The first Philia (Friendship) Forum was held in Athens in Greece in early February in the wake of an initiative by the Greek government and with the participation of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and France.
The forum aims to build a network of stability in an area of high strategic importance extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. It forms the basis for the future consolidation of active synergies in various fields of common interest to all the countries involved, including diplomacy, the economy, energy, culture, education and civilisational dialogue.
It is also another manifestation of the high importance of the Mediterranean in international relations. Initiatives such as the Philia Forum and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) clearly point to a new international order uniting three major seas – the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf – and the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. This new transcontinental geopolitical order is based on two core states, Egypt and Greece.
Egypt is strategically located at the meeting point of two continents, Africa and Asia, controls the Suez Canal, and has maritime coasts on both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Egypt’s military power has increased thanks to reforms carried out by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and on the economic level Egypt is the only country in the region to have experienced steady growth. Egypt has also taken initiatives to stabilise the situation in Libya over the long term and to reduce tensions in the Palestinian issue.
Greece has radically altered its self-perception over the last few years from being a peripheral EU member state tied to the Brussels bureaucratic core to becoming a dynamic and independent maritime power in the Mediterranean. Greece is positioned at the meeting point of two major geopolitical axes, a horizontal axis extending from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Suez Canal and a vertical axis from Eastern Europe towards Egypt. Thus, Greece aspires to form a vital bridge between Europe, the states of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.
The seven countries participating in the Philia Forum signed a joint statement declaring common positions on various regional issues. They reiterated their commitment to international law, with special reference to the law of the sea, saying that the delimitation of the national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of all Mediterranean countries should be based exclusively on the law of the sea. The signatories to the statement expressed their unrelenting support for a lasting political settlement in Syria and the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the country, an allusion to the Turkish presence.
On Libya, the forum states welcomed the nomination by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum of a transitional unified executive authority as an important milestone in the political process and a significant step towards all-inclusive elections. The signatories stressed the need for the full withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the country, a clear reference to Turkish-backed Islamist militants. They also called on the new Libyan government to consider the memorandums of understanding signed by Turkey and former Tripoli government leader Faysal Al-Sarraj in November 2019 as being null and void and in violation of international law.
During the forum, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus also issued a joint statement officially announcing that the EMGF would come into force as an international organisation on 1 March with the activation of its statutes.
The transformation of the Eastern Mediterranean over recent years has been truly impressive. During much of the 20th century, the region was a hotbed of bilateral tensions and instability. It has only been over recent years that we have witnessed the structural transformation of the Mediterranean from being a focal point of instability to one of regional cooperation.
The core countries in this transformation have clearly been Egypt and Greece. Their proactive mentality has decisively altered realities in the Mediterranean, with the result that cooperation now unites three continents and three seas.
*The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly