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Storm over the Mediterranean

Tensions between Cairo and Ankara are growing and there is no indication of where they might lead

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 18 Dec 2019
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Egyptian officials say Cairo is closely monitoring Turkish plans to provide military support to the Libyan government of Fayez Al-Sarraj.

“There are two things we are keeping an eye on: the first is whether Turkey is actually planning to send troops and arms to Al-Sarraj and the second is whether this will be a temporary military presence or signal the beginning of a permanent presence that could include a Turkish military base in Tripoli,” said one informed Egyptian official.

The official spoke hours after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said on Monday that Egypt would not allow its national security to be compromised by foreign military intervention in Libya, with which it shares a 1000 km border. Cairo has repeatedly complained about cross-border infiltration of arms and militants.

Tension between Cairo and Ankara has escalated since Al-Sarraj, the head of the UN recognised government of Libya, signed maritime, security and military agreements with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago.

Though the texts of the agreements have not been revealed, leaks suggest they contain provisions for Turkey to send troops and arms to Al-Sarraj should he request it and threaten Egypt’s plans to establish a natural gas pipeline connecting it with Cyprus and Greece.

“These treaties pose a direct threat to Egypt’s national strategic interests,” said another official. Cairo cannot compromise on having an expanded Turkish military presence in Libya or abandon its gas pipeline plans, the official added.

Egypt has agreed to import natural gas from Israel for liquefaction before it is exported on to Europe through the planned pipeline.

On Monday UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame arrived in Cairo for talks with senior Egyptian officials.

An informed source said Salame hopes to achieve two objectives: to dissuade Cairo from any military reaction should Turkey actually send troops to Libya, and build on statements that Aguila Saleh, president of the Libyan House of Representatives, made in Cairo on Sunday when he suggested that the way forward for Libya is to create a government of national unity.

Egyptian officials say that while Cairo is willing to walk the extra mile to help Salame find a diplomatic exit from the situation, Egypt cannot be expected to remain neutral in the face of continued “deliberate provocations” from Ankara.

In remarks on Libya late last week and earlier this week President Al-Sisi said Egypt is hopeful “a solution — a political solution, of course” in Libya can be achieved “within the coming months”.

Al-Sisi also said Egypt has so far refrained from intervening “directly” in Libya despite unease over the fact “the Al-Sarraj government is under the control of militias”.

On Monday Al-Sarraj expressed dismay at President Al-Sisi’s statements and said he hoped Cairo would be part of securing a political settlement in Libya and maintain an equal distance from all parties.

Egypt has been a leading supporter of Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA has led the campaign against Islamist militias.

This week Al-Sisi said Egypt will continue to support Haftar who is acting to free Libya from militia control “as part of its support for the LNA”.

Late last week Haftar, who since April has been battling to win control of Tripoli, said it was only a matter of days before his forces could claim victory.  

A Libyan source close to Haftar said “a month or so” was perhaps more realistic.

The source reiterated Saleh’s hopes for a political process in Libya.

“I guess if Haftar manages to take Tripoli before the Berlin Conference then we could have a political process,” he said.

Cairo has been supportive of preparations for the Berlin Conference on Libya. The meeting was initially scheduled for November but has been pushed back twice. It is now tentatively scheduled to convene towards the end of January.

Cairo-based foreign diplomats who follow the Libya file are skeptical of claims Haftar is close to taking Tripoli. They argue that the need to avoid a disturbing level of causalities would hamper the military progress that Haftar might be hoping to achieve with the political and logistic support of regional and international partners.

The same diplomats argue that ultimately Washington and Moscow would need to reach an agreement to avoid a total breakdown of the situation in Libya.

Washington has been in contact with its regional allies over the situation in Libya — this includes Turkey. Turkey for its part has been in touch with Moscow on the matter. On Tuesday the presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke on the developments in Libya. According to an official statement issued in Moscow, both Erdogan and Vladimir Putin agreed to give diplomacy a chance in Libya.

Cairo remains highly skeptical about the intentions of Erdogan. A senior Egyptian official recently in Washington for talks on Libya expressed Cairo’s concerns over the repercussions of a Turkish military presence and asked the US administration to send a clear message to both Turkey and Qatar, which have been supporting Al-Sarraj, to refrain from confusing the already complicated situation. He returned to Cairo with what one informed source qualified as “a decent reassurance”.

Egypt has been actively lobbying against what it says are the “facts on the ground that Erdogan is trying to create around the Mediterranean”.

It is coordinating closely with Greece and Cyprus to secure Western backing. Last week the EU expressed its support for Greek and Cypriot opposition to the Libyan-Turkish maritime agreement.

Athens is worried about its ability to continue the gas pipeline project with Egypt and Cyprus and the impact of the Libyan-Turkish maritime agreement on its own territorial waters.

Last week Greece asked the Libyan ambassador to Athens to leave in protest against the Al-Sarraj-Erdogan deal. This week, as tensions increased, Libya’s diplomatic mission in Cairo suspended its activities.

On Monday Turkey deployed an armed drone to northern Cyprus. Ankara is the only capital that recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Savvas Angelides, minister of defence of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, said the move constituted “Turkish provocation” which his country will not accept.

“It is a very tense situation that could easily get out of hand. There is no telling what might happen. Erdogan seems determined to resurrect, on some level, the Ottoman Empire which collapsed in 1923. He knows he cannot reconstitute it in its old form but he wants a Turkish presence in as many countries as possible,” said an Egyptian diplomat who served in Ankara.

“The east Mediterranean is a priority for Erdogan — hence his presence in the north of Syria and his attempted presence in Libya.”

This week the Turkish parliament ratified the agreements that Ankara signed with Tripoli and which Erdogan praised as reversing the Treaty of Sévres. The post-World War I pact between the victorious allied powers and representatives of the government of Ottoman Turkey effectively abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all claims over Arab Asia and North Africa.

The agreement with Al-Sarraj, Erdogan claimed, allows Turkey to explore extensively for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, including in the immediate vicinity of Crete.

Ankara, Egyptian officials say, is also sending messages to Israel that if it wishes to export its natural gas it should to do so through an agreement with Turkey, not with Egypt and Cyprus.

 “Israel has close relations with Greece and with Egypt so we will see how things develop,” commented a Cairo-based European diplomat. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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