A sharing of power, literally, in the Middle EastSep 24, 1998 - John Falchetto - The Associated Press
CAIRO - When someone switches on the television in Jordan these days, the image on the screen may be powered by electricity generated in Egypt.
The two countries have linked their power systems as the first step toward a proposed electricity grid extending east to the Persian Gulf and west to Morocco and even to Europe.
The Egypt-Jordan link is being tested now and should begin commercial operation next month. The power is carried by cables that are lifted over the Suez Canal by 740-foot-tall towers, then run along the floor of the Gulf of Aqaba between the two nations.
A link between Jordan and Syria is expected to be finished next year, and one between Syria and Turkey is scheduled for completion in 2000.
As almost always in the Middle East, the beginning step was a long time coming. The grander plan for the entire region is still held up by war and politics. Iraq's system is too damaged to join in; Israel isn't welcome for now.
Why they are linking
Jordanian and Egyptian officials say their link alone will mean steadier electricity - and cost savings, because they will be able to trade power during peak hours of consumption.
"Down the line, this will make electricity cheaper for consumers," said Waddah Naboulsi, general director of the Arab Union of Producers, Transporters and Distributors of Electricity, a regional group.
The Egypt-Jordan link should save Jordan $7 million annually in its first year or two and much more in the future because it will reduce the need for new power plants, said Waiel Sabri, executive manager of Jordanian Electrical Power Co.
Maher Abaza, Egyptian minister of electricity, said more than cost is involved.
"These new connections will reduce the need for a strategic (generating) surplus and make our system safer" from blackouts, he said.
If power fails in one country, "it will be very easy to instantly send power to the state in difficulty," he said.
Decade in the making
Jordanian and Egyptian officials said an important aspect of the project is that it should form the base for the far broader power grid.
The ambitious project started in 1988 with plans to include five nations - Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq. It was estimated that making the links would cost $450 million but would lead to savings of $2 billion a year by using excess generating capacity in each country at nonpeak times.
Since then, Israel has proposed links to the two countries with which it shares good relations, Egypt and Jordan. Links to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and across North Africa are being discussed. Further extensions to Sicily from Tunisia and to Spain from Morocco are envisioned.
In the initial five-state system, each country is upgrading its own electrical infrastructure through loans from the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development. Each must meet a regional standard before connecting to the network.
Ten years after the idea was conceived, the Jordan-Egypt link is the first in the originally planned five-nation grid. Egypt and its North African neighbor, Libya, opened a line in June.
"Egypt exchanges electricity with Libya almost daily," said Mohammed Abdel Latif, chief engineer of the Egyptian Electricity Agency.
Why it took so long
The delay in creating the larger regional system stems mostly from politics, including complications from the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Iraq is still under U.N. sanctions, imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, that prohibit almost all trade with the country. Its electrical system also is still too crippled from the Gulf War.
Another potential partner in the system, Lebanon, is still rebuilding its electrical network from the devastating 1975-90 civil war.
Another question is linkage with Israel. Egypt and Jordan are willing to eventually make that link but say it must wait for peace between the Jewish state and other Arab neighbors.
"Any link with Israel (now) would lead to Syria withdrawing from the project," said Abaza, the Egyptian electricity minister. "Without Syria the grid is incomplete, and there is no way of connecting to Turkey without passing through Syria."