahmed Omar told Ahram Online. "This is merely a goodwill gesture to prove we are not thugs or a mob, just people fighting for their right to live."

Last Sunday one person was killed and at least 11 wounded in clashes between the army and protesters outside the factory, jointly owned by the state-owned Misr Oil Processing Company (MOPCO) and Canada's Agrium, which retained a 26 per cent stake in the company.

MOPCO chief executive officer Medhat Youssef told Reuters the Damietta plant was suffering heavy losses due to the protests and might be unable to repay its debts if it were forced out of the country.

"I agree to the formation of a neutral committee to investigate the case provided everyone accepts its decision," he told a news conference at the plant's administrative office in Cairo. He gave no details of who might sit on this committee.

"The factory is losing 19 million Egyptian pounds (US$3.2 million) daily due to the halt of production as a result of the protests," he said. "The Egyptian banking system would also suffer a lot if the factory moved out of Egypt as the company borrowed $1.7 billion from Egyptian banks and it would not be able to pay them back if it left."

Amid investors' concerns, the main Egyptian stock index closed down 1.1 percent on Thursday.

Youssef said he was holding talks with the factory’s Canadian part owner to prevent it seeking international arbitration, but gave no further details.

The protesters first took to the streets on 8 November and had forced the closure of the port and nearby roads since last Sunday.

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