Changing threat dynamics irk Egypt amid new wave of regional competition

For Cairo, the emerging Turkish strategy in its neighbourhood could characterise a direct challenge.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks in Berlin. (DPA)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks in Berlin. (DPA)

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and largest non-oil economy, is confronting changing threat dynamics as its neighbourhood undergoes important developments and becomes an arena for international competition.

Expectations of Cairo from the Arab world and Africa to perform a multilateral leadership role have meant Egypt has traditionally carried a sense of great responsibilities as a transregional power.

The Arab League has its headquarters in Cairo and Egypt has held the rotating chairmanship since last February. Yet, reconciling Arab or African affairs has become progressively challenging as internal conflicts and political instability raged across both regions, which have become an arena for intense international competition.

Stepping away from the wider regional lens, however, Egypt’s immediate neighbourhood is a microcosm of what has been happening beyond. Egypt shares its major land and maritime borders with Sudan, which saw the breakaway of South Sudan in 2011 after a ravaging conflict that claimed nearly 2 million lives, and oil-rich Libya, whose instability continues with its civil war in the post-Qaddafi era, as well as the Palestinian enclave of Gaza and Israel.

Egypt shares maritime borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the Red Sea and with Cyprus and Greece, parts of which Turkey is effectively laying claim to, in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Eastern Mediterranean has seen major discoveries of natural gas deposits that have generated a drive for cooperation in some cases but disputes in others, most notably regarding Turkey’s drilling activities in and around Cypriot waters and increasingly its widening activities in Libya.

Last year, Egypt convened the East Mediterranean Gas Forum with the participation of Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Israel and the Palestinian territories in a bid to build regional cooperation and develop a common approach to the region’s gas resources. The Eastern Mediterranean’s gas deposits have been estimated at 122 trillion cubic feet. To put that into perspective, Europe’s annual demand is approximately 200 billion cubic feet and it sources about one-third of that from Russia.

Turkey recently concluded a maritime border delimitation agreement with Libya and authorised troop deployment to the country, with both moves going down controversially in the region and beyond. It is a move that comes two years after Ankara signed a lease agreement with Sudan for its second main port in Suakin.

For Cairo, the emerging Turkish strategy in its neighbourhood could characterise a direct challenge. Leaving aside Egypt’s recent history with Turkey and its support under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Mubarak period, Cairo’s strategic goal to develop into a major energy hub could be compromised by Ankara’s quest for the same.

Egypt occupies a strategic location, which it is aiming to utilise to export gas shipments to Europe as well as the Middle East and possibly Asia. Egypt operates gas liquefaction stations in Idku and Damietta and has agreements with Israel and Cyprus for the supply of natural gas by ship and via pipelines from their offshore fields, which it can process and then export.

Access to the Suez Canal, which saw its capacity doubled with a major expansion project completed in 2016, is controlled at the foot of the Red Sea by the Bab el Mandeb Strait. It is overlooked by Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Yemen, yet another strategic theatre of instability.

Geopolitically speaking, Djibouti is a peculiarity because it is host to a major US military base, France’s largest overseas base, an Italian military base and the only overseas military bases of Japan and China — the latter building its base at a cost of nearly $600 million.

South of Djibouti lies Somalia, whose civil war lingers on three decades later but which is engaged in a slow-moving and fragile transitional political process. Across the Red Sea from Djibouti and Somalia is Yemen. Its civil war and problematic future considering the role and activities of Houthi rebels, which last year swore allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, provide yet another complex challenge to the management of regional security and affairs.

Recent geological assessments concluded that levels of ethane and propane in the air above the northern Red Sea may be a result of gases rising from subterranean reservoirs under the seabed. The Red Sea basin and its approaches could, therefore, hold a significance beyond freedom of navigation at sea for growing maritime traffic into the energy realm here, too.

Water insecurity is another evolving threat for Egypt that is increasingly geostrategic in nature. Dependent on 90% of its waters from the Nile, Egypt has a long-standing dispute with Ethiopia, a land-locked country of nearly 108 million people, over its construction of the region’s largest dam project on the Nile’s main tributary, the Blue Nile. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam eventually hopes to help nearly half a dozen neighbouring countries meet their electricity needs.

Egypt has taken a multidimensional approach to deal with these new threat dynamics, combining considerable policy investment into major political initiatives such as the Council of Red Sea and Gulf of Aden States with Saudi Arabia, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and US-brokered political negotiations with Ethiopia in addition to deepening bilateral engagements with neighbouring countries.

Cairo has also enhanced its military modernisation effort with the purchase of new combat aircraft and vessels to project air and naval power, developing new military bases including in Berenice in the Red Sea — inaugurated in January — and in Gargoub, near its border with Libya, for example. With a redeployment of military assets to deliver a strategic re-posturing of forces, Egypt has also initiated a programme of war games and military exercises to bolster operational readiness against potential security threats.