On Wednesday, 27 November, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Turkey that are destined to raise the level of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean to an unprecedented degree. One MoU deals with “sovereignty” over their respective maritime zones, and the second covers military and security cooperation between the two parties.
The signing took place during a visit of the president of the GNA to Istanbul where he conferred with the Turkish president. The Libyan minister of interior said, in explaining the reasons behind the second MoU, that his government intends to strengthen bilateral relations with Ankara in fighting terrorism and illegal immigration. He further added that another objective is to assume control of all Libyan territories.
The Turkish foreign minister, during a news conference on Thursday, 28 November in Ankara, said that his government is prepared to hold talks with all countries in the Eastern Mediterranean — save Cyprus — to delineate maritime zones, like it has done with the GNA.
He added that his country is willing to enter into negotiations even with countries for whom it is impossible, in present circumstances, to consider such negotiations. He was implying Egypt. He stressed that Turkey supports what he termed the equitable sharing of resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.
He underlined that this position also applies to gas reserves around Cyprus. He said that Ankara intends to hold discussions with other countries in this regard, when conditions permit. He did not specify which countries he had in mind given the tense and very poor relations Turkey actually has with most countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt, Greece and Cyprus rejected the Turkish position and called it “null and void” from a legal point of view. The three launched the Eastern Mediterranean Initiative in 2014 with the aim of cooperating in the field of gas, and other areas of bilateral cooperation. And the three countries have become members in a new international forum, launched early this year, which groups several countries in the Eastern Mediterranean with the aim of instituting cooperation among gas-producing countries.
So far, Turkey has not been keen on joining institutional frameworks in this regard. Seemingly, the present Turkish government prefers to impose its will on weaker parties such as the GNA, a government that believes its survival is dependent on foreign support rather than working with other Libyan political forces to implement the UN plan for a political solution to the Libyan conflict.
Even though MoUs don’t have the same legal standing as treaties and international agreements deposited at the United Nations, still the dangers of the two MoUs lie in the fact that they deepen the Turkish military presence in North Africa, a presence that presents a threat to national security, not only of Egypt, but both Tunisia and Algeria, in the medium and long terms.
It is no coincidence that the signing of the two documents last week came within weeks of Tunisian presidential and legislative elections which were carried by the less liberal forces in Tunisia, mainly Annahda Party (the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood). Its leader was elected speaker of the Tunisian parliament, and one of its members has been asked by the newly-elected president to form the next government.
Meanwhile, Algerians will go to the polls next week to elect a new president amid mass popular objection by the “Hirak” (the movement that began in February, and led to the ouster of former Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika) to holding elections.
In the future, we should not be surprised if the Turks would establish permanent military bases in the western part of Libya similar to the base they built in Qatar. This dangerous policy of consolidating their foothold in the Arab world and working hand-in-glove with the Muslim Brotherhood and their Arab affiliates should not be left unchecked.
A new Arab realignment is badly needed to counter Turkish expansionism, a realignment that would necessitate Egyptian leadership. The first step on this road is the prompt restoration of diplomatic relations with Syria without ifs or buts. Secondly, we should work with our Arab partners to inflict a serious political and military cost on Turkey for its adventurism in Arab politics and affairs.
The Turkish people and opposition political parties should realise that Cairo would go all the way to roll back Turkish expansionism, even if it means aligning ourselves militarily with Arab forces that are willing to take up arms against the Turks, including in northern Syria. Turkey would have never dared to set foot in the Arab heartland if it had known that it would be faced with a determined and fierce resistance, both political and military.
Strategically speaking, Egypt can’t afford to see this Turkish expansionism in North Africa on its doorstep. Two weeks ago, I wrote an article on the need for a reassessment of Egyptian foreign policy with regards to the Arab world. Writing this article back then, I could not have imagined that an Arab government, in this case Al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli, could go as far as aligning itself with an overtly expansionist power that actually occupies Arab lands — in northern Syria — and is acting in a way to establish its presence quasi-permanently there.
Egypt can’t afford Turkey acting the same way on our western borders. If it means war against the Turks and their Libyan quislings in Tripoli, so be it. The cost for Egypt for not acting would be much worse than adopting such a dissuasive strategy.
In Turkey being a NATO member, other member countries in the transatlantic alliance should be advised that Egypt considers the establishment of Turkish bases in Libya a casus belli, and Egypt stresses its right to self-defence.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.