Securing the Eastern Mediterranean

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 10 Dec 2020

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Paris this week is an opportunity for closer cooperation between France and Egypt to secure the Eastern Mediterranean

The recent spike in the number of military exercises conducted by the Egyptian armed forces signifies an increasing interest on the part of the government towards securing the country’s northern naval borders from growing threats either from terrorism or from hostile nations such as Turkey. 

The latest military exercise, entitled Medusa 10 and carried out in cooperation with Greece and Cyprus and with French and Emirati naval forces joining in, shows Egypt’s interest in securing its borders with the cooperation of its closest allies in the region. The French and Emirati participation for the first time in what has up until now been an Egyptian-Hellenic military exercise shows that both France and the UAE share Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot concerns at the threats represented by Turkey under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the stability of the region. 

The latest exercises displayed brilliant coordination of the joint forces during the manoeuvres, with the allied forces completing the tasked missions. 

They were preceded by an official visit by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Greece on 12 November, where he met Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. It is hard in these troubled times to find two countries who have aligned their agendas more around a clear vision of who the enemy is than Egypt and Greece. The enemy is clearly the Islamist regime in Turkey that has worked vehemently to support terrorism and elements leading to instability in the Eastern Mediterranean region. 

Greece has used its position as a member of the European Union to rally allies against the marauding Turkish regime, which has exacerbated conflict in the region from Armenia to Libya and Syria to the Arabian Gulf. Thanks to Greek diplomacy, the EU has now awoken from its long slumber and is facing up to Turkey head on, while also threatening harsh economic and political sanctions on the Turkish regime by December if Erdogan does not comply with EU demands to halt illegal drilling activities in the Mediterranean. 

Similarly, Egyptian diplomacy has rallied a number of Middle Eastern and Arab countries against the Turkish regime, warning them of the threats represented by the Erdogan regime and its vassal state Qatar. These efforts have given rise to a stronger front that includes, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and the Libyan National Army. 

An equally important member of the alliance against the threats posed by the Turkish regime and Qatari-funded groups is France, which is a strategic partner of Egypt and a strong ally of Greece. Egypt and France have enjoyed a long-term strategic partnership for decades extending back to the early 1970s. However, during Al-Sisi’s presidency, this cooperation has been taken to a different level in military, political and economic terms.

France is now the largest supplier to the Egyptian military, and over the past five years it has sold high-end equipment including frigates, corvettes and fighter jets to the Egyptian navy and air force. President Al-Sisi’s official visit to France this week signifies a higher level in this growing cooperation. 

Egypt and France share the same enemy in Erdogan’s terrorist-supporting regime, which has spared no efforts in its attempts to destabilise both countries. Erdogan declared openly last week that he hoped France would “get rid of” French President Emmanuel Macron as soon as possible. This is an unprecedented breach of diplomatic protocol, as well as of tact and manners, between most countries of the NATO alliance. But it is not the first time that Erdogan has said something similar, given his long history of interfering, in vain, particularly in Egyptian affairs. 

France shares Egypt’s vision of a stable Eastern Mediterranean, starting from a desire to secure naval routes and prevent the illegal exploration carried out by Turkey in Greek and Cypriot territorial waters. It also shares Egypt’s vision of the situation in Libya and against the terrorist militias imported into the country by Turkey in support of Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Tripoli government. 

The summit meeting between Al-Sisi and Macron in Paris this week may be the most important between the two leaders in years, as France is waging a war on Islamists and Islamist radicalism in the country in an echo of the war that Egypt has also been waging. Egypt has now successfully curbed the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated organisations in the country.

France has banned groups related to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the French president plans to do more to curb Islamism in his country and to protect French national identity. Macron could take a few hints from Egypt’s war against the Muslim Brotherhood in tracking the infiltration of Islamists into different institutions of the French state. 

Protecting the tenets of the republic and national identity are common priorities of the two presidents. Even so, France and most of the rest of Europe has been reluctant to ban the Muslim Brotherhood, though there have been calls to ban it and its affiliates across France. If France decides to ban the Brotherhood, this will be a game-changer, not just in this country but across the European Union and a slap in the face for Erdogan, as he is the group’s major political and financial supporter.  

France came to the rescue when Erdogan threatened the Greek navy in Greek and Cypriot territorial waters three months ago, and the French navy has forced Erdogan to give up thoughts of engaging with the Greek navy. France has also moved a number of fighter jets to the area as a sign of solidarity with Cyprus against any potential aggression by Erdogan. 

Macron remains the only leader in Europe aside from the Greek and Cypriot ones who has not yielded to Erdogan’s ridiculous ambitions. In this, he will find President Al-Sisi to be a real ally in curbing the Islamist menace coming from Turkey. 

Moreover, the coming period could see interesting new security arrangements emerging that could involve the participants in the Medusa military exercises, namely Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France and the UAE, as well as other countries that share the same concerns regarding Turkish and Iranian moves in the region.

Securing the Eastern Mediterranean is not a simple matter of securing commercial links and preventing acts of terrorism and piracy. It extends to new horizons that include curbing radicalism domestically and confronting those countries that support it. It is a task that may prove daunting, but safety must come first, and securing it will come at a price that is worth paying.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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