In Cairo this week for talks with Egyptian, Arab League, and UN officials, Aguila Saleh, speaker of Libya’s House of Representatives, was also scheduled to meet with Khaled Al-Mishri, chair of Libya’s Higher Council of State, to discuss the unification of executive authority which remains divided between the east of the country, which Saleh represents, and the west, represented by Al-Mishri.
In press statements following talks on Monday Saleh, who last met with Al-Mishri in Morocco in October, spoke of “hype” surrounding attempts to pave the way towards elections in Libya. UN and other mediators have repeatedly failed to secure an agreement between political players in the east and west of the country over the process of elections.
This week, hopes appear to have been reinvigorated that elections could be on the horizon. The groundbreaking handshake between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the inauguration of the World Cup in Doha fed the optimism. Libya remains central to the interests of both Cairo and Ankara.
Speaking off record, an Egyptian official sounded cautious but hopeful that a rapprochement between the two leaders could help lead to “a political process that can pave the way to legislative and presidential elections.” He warned, however, that nothing is straightforward.
Whatever the optics of the handshake, there are a host of disagreements that Cairo and Ankara need to iron out during the security and political meetings that will unfold “in the coming weeks” in both capitals. And reconciling the interests of political players on the ground in Libya, warned the official, remains as difficult as ever.
Egypt and Turkey have been slowly discussing their disagreements in a series of low-key, often unannounced security meetings that have been taking place on the ground in Libya for more than a year. The talks have helped reduced tensions on the ground.
Libya, according to the government source, was high on the agenda of the talks Al-Sisi and Erdogan held in Doha. It will also feature as a top issue in discussions, expected to be scheduled within “a few weeks”, between the Egyptian and Turkish foreign ministers.
Gas and oil management, and cooperation not just in Libya but across the East Mediterranean, are crucial issues, say informed sources in both Egypt and Turkey.
The breakthrough Egypt secured on gas cooperation with Turkey’s regional adversaries Greece and Cyprus “remains intact”, according to the Egyptian official. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was in Cairo earlier this week for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri who, the government source said, reassured Athens of Cairo’s commitment to continue cooperation with Greece.
Meanwhile, the source added, Cairo retains reservations about the gas and oil agreements Turkey signed with the west Libya-based National Unity Government whose mandate has expired. Much of what was agreed, he argued, falls short of legal requirements, not only because of the expired mandate of the government of Abdel-Hamid Al-Dbeibah but also given that maritime demarcation disputes between Turkey and members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EGF) remain unresolved. In October Shoukri and Dendias agreed a joint position against a new round of agreements signed between Turkey and Al-Dbeibah.
Egypt and Turkey have major ambitions when it comes to further exploration for gas and its liquification for export which informed sources from both sides argue are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Cairo, the Egyptian government source noted, was “very careful during demarcation negotiations with Greece not to overlook the legal interests of Turkey”. Once Turkey “reciprocates the good intentions”, he predicted, cooperation can begin to be discussed in a regional context that benefits the interests of all parties.
Israel, of course, is a key player in any gas cooperation plans in the East Mediterranean. After years of tension over the situation in Palestine, Turkey has recently been pursuing a political rapprochement with Israel. Israeli and Turkish officials have started to discuss possible gas cooperation, and Ankara shared with Israel its desire to join the EGF, informed diplomatic sources say.
In addition to already established cooperation over gas, Egypt and Israel are working together on the Gaza Marine Scheme under which Egypt will help to drill for gas in Palestinian Mediterranean waters conditional on agreements with both the Palestinians and Israelis. Extracted gas will then be exported to Europe via Egypt and Israel with the bulk of revenues going to the coffers of the Palestinian Authority.
Gas is arguably the biggest story in the region right now. Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement, Lebanese-Israeli maritime demarcation and EGF consultations with observers and possible future partners, are all part of the plot. Europe’s attempts to end the need for gas supplies from Russia is also feeding the interest in gas reserves in the East Mediterranean, say Cairo-based European diplomats.
In addition, Arab Gulf countries are examining possible participation in schemes already under implementation and those being discussed. The UAE is already playing an active role, and sources speak of growing Qatari interest.
One Egyptian business source said Qatar is likely to have a significant role in future cooperation between Egypt and Turkey on many fronts, including gas.
“Qatar is interested to invest, and Egypt is showing interest in Qatari ideas and proposals now that political tensions between the two countries have dissipated,” he said.
Both the Qatari ambassador and the Turkish charge d’affaires in Cairo have been holding meetings in recent months with Egyptian officials and leading members of the business community. The Turkish press has reported a sudden spate of “mango diplomacy” — overtures by official and business circles in Cairo to their counterparts in Ankara, while Egyptian officials have been talking about a reciprocal “baklava and loukoumi” diplomatic campaign.
According to the business source, it is likely to be sooner rather than later that more substantial economic exchanges come into play given that both Egypt and Turkey are facing strong economic headwinds. It seems increasingly clear, he added, that economic interests and a desire for de-escalation of regional and bilateral political tensions have triumphed over disagreements.
And according to statements made this week by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Ankara and Cairo could resume full diplomatic representation within months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.