Towards the end of this month European Union foreign ministers are set to examine political and security developments on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. The questions they will address during a meeting of the Council of Foreign Affairs in Brussels will not be limited to the situation of each of their Mediterranean partners but will encompass the overall state of affairs in the wider neighbourhood.
The Brussels meeting is being held amid reawakened White House interest in monitoring the southern borders of NATO, and when Russia is aiming to consolidate its influence around the Mediterranean, engaging closely with Turkey, doubling down on its presence in Syria, seeking a permanent foothold in Libya, and closer rapport with Egypt.
Diplomatic sources in Cairo, both Egyptian and foreign, say the Mediterranean, and particularly the east Mediterranean, is subject to a new set of dynamics. The Biden administration is determined to push Russia back, and Washington expects its allies, both in and out of NATO, to support this US foreign policy priority.
This is the context against in which Turkey’s repositioning vis-à-vis Egypt and some Gulf states should be read, argues Sayed Ghoneim, a visiting scholar at the NATO Defence College. In recent days, Ankara has appeared keener than ever to improve the mood between both Cairo and Riyadh.
Meanwhile, says Ghoneim, Russia is as determined as ever to secure a strong foothold around the Mediterranean. Not only would this give it strategic access to both the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it would also allow for interference in the management of future non-Russian gas supplies to Europe.
Such a Russian presence on NATO’s southern border is not something the US is likely to tolerate for long. According to Ghoneim, a prolonged tug of war between Egypt and Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean, and especially over Libya, would have allowed Russia to play its favourite game of stepping in as a mediator, while what the US wants is to see Russia depart Libya rather than to use it as a platform to broker a reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey.
According to the official narrative it was when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi publicly spoke of Egypt’s red line between Sirte and Jufra that Turkey moved to halt all plans to move troops further east in Libya and has avoided any escalation with Egypt. In recent days, however, Ankara has moved a step further.
Senior Turkish officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now hint at a possible shift in relations between Ankara and Cairo by hailing the historic ties between the Egyptian and Turkish people. The change in rhetoric follows what many diplomatic sources say is weeks of on-the-ground coordination in Libya between Egypt and Turkey to avoid any confrontation that could get out of hand.
In Cairo there has been no official indication that Egypt is set to reconcile with Turkey any time soon. In a statement made before parliament this week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Cairo wanted action rather than words. “We are keen to preserve relations between the peoples of both countries but political relations are a different story… we need to see a change in the political conduct of Turkey,” Shoukri told MPs.
While relations between Cairo and Ankara nosedived in the wake of Turkey’s reluctance to acknowledge the political changes Egypt passed through in the summer of 2013, the political feud never derailed the full gamut of bilateral relations. Trade and economic cooperation continued for the most part, and Egypt never suspended its cooperation in NATO programmes that included Turkey.
Government sources say Cairo’s concern over Turkey was never restricted to Ankara’s take on the demise of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government but always included worries about Ankara’s behaviour around the Eastern Mediterranean where it busy transferring militants into Syria and then from Syria into Libya, and desperately trying to scupper economic cooperation between Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus as the four states endeavoured to create a new natural gas hub.
“Turkey repeatedly tried to obstruct the EastMed Gas Forum. If it now wants to prove its good intentions it needs to suspend its provocative policies,” says Mohamed Megahed, a consultant to the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies. “And if it seriously wants to contribute to the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, it needs to engage, in good faith, in maritime demarcation talks.”
Maritime demarcation – a crucial problem in the East Mediterranean — involves not just Turkey. Israel also needs to address the issue, with neighbours — Syria and Palestine — whose territories it continues to occupy.
“In the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians it is hard to see how Israel and the Palestinians can move on to maritime demarcation,” says a European diplomatic source. “And it does not look as if [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu is interested in moving forward on peace negotiations — not now and probably not after the next round of Israeli general elections scheduled for 23 March.”
Sources in Cairo and Brussels say that while the position of Turkey, especially its “layered” relationship with Russia, is one of the key problems in the Eastern Mediterranean, there are other reasons to worry. They include the continued failure to find a peaceful end to the Arab-Israeli struggle, failure to find a settlement to the situation in Syria where the rule of Bashar Al-Assad is increasingly entrenched courtesy of Russian-Iranian support, the continued political crisis in Lebanon, a country standing on the edge of total economic breakdown, and the worsening inter-Palestinian crisis.
There is also the tacit confrontation between Israel and its allies, old and new, and Iran and its subordinates, which has implications across the Mediterranean. Nor is concern over North Africa’s political stability limited to Libya: both Tunisia and Algeria are potentially shaky and, as one Cairo-based Western diplomat put it, “even if Libya seems set for a slowdown in its internal conflict it is far from certain that it has put the bloody struggle of the past 10 years permanently behind it.”
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean is seeing the emergence of a new group of players whose agendas and allies are unlikely to be fully synchronised. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular, are displaying a growing interest in the Mediterranean. The UAE is keen to confront Turkey over its promotion of political Islam, while Riyadh, mindful as ever of the machinations of its arch-enemy Tehran, is unwilling to stand idly by as Iran seeks to expand its influence beyond Syria to Algeria, and maybe even Morocco, a once solid Saudi ally.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly