Egyptian officials have revealed that they stand to benefit more from the Turkey-Libya deal then with what is on the table with Greece.

Last week, an Egyptian official gave a revealing statement to Mada Masr, a Cairo based media platform, saying “the Foreign Ministry and the General Intelligence Service (GIS) were lobbying the Egyptian Presidency for a quiet acceptance of the Turkey-Libya maritime deal, as it would grant Cairo a sizable maritime concession in the stalled maritime negotiations (with Greece).” 

However, the presidency rejected their recommendations. 

The statement confirms previous information on the disagreements within Egyptian institutions on how to deal with the Greece issue given that Egyptian experts are in favor of the Ankara-Tripoli maritime deal because it caters to the interest of the Egyptian state, while the presidency is in favor of continuing negotiations with Greece.

Last year, several allegedly official documents on the negotiation process between Egypt and Greece were leaked to the media. One expert document noted that the Greek team “lacked credibility and resorted to crooked methods” in negotiations. 

According to the document, the Greek continued “fallacy and false claims”, and “exploited the political understanding between the two governments to embarrass the Egyptian negotiating-legal team." 

Another document by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to President Sisi reveals disagreements between Cairo and Athens on the appropriate principle to delimit maritime boundaries. It clearly states that the Greek position will result in the loss of around 10,000 square kilometres of Egypt's share, an area that almost equals the size of a country like Lebanon.

The surprising Turkey-Libya maritime agreement in November 2019, however, shuffled the cards in the Eastern Mediterranean and provided Egypt with leverage against the maximalist behavior of Greece. 

Cairo’s initial contrasting statements on the agreement reflect this fact. 

Although the Egyptian and the Greek governments swiftly condemned the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement, Cairo used a different pretext than Athens to target the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) rather than the content of the agreement itself. 

During his participation in the Rome conference in December 2019, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukri, raised eyebrows when he implicitly acknowledged that the deal is in Cairo’s favor, affirming that the aforementioned agreement “doesn’t harm Egypt’s interest” in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

When interests align

Now that the Turkey-Libya maritime agreement is a fact, Egypt has two options. One, reach an agreement with Turkey and Libya that gives Cairo a vast maritime area. Two, reach an agreement with Greece which claims that specific area in addition to possibly more areas from Egypt’s share. 

In this context, Turkey has been silently working in the last few months to court Egypt based on the common interests of the two nations in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Ankara’s message was simple: cooperation with Turkey in that region is in Cairo’s interest. 

In a press conference held in December 2019, Ibrahim Kalin, Spokesman of the Turkish President, said that they have received information from different sources including official channels that Egypt was actually “very happy” with Turkey- Libya maritime agreement. 

Despite the political tensions between the two countries, economic relations are promising. Egypt right now Turkey's largest trading partner in Africa. According to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Turkey emerged in the first nine months of 2019 as the fourth biggest importing country from Egypt with $1.2 billion. 

In 2018, the volume of trade between the two countries increased by 20 percent reaching a record of $5.246 billion, compared to $4.358 billion in 2017. 

As the biggest energy consumer in the region, Ankara’s annual energy bill exceeds $41 billion. While this number can constitute a burden, it can also be used as leverage in Turkey’s relations with other countries who seek to export more of their gas or oil to Ankara. 

In this sense, figures related to Turkey’s gas imports lately show a change in the traditional trends of Ankara’s import policy. According to the recently released figures by the Turkish Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EMRA), Ankara’s LNG imports from Egypt increased last March by almost 100 percent compared to the same month of the last year from zero m3 to almost 93 million m3. 

Ankara’s unmistakable tenor is that an interest-based approach rather than an ideological one will benefit both Turkey and Egypt in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Just a few days ago, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu uncovered that with the authorisation of President Erdogan, various communications were established with Egypt in the past, but the situation in Libya has strained it slightly. 

A secure and politically stable Libya offers both Turkey and Egypt vast economic opportunities. The Turkey-Libya maritime agreement entitles Egypt to a huge increase in its Exclusive Economic Zone that can be – according to some calculations – “as big as the territory of Serbia.” This equates to more than 25 times the size of Cairo. 

Spoiler alert

But if this is the case, why would the Egyptian Presidency refuse recommendations from its FM and GIS to accept the Turkey-Libya maritime agreement that would benefit Egypt?

Two main reasons can help explain this riddle. First, despite the massive crackdown on the opposition and other political parties in the country for more than seven years, the Egyptian government is still very fragile. With the lack of internal legitimacy, the government feels it needs to compensate for this by giving continuous concessions to the West (in this case Greece/Europe, Israel/US).

The second reason, however, is mostly related to the deep influence of the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the Egyptian government. The Egyptian President, Sisi, literally owes getting to power, and staying there, to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. 

In the last eight years or so, the GCC states supported Cairo with more than $92 billion. The vast majority of this amount was paid by those two capitals in the aftermath of the coup led by Sisi against the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. 

Many Egyptians fear that Sisi might end up relinquishing Egypt’s rights and interests in the Mediterranean to Greece rather than securing them through an agreement with Turkey and Libya. They refer to a similar incident when Sisi decided to cede Egyptian lands in the form of two strategic islands in the Red Sea, Tiran, and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2016. 

Recently, there have been several reports on the emerging disagreements between Cairo and Abu Dhabi on the best way to empower Haftar. The UAE insisted on a military resolution by taking Tripoli and overthrowing the UN-recognised government. 

Cairo had to eventually agree given that Abu Dhabi is the primary financial and military supporter of Haftar. However, the Emirates' malicious plan backfired and ended up empowering Turkey and Russia in Libya and reducing Egypt’s role to a mere observer. 

Turkey would still be open to discuss a common interest with Egypt in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean but the idea itself is very scary to Abu Dhabi and several regional capitals. This is one reason why we have been increasingly witnessing Emirati voices instigating Cairo to engage in a military confrontation with Turkey in Libya.   

All in all, while Turkey is working to court Egypt based on common interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, UAE is applying pressure on Sisi to work against Egypt's own interests. 

The hardcore interest calculations say that Cairo will gain from aligning itself with Ankara, while it is set to lose if it is to follow the UAE-driven ideological confrontation with Turkey.

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