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Egypt eyes new gold-mining era

After a 2,000-year lapse, Egypt is looking to again acquire a gold-mining industry

After a 2,000-year lapse, Egypt is looking to again acquire a gold-mining industry by revisiting ancient deposits of the precious mineral that symbolised the glory of the Pharaohs.
Josef al-Raghy surveys Sukari Hill, a large reddish outcrop in Egypt's Eastern desert dotted with his Centamin company's drilling rigs.

"We already have proven resources of 6.7 million ounces of gold in there which at the current rate of around 600 dollars amounts to around four billion dollars," he says.

"And this is based on barely half of only one hill in our mining concession."

"The sky's the limit," reads an inscription above a yellow-painted diagram of Sukari's resources which decorates the entrance to Raghy's offices at the foot of the hill.

The young Australian entrepreneur can hardly hide the excitement of being on the brink of pioneering the first gold-mining operation of note in Egypt since the Ptolemaic era.

In the early 1990s, his father Sami -- who had successfully exploited gold deposits in Australia for more than two decades -- was inspired to look into the Red Sea Hills' mining potential when he saw an old papyrus map dating back to 1,200 BC in a Turin museum.

The ancient document, believed to be the oldest geological map in the world, showed the locations of ancient pharaonic mines in the inauspicious desert which stretches from the Nile south of Luxor to the Red Sea.

"Our family is from Rageb, a small village not far from here," says Esmat al-Raghy, Josef's uncle and field manager of the mine.

"It's ironic that the family split up to settle in Alexandria, Saudi Arabia and as far as Australia, only to strike gold so close to home. It's back to our roots," says the retired general.

"But make no mistake, this may look like a family business for now but our gold mine is going to change the face of this area," he adds.

Another junior Australian mining company, Gippsland Ltd., is also drilling in the Eastern desert.

So why has the pharaohs' gold not attracted the giants of the mining sector so far?

"The main obstacle is the country's mining laws ... We've been drilling for years and spent 30 million dollars with no returns," Josef explains. "Not many companies are ready to take risks."

But the reform-minded liberal team that took over Egypt's economic portfolios two years ago is laying the foundations for a new legal framework.

"Egypt isn't even on the list of possible mining countries yet ... The reason for it all is the policy framework," said Frank Sader, chief strategist at the Middle and North Africa headquarters of the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank.

The profit-sharing system would deter any major foreign company, he explains. Under the current law, half of Centamin's profits would go straight into government coffers.

"We are going to help the petroleum ministry to work with lawmakers and switch to a royalties system," said Sader. The joint project is due to start in October and yield a new mining code within a year.

"Then we'll hold a conference to tell investors why it's worth looking into Egypt and see if we can kick-start the industry," he added.

"We're looking at major investments and major labour employment potential -- notably outside the main cities. And all this is highly attractive for Egypt."

Centamin Egypt plans to set up a 200-million-dollar processing plant next year with the aim of starting production in early 2008.

"A new mining law will open the flood gates and there'll be a stampede of companies coming through," Josef al-Raghy predicts.

With a 10-year head start, the Australian-Egyptian company will have little competition to worry about in the early stages, leaving Josef's uncle Esmat time to focus on other aspects of the project.

"It'll be called Sukari City," he says.

"We're about to secure a deal with the governor for a large plot of land by the Red Sea for the workers' homes. There will also be schools, a hospital and a special academy for mineral research."

Centamin's isolated camp, home to 150 workers, doesn't yet look like a modern-day gold rush but a state of mild euphoria is tangible and the future will tell if Sukari becomes a byword for booming prosperity in Egypt.

"Sukari is already one of the largest mines in Africa, it compares to the largest ones in Canada, South Africa and Australia," says Josef al-Raghy.

"It's going to be massive."