Egypt's delicate diplomatic moves towards the Mediterranean

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 8 Jan 2020

As regional tensions grow and the simmering US-Iran conflict threatens to burst, Cairo is faced with the prospects of trying to square several diplomatic circles

Libyan protesters
Libyan protesters gather during a demonstration against the Turkish parliament's decision to send Turkish forces to Libya, in Benghazi Libyan protesters (Photo: Reuters)

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is set to receive his counterparts from Cyprus, France, Greece and Italy on Wednesday for talks on how to best manage the situation in Libya and in the east of the Mediterranean.

The purpose of the meeting, according to informed sources, is to consider “safe exits” out of an increasingly tense situation.

“Egypt is not picking a fight with Turkey. We are not warmongers. What we want is for Turkey to stop its mischievous schemes to use Libya as a cat’s paw to disturb Egypt politically and economically,” said a Cairo government official.

 “If Turkey were to refrain from antagonising Egypt then we would not wish to have a confrontation but if it insists on provoking us then we will act accordingly,” he added.

Another Egyptian government official said the objective of the 8 January meeting is to launch a collective position for the management of the crisis.

“No, we are not thinking of creating a coalition but hope to establish a mechanism of coordination for five countries which share an interest in stablising the east of the Mediterranean, not just to allow for the purposeful use of natural resources but also to establish a secure environment that will not allow for any major crises, terrorist attacks and illegal migration included,” he said.

According to the same official, a top issue scheduled for the Wednesday meeting was the “commitment of the five countries to work together to avoid any unilateral measures by any of the countries around the Mediterranean that could cause instability for any neighbouring states.”

For the past month Cairo has been vocal in its opposition to two agreements signed between the government of Fayez Al-Sarraj — which still has international recognition — and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a political adversary of the Egyptian regime.

Egypt, both government officials say, has already been “very patient” with the influence that Turkey has been exercising “over Al-Sarraj in order to give greater room for Islamist groups” in Libya, part of a wider scheme by Ankara to promote political Islam.

The same officials say it is impossible for Cairo to accept a situation that would allow for “any concentrated Turkish military presence along Egypt’s borders” or any threat to the planned pipeline that will allow Egypt to export gas to Europe via Greece and Cyprus.

In recent weeks Egyptian officials had been in contact with world capitals to underline the Egyptian position and to consider possible exits from the current escalation which peaked earlier this week when Erdogan announced the beginning of the deployment of forces in Libya.

“The message we carried to Cairo is that the Turkish troops will not have any combat orders and will stay far away from the Egyptian border,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.

“We are convinced that Egypt, despite the increased support it has been offering [Libyan National Army head] Khalifa Haftar recently, is not seeking a military confrontation with Turkey on Libyan soil. We are also sure that despite strong animosity towards the Egyptian regime Erdogan is not looking for a war with Egypt. We hope we can help contain the tension.”

On Monday, Haftar, who has been engaged in an open-ended military offensive to win Tripoli since April, managed to secure control of Sirte just as Turkish forces were arriving in Tripoli.

“What is of concern is not the positioning of this or that side but that things could get out of hand,” the same European diplomat said. He added that Wednesday’s meeting in Cairo could help avoid an unwanted confrontation.

On Monday, Jossep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, called for de-escalation of the volatile situation in Libya.  

On the same day the UN Security Council held a closed meeting on Libya. Speaking in the early hours of Tuesday an informed source said that the one thing that is clear is that everybody wants to avoid further escalation. The source added that the issue is not just about regional powers but also international players vying for control over Libya and its oil and gas resources.

“Everybody knows that Libya is a problem. But while we all fear that it is becoming a chronic problem the last thing we are prepared for is for Libya to become an explosive one, especially at this very tense moment in the region,” the European diplomat said.

Since the US air strike on Friday in Baghdad which killed Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds military force and one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Republic, the region has been on edge.

Iranian officials have repeatedly vowed revenge, with some talking about targeting US military installations across the Middle East, US ships in the Gulf and Washington’s allies in the region.

On Monday, as the remains of Suleimani were buried in Iran at the end of three days of funeral rites, new vows of revenge were made.

In a rare appearance at the meeting of the Iranian national security council the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed retaliation for the killing of Suleimani.

Khamenei tweeted, “the loss of our dear General Suleimani is bitter. The continuing fight and ultimate victory will be bitter for the murders and criminals.”

In Washington, US President Donald Trump had already anticipated that Iran would hit back and warned of new attacks against 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, should Iran attack US interests.

Trump, who is in the midst of an impeachment process, is likely to face a new move from the US Congress to limit his ability to order military attacks.

Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, who has been openly critical of the Suleimani operation for its possible impact on US interests, said that a “war power resolution” will be introduced to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran.

The US has already ordered over 3,000 troops to move to the Middle East and has been pulling its citizens from Iraq, the likely scene of any possible US-Iran confrontation.

On Sunday the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to end the presence of American troops in Iraq. Trump has vowed that if forced to pull out, the US would impose sanctions on Iraq “like they have never seen before”.

Meanwhile, Iran announced on Monday that it would no longer adhere to the caps on its nuclear programme embodied in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Informed sources in Cairo spoke of “intense” diplomatic moves to end the escalation.  

Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has spoken openly of high-level mediation between Iraq and the US. The foreign minister of Qatar, a close ally of Iran, was in Tehran earlier this week to discuss developments. The EU is due to hold a foreign ministers meeting to discuss the situation in Iran on Friday.

Government officials in Cairo said on Monday that while Egypt hopes that the situation does not get out of hand there are as yet no guarantees this latest round of US-Iran tensions will be contained.

Cairo is particularly worried about the scope of confrontation which could include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

While Iranian officials warned of possible attacks against US military installations in Iraq and Syria, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in Lebanon, said his group would join any planned revenge against the US and its allies in the Middle East.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: New year, old foes

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