Over the last decade, the deep transformations moving through the broader Mediterranean region have created new opportunities and challenges. The Libyan crisis and the tensions in the Levantine Sea emerged as paradigms of the contemporary chaos in the region as a whole. This is a complex and ever-changing context in which littoral countries clash over natural gas and maritime borders, while regional and international powers could get drawn into these disputes. In this scenario, Egypt is positioning itself to play a long-term crucial role in the region’s conflicting dynamics, exploiting its pivotal position between the two seas and fostering a new assertive stance of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF).
Which role for military facilities in Matrouh?
The threat from turmoil in neighbouring Libya, the regional competition with Turkey and huge offshore gas resources are defining Cairo’s military and naval projection from Egypt’s Western Desert to the Eastern Mediterranean. A growing involvement, in which the Egyptian Armed Forces could play a fundamental role as military and political actor. In this regard, the new military facilities in the Matrouh governorate are important for Egyptian projection in North Africa and in the Mediterranean, starting from the “Mohamed Naguib” base in el-Hamam city. The Mohamed Naguib base is 160 kilometres west of Alexandria, located at the center of the north coast. It can accommodate Egypt’s biggest ground troops; it has an air base and a naval fleet, making it a comprehensive military facility and the largest in the Middle East and Africa. Its position is strategically important to manage and secure the Libyan frontier, from which has spilled over several transnational phenomena, such as human trafficking, illegal migration, arms smuggling. In this sense, this base serves a double target: to ensure strategic land and maritime security and prevent threats from the desert or the Mediterranean. In addition, this base is very close to oil wells in Egypt’s Western Desert (some of these in the Siwa Oasis) and to the site of al-Dabaa City, where under construction is the first nuclear power plant developed by Russia’s Rosatom. Equally strategic is the Gargoub naval base, 270 kilometres north of Sidi Barrani, which is part of the northern fleet region of the Mediterranean Sea. This base is fundamental for two reasons: protecting the western part of Egypt’s northern coast – which includes the Dabaa nuclear plant, New Alamein City, in addition to the economic zone that will be established – and securing the porous border with Libya from asymmetrical threats led by armed militias and terror groups inspired by IS and al-Qaeda. In this way, the Gargoub plays a central role in counterterrorism operations. In fact, from the nearby Salloum checkpoint, the Egyptian Navy (EN) and the EAF operate to safeguard the frontier and prevent dangerous jihadist penetrations into Egypt from Eastern Libya in order to impede the possible spillover of violence and convergence of interests with some radicalized Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and extremist groups that are operating both in Eastern Libya and in Egypt’s Western Desert. This explains how and why the EN’s new activism is instrumental to the country’s aspirations to promote military capabilities in the wider region, and is functional to the assertive foreign policy of the Egyptian Armed Forces, at the same time revitalizing its leadership role in the Mediterranean area.
Egypt between the land and maritime dimensions
In recent years the EN, jointly with the EAF, conducted a comprehensive strategy aimed at reinforcing both its naval and military power. Since 2013, this direction has permitted Egypt to modernize its naval forces and to develop new strategic capabilities in which naval bases, such as Gargoub, Ras Banas (also known as Berenice) and Port Said, play a broader maritime security role. It’s clear that from Cairo’s perspective, the biggest priority in foreign policy is to restore its central role in the region, expand its diplomatic network and seek new opportunities in the neighbourhood (like in the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea or Eastern Africa). In fact, the Gargoub base near the Libyan frontier, as well as the Berenice base and the Port Said base on the Red Sea are designed to protect Egypt’s offshore assets and the maritime dimension from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. These military facilities are closely connected and mutually interdependent. Moreover, these bases reflect a shift in the Egyptian military and naval stance. Basically, the EN is focusing its priorities on expanding naval capabilities, bolstering regional cooperation in maritime affairs and securing its key strategic interests, so as to guarantee a solid backyard in its maritime and land neighbourhood (in particular in Africa) and to supervise the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea with other Arab allies as a guardian of maritime trade flows along the Europe-Asia axis. If this process is clearly aimed to modernize the EN, at the same time it creates conditions to assert Egypt as a true blue-water player, to favour significant production in the national naval industry and, finally, to protect its economic and strategic interests and assets in the Afro-Asiatic geopolitical quadrant.
Egypt interests in the Mediterranean
These moves clearly emerge in the Mediterranean, where Egypt has largely implemented its sea policy leadership, supporting several initiatives with other regional partners (Israel, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE) and international powers (the United States, France, Russia and China) to hinder Turkey’s leverage in those areas. Egypt’s return to the Mediterranean is aimed at gaining a key role in the Eastern Mediterranean-Suez Canal-Red Sea corridor. At the same time, this new activism allows it to achieve a partial independence from the Saudi-Emirati duopoly. From this perspective, the greatest challenge for Egypt’s geopolitical ambitions is to transform the several factors of instability along its littorals (the crisis in Libya, the militarization of and conflicting interests in the MENA region, and the growing tensions with Ankara) into positive outcomes in order to capitalize on its potential in the neighbourhood and to create geostrategic opportunities, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. A competitive advantage guaranteed by geography and the discovery of huge natural gas resources in the Egyptian offshore (such as the giant Zohr gas field), that could also facilitate its connection with Europe’s geostrategic interests (within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum - EMGF). In this regard, for Egyptian foreign policy, the Mediterranean becomes a natural hub and this link is a crucial factor in expanding its projections abroad. At the same time, Cairo is working with other regional players (Israel, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus) to shape a new multilateral framework of cooperation with the EU’s extended neighbourhood aimed to encourage a new regional pattern of economic cooperation, informal dialogue and political interdependence to overcome the existing fault-lines in this struggling wider Mediterranean. Moreover, Egypt’s needs to protect its regional interests also pass through the newly discovered energy resources in the Levantine Basin. From an economic viewpoint, Egypt hopes to greatly revitalize its economy thanks the gas discoveries in its Mediterranean waters. Zohr, Noor and other gas fields give Cairo almost half of its production and have a great potential to transform the nation’s economic system and to fund specific sectors like education, health and scientific research. Egypt needs, however, to protect this wealth against recurrent threats, especially from Turkey which is militarily interfering in neighbouring Libya and striving to be a major player in the region. In fact, Egypt’s growing involvement adds a new dimension to the Mediterranean scenario, starting with the Libyan question.
The Libyan factor
The war in Libya and the several links with the Levantine maritime disputes between Turkey and Greece, as well as the agreements between Ankara and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj (November 2019), and those signed between Egypt and Greece (August 2020) on an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, reflect several levels (domestic, regional and international) of interests, representing a significant challenge to Cairo’s ambitions in the area. In this regard, it is not surprising that Egypt and other regional partners (Israel and the Gulf monarchies) are working to contain the Turkish-Qatari axis in the MENA region, as a whole. In particular, Turkey’s political will to expand its role in the region through intervention in conflict zones (such as Libya) or growing (geo)political interests (in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in the Red Sea) is perceived as a threat to their international strategies. But the competition between Egypt and Turkey is more than natural gas reserves and economic zones. In fact, Turkey supports the GNA and has sent mercenaries to Libya to fight against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, who instead are backed by Egypt and other countries (the UAE, Russia and France). This competition also hides an ideological confrontation between two different ideas of regional politics, in which Egypt fights political Islam and the MB movements in Libya and across the region, that are perceived as a threat to its domestic stability and political legitimacy. The MB groups are backed by Turkey and Qatar, proponents of political Islamist activism in the Greater Middle East – a vision that contrasts with Egypt-Gulf conservative perspectives (shared by Israel) of a regional strategic status quo aimed at marginalizing the Turkish-Qatari axis. This means that Egypt aims to bolster itself as the main regional actor in the management of crisis and conflict and gas resources in the emerging Mediterranean system.
Egypt as a new maritime player in the Mediterranean?
The country has developed an enhanced naval presence and role in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. The Matrouh military facilities are indispensable to supporting Egypt’s (geo)political ambitions and boosting its naval presence in both areas. In fact, Egypt’s new naval strategy is designed to support a growing role in regional maritime affairs and in national geo-economic interests. Undoubtedly, this projection will ensure a growing status and leverage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea theatres. But Egyptian interests in both scenarios are compatible with the vision of other partners (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and competitors (Israel and Turkey), exposing Cairo to a strategic dilemma: is this strategy aimed at pursuing regional and international consensus to ensure the regime’s survival? Or is this policy intended to elevate Egypt’s international status, preserving its national security? It is hard to determine whether this strategy will change the role of Egypt in the wider region, as it is difficult to understand if these geopolitical ambitions of the EAF could be effectively supported and implemented by the regime in the long term. Especially if the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis on the country worsens, fuelling uncertain outcomes. A possibility to consider very carefully, that could represent a new source of instability in the Mediterranean.
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