The recent visit by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Athens is but another episode in the close and amical relationship between the two countries over recent years. The bilateral relations between Egypt and Greece have steadily grown until the two countries have become a power bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean reinforced by diplomatic, military, financial and cultural ties.
During his visit to Athens, Al-Sisi met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. He confirmed the ever-strengthening ties between the two countries in statements made during the subsequent press conference, in which he said that “there is a consensus” between Egypt and Greece to stand up against regional threats, including by standing together against the transfer of jihadist fighters and weapons to militias in Libya.
Egypt reiterated its position that unilateral violations of security in the Eastern Mediterranean region should be confronted. The two leaders agreed on the global dimensions of the problem of terrorism and on the need to effectively face it. Officials from the two countries then participated in the 24th round of joint discussions covering multiple issues of cooperation and of regional and international interest.
The visit confirmed the fact that Greece and Egypt have been working closely together over recent years on all levels. Two characteristic events in this cooperation have been the signing in August of the maritime demarcation agreement establishing Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
The EEZ agreement partially demarcated national EEZs in the Mediterranean southeast of Crete and northeast of the Matrouh governorate in Egypt. According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, the agreement “permits Egypt and Greece to go ahead with maximising the benefits from the riches available in the exclusive economic zones of both countries, particularly promising gas and oil reserves.”
The agreement is also the explicit result of the joint will of the two countries to overcome unfounded territorial claims in the Mediterranean by revisionist and aggressive state actors. The EMGF creates a new financial power bloc that can cooperate effectively with the European Union.
Much has thus already been done in terms of the rapprochement between the two countries, but specific additional steps could further enhance and deepen the strategic cooperation of these two pivotal countries in the Mediterranean.
First, on a diplomatic level Greek-Egyptian cooperation could unfold further in various fields. In Libya, the necessary political solution to the present conflict and the restoration of essential government functions and state institutions throughout the country requires the dissolution and removal of the militias still active there. As Egypt has consistently stressed, any eventual solution to the Libyan crisis must be based on the outcomes of the Berlin Conference and the Cairo Declaration on the conflict in the country.
Moreover, the EEZ agreement signed in August between Egypt and Greece is only a partial demarcation agreement, and it needs to be completed with a new and fuller one. This could coincide with an EEZ agreement between Greece and Cyprus, such that the three states would have cooperated on the delimitation of EEZs in the region.
Second, on an economic level Greek investment could be increased in Egypt, as could the amount of bilateral commercial relations. More importantly, Greece could promote the idea of a customs union between Egypt and the European Union, a much more logical step than the EU’s customs union with Turkey. This would be a considerable upgrade of the 2004 EU-Egypt Association Agreement as well of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.
A potential customs union of this sort would open up a growing market of over 100 million people to European companies and investments, and it would also greatly benefit the economic prospects of Egypt itself. Greece could act as an intermediary state with the EU bureaucracy and decision-making institutions in order to promote such a customs union, in which the evolution of the EMGF and energy cooperation would also be fundamental not only for economic gains, but also for regional stability.
Third, on a military level Egypt and Greece could upgrade their cooperation, especially in the naval and airforce fields. Exchange programmes for officers and administrative personnel, joint exercises, the temporary stationing of military forces in each national territory, and joint naval patrols could all help to create further bilateral bonds. Another idea would be to create areas of enhanced NATO cooperation with powerful actors such as Egypt. Greece as a NATO member could also help to promote Egypt as a valuable partner in both Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
In this context of enhanced bilateral and regional cooperation, Egypt and Greece can now work to reap the fruit of a power nexus that should prove to be hegemonic in the Eastern Mediterranean region and help to safeguard the stability and prosperity of all the actors involved.
The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly