After an uncertain political transition following the 2011 revolts, Egypt seems ready to reshape its geopolitical role in the Mediterranean area and fulfil its geostrategic goals, always maintaining their national security principle to be an essential objective of its domestic and foreign policy. The two main closely and interconnected scenarios, where the country’s strategic ambitions are projected, move from Libya to the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In particular the latter represents an area that, in recent years, has become a hotspot for the global energy market due to huge gas-field discoveries. It is enough to imagine how the fight for the control of these resources are shaping the region, elevating it to a potential geostrategic game-changer for the coastal countries such as Egypt.
Following the success obtained in the beginning of 2019, when the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi officially declared the achievement of its natural gas self-sufficiency thanks to the discovery of the Zohr and Noor fields, Egypt is trying to reassert itself as a regional hub for energy trade and distribution of liquefied natural gas (LNG). This strategy, that would allow the country to meet its internal needs and profit from gas exports, led it to support the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a sort of “gas cartel”, through which Cairo, together with Tel Aviv, Nicosia and Athens, could coordinate the energy policies of its members, by managing the supply and demand flows. According to Cairo’s view this means also taking advantage of future subsea pipeline projects (such as EastMed, despite some analysts being sceptical on the real gains for Egypt), which promises to supply Europe with Egyptian natural gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, creating a direct link with Idku and Damietta liquefaction plants and shipping gas to global markets.
In light of a serious domestic and international economic recession, following the diffusion of Covid-19 pandemic, however, this production seems to have been hit hard enough to force the Egyptian government to suspend liquefying and exporting natural gas and, in March 2020, to stop the production at the Idku plant. The consequences of this decision could have dangerous repercussions on the economic and social stability of the country so much that Cairo government declared the need to increase its liquefied natural gas exports and expand its production from the Levantine basin. A stance that firstly will aim to intensify the production of the Zohr field (based along the Egyptian-Cypriot maritime borders contested by Turkey), and then to enhance its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, further exacerbating the dispute with Ankara.
Turkey, which is working to extend its control over energy resources in the Mediterranean – although at the center of the oil and gas exports bound for Europe from Russia and the Caspian Sea countries, it needs to import about 75% of its energy needs – views Cairo’s moves with increasing apprehension. Ankara reacted by taking the field in the Libyan crisis, which represents a strategic geopolitical node for Egypt and where the country now seems to get bogged down. Also in this scenario, al-Sisi has to face Turkey as Egypt’s most dangerous competitor.
In addition, the latest Libyan developments in favour of the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, and backed by Ankara, created a new step in the Turkish-Egyptian competition in the Mediterranean. In fact, the inability of General Khalifa Haftar, supported by al-Sisi’s regime and Gulf monarchies, to resolve the crisis by military means and assure control of the neighbouring Cyrenaica, led Egypt to rethink its strategy in the country.
The tensions between Ankara and Cairo have spilled over into the Libyan crisis, after the Ankara’s signature of a memorandum of understanding with Tripoli along the maritime demarcation border that would allow Turkey to drill energy resources in Cypriot and Greek offshore. This agreement on an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which violates international rules on the delimitation of national waters, can also be read as a Turkish strategy to reshape its position in the Mediterranean energy dispute. Supporting the UN-backed government of Serraj and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked factions who belong to the GNA, Ankara was able to turn the tables ensuring that Tripoli would not fall. The Turkish presence in this fundamental area is for al-Sisi an alarming threat. The long-standing conflict within the Sunni world that sees Turkey and Qatar, fierce supporters of political Islam, against the equally stainless United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was transferred into the Libyan front.
In this way, it is evident that Egypt cannot tolerate a Turkish-friendly Islamist government in Libya that controls the Libyan-Egyptian border, because Cairo needs to safeguard its porous western frontier bordering Cyrenaica and prevent dangerous jihadist penetrations from Eastern Libya. Furthermore, the other relevant economic interests that historically linked the two North Africa countries, represent a priority for the Egyptian government’s strategy. After the failure to achieve a cease-fire and a possible agreement with the GNA under the UN auspices with the 6 June Cairo Declaration, which was vigorously refuted by Ankara and Tripoli, al-Sisi decided to beat the drums of war, warning that Egypt could intervene militarily in Libya if Turkish-backed government forces were to advance on Sirte-Jufra frontline. Turkish-backed forces should not advance to that line that is a “red line for Cairo” or confront will be likely inevitable.
If a military conflict between Turkey and Egypt breaks out in Libya, it would certainly have heavy repercussions on the whole region and would cause Egypt to recalibrate its goals. The country is, in fact, facing a serious health and economic crisis, due to the serious pandemic repercussions on vital sectors such as tourism. The Egyptian government, has therefore been forced to request the support of the International Monetary Fund: in the beginning of June they reached a staff-level agreement on a $5.2 billion stand-by arrangement that aims to alleviate the economic impact of pandemic. Embarking on a new war, in this context, would be a hazardous move, to say the least.
Yet, it is precisely the economic sector and the national security problem, which has always represented the workhorse of al-Sisi presidency, that could push Egypt to move rashly in an attempt to roll back Turkish aggression. In this context, Egypt would risk being crushed in its geostrategic and geopolitical aspirations, losing its grip on the neighbouring country. The late Egyptian “Show of Forces”, which led al-Sisi to move several armoured vehicles and a number of fighter planes to the border with Libya, would thus be justified.
In any case, the recent suggestions that an agreement between Cairo and Ankara would be more convenient than the beginning of a conflict, remain high debatable: there might be mutual interests in the Mediterranean that could move Ankara and Cairo closer to each other. So, a possible “truce-deal” would prevent the establishment of the EastMed gas pipeline, whose benefits for Egypt − according to some analysts − are extremely unclear. Above all, by establishing a maritime border agreement with Turkey, Cairo could acquire more “waters” in terms of square kilometres of the Mediterranean, a result that the agreement proposed by Greece and currently being negotiated with Cairo would not be able to ensure. Regardless of these hypotheses, it is difficult to understand if the current ambitious geopolitical goals could be effectively implemented by Egypt. Especially if the country decides to engage in an unsustainable war with uncertain outcomes. A possibility that seems improbable but that in any case represents a new source of instability on the shores of the Mediterranean.