Sherif Ismail was named Egypt’s new prime minister on Saturday, tasked by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with forming a new government, after surviving two cabinet reshuffles as petroleum minister.
Ismail was petroleum minister under then-Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi in 2013, in the cabinet that followed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then under Ibrahim Mehleb in 2014.
As a fresh graduate from the faculty of engineering at Ain Shams University in 1978, Ismail dove head first into the oil industry, working at Mobil, and moving a year later to the Egyptian company — Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries (ENPPI), before joining its board of directors.
He got his foot in the door in 2000, when he served as deputy minister of petroleum until 2005, after which he became the chairperson of the Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS).
A source from the oil sector, who has known Ismail closely, describes him as a “hard working” man.
Media reports have linked him to the gas export deals in the early 2000s, but the source says his involvement was out of good will.
“He was happy about the export of gas to Jordan, Spain and Israel, considering it to be a lucrative activity bringing hard currency to the country.” The source adds that, back then, Sameh Fahmy, the minister of petroleum, conveyed this thinking to all those surrounding him.
Many of those working on the gas deals were given inaccurate data regarding the volume of reserves and production costs, as well as consumption calculations, the source claims. Ismail, among others, was convinced there was a cheap surplus of gas, and that the margin of profit they were making from the export deals was high.
In 2006 and 2007, several ministers in the cabinet wanted to pressure Fahmy to conduct reviews of the gas deals, and Ismail was at the forefront of negotiations with importing countries. Some of the contracts were reviewed.
Fahmy eventually sent Ismail to run the national Ganoub al-Wadi Petroleum Holding Company, where he stayed until 2013, when he was appointed minister of petroleum under Beblawy. The source believes that sending Ismail to this company was a personal attempt by Fahmy to sideline him.
In the court case against Fahmy, Ismail was a witness, even though he had signed off on some of the deals. “Good intentions were assumed in this case,” the source asserts.
Describing Ismail as a “technocrat par excellence,” the source believes that the main reason behind his appointment is his apolitical nature, which he says won’t present a challenge to Sisi’s leadership. Ismail is not a media figure and won’t embroil himself in controversy, he adds.
“He will be very obedient, and there will be a push for him to stay after parliament is convened,” the source predicts.
The upcoming parliament’s majority is expected to agree to the composition of the new cabinet, and if confidence is not obtained, Sisi will have to appoint a prime minister based on the nomination of the biggest parliamentary coalition.
In an article in Youm7 last November (republished by Al-Bedaiah), Ismail was praised by Mohamed Fouda, the main suspect in the ministry of agriculture corruption case. Titled, “A fighter with a ministerial rank,” Fouda asserted that, although Ismail keeps a low profile, his achievements speak for him.
Fouda wrote that, in his role as petroleum minister, Ismail fought a war against chronic problems, such as the energy crisis, bureaucracy and other policies left behind by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The source from the oil sector suggests Ismail was chosen precisely because of this experience and the importance of a recent major natural gas discovery in the Mediterranean by Italian energy company Eni Spa.
Ismail was born in July 1955, is married, and has two children.