Eastern Mediterranean gas is key to Egypt-Turkey tensions?

“If Turkey seizes Cypriot gas, it means that the next step will be the Egyptian gas concession areas," said Rafiq Dayasti, a professor of geopolitics at Cairo’s Helwan University.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Cypriot Defence Minister Savvas Angelides (R) talks with his Egyptian counterpart Lieutenant-General Mohamed Ahmed Zaki in Nicosia, September 11. (AP)
A gentleman’s deal. Cypriot Defence Minister Savvas Angelides (R) talks with his Egyptian counterpart Lieutenant-General Mohamed Ahmed Zaki in Nicosia, September 11. (AP)

CAIRO - As contention grows over control of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, it may be time to reinterpret many of the crises in the Middle East.

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Cyprus and Greece have condemned Turkey for drilling for natural gas in Cyprus’s maritime areas in violation of international agreements, an accusation Turkey’s Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected.

Although the matter seems to be a dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, Turkish journalist Esra Elonu, who is close to the Turkish regime, indicated it could have larger implications for Egypt.

“If [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi wants to stop protests against him, he should sit for dialogue on the Mediterranean gas,” Elonu posted on Twitter September 20. Yasin Aktay, chief adviser to the Turkish presidency, re-tweeted the comment before it was deleted by the journalist.

Elonu’s tweet makes sense when taking into account reports about the connections of Egyptian actor and contractor Mohamed Ali, who helped spark an anti-Sisi protest movement, to the Qatari ambassador in Madrid. Qatar is Turkey’s most prominent Arab ally.

Ali, a businessman who lives in self-imposed exile in Spain, urged Egyptians to protest about his allegations of government corruption. Brotherhood officials said the call did not receive sufficient support, a leaked audio recording broadcast on Egyptian television indicated.

His calls for protests are believed to be supported by Muslim Brotherhood officials in Turkey, a leaked audio recording between London-based Brotherhood leader Mohamed Sudan and an unknown brotherhood official in Turkey and broadcast on Egyptian television indicated.

Rafiq Dayasti, a professor of geopolitics at Cairo’s Helwan University, said the dispute between Turkey and Egypt began when Turkey intruded on Cypriot waters because this means undermining the maritime borders demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus, which guarantees Egypt’s rights to Mediterranean gas.

Egypt’s first maritime border demarcation agreement with Cyprus was reached in 2003 by President Hosni Mubarak. The accord was widely criticised for squandering Egypt’s rights to natural gas reserves in the interest of Cyprus and Israel.

Later, the regime of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Muhammad Morsi, which was hostile to Mubarak, surprisingly neglected to make adjustments to the agreement or investigating Mubarak’s regime for allegedly failing to protect Egypt’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In February 2013, Egypt’s prosecutor, then tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, closed investigations into Mubarak for his alleged role in the Israeli-Cypriot takeover of the Samson gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean and other fields in Egyptian territory.

In 2014, Sisi repaired ties with Cyprus with a supplementary agreement to work with the country on part of its Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves near Egyptian maritime borders. He concluded a maritime border agreement with Greece in 2016 to guarantee Egypt’s rights in many gas concession areas.

Ankara repeatedly condemned the new agreements, claiming they violate the rights of Turkey and northern Cyprus, indicating that Ankara may have lent support to Morsi because of his neglect regarding Mediterranean gas.

Cyprus has been divided into two parts since 1974: one of Turkish origin in the north, whose government is not internationally recognised, and another area of Greek origin in the south. In 2004, Greek Cypriots rejected a UN plan to unify the island in exchange for allowing a Turkish military presence in the north.

“If Turkey seizes Cypriot gas, it means that the next step will be the Egyptian gas concession areas, some of which are close to the Cypriot waters,” Dayasti said.

When Italian energy firm Eni sent a drilling rig in 2018 to explore Mediterranean Cypriot’s Block 8 concession area, whose hydrocarbon reserves may extend into areas covered by the Egyptian-Cypriot partnership of 2014, Turkey sent frigates to harass the rig, pushing the company to pull it.

However, it seems that the Egyptian regime is no longer willing to stand still against Turkish threats, said Mahmoud Zahran, a journalist specialising in Turkish affairs.

“The first meeting of the Egyptian-established Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, in July 2019, in partnership with seven countries poses a clear threat to Turkey if the forum would create an alliance to protect the interests of its countries in the Mediterranean,” Zahran said.

That forum includes Italy, Greece and Cyprus — members of the European Union, which Turkey has been in stalled negotiations to enter — and Israel, a close ally of the United States, which has threatened to impose economic sanctions on Ankara since the election of President Donald Trump.

Egypt, an ally of Mediterranean and Gulf countries, is posed with an opportunity to unify its allies in combating Turkish influence, especially with Ankara at odds with major Gulf powers because of its support for Qatar against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have been boycotting Doha since June 2017.

In September, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in Nicosia, the first Saudi official to make the trip. His visit was accompanied by social media campaigns aimed at increasing Saudi tourism to Cyprus over Turkey.

Saudi Arabia sends the third-most tourists to Turkey yearly.