Erdogan’s statements over Libya, gas seen by Egypt as ‘crossing red lines’

The Egyptian Navy conducted drills December 11 in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sunday 15/12/2019
At wits’ end? Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) and his Cyprus counterpart Nikos Christodoulides talk to reporters after their meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, last July. (AP)
At wits’ end? Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) and his Cyprus counterpart Nikos Christodoulides talk to reporters after their meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, last July. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt reacted firmly to statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about Ankara’s willingness to be militarily involved in Libya and its ambitions over natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In an interview with the official Turkish news channel, TRT, Erdogan said Turkey would send troops to Libya if asked to by the western Libyan government.

He also claimed that Eastern Mediterranean countries Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel could not explore natural gas in the region without approval from Ankara, following a maritime boundary delimitation agreement between him and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the internationally recognised Libyan government.

Erdogan’s remarks, Egyptian analysts said, cross Egyptian national security red lines and cannot be taken lightly by Cairo.

“Erdogan is consumed by a desire to have more presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with his eyes fixed on the unfolding natural gas wealth of the region,” said Ali Masoud, dean of the College of Economics and Political Science at Beni Suef University in Egypt. ”

Egypt is at the centre of natural gas wealth in the region, with foreign companies exploring its territorial waters discovering additional reserves.

Cairo, trying to put the natural gas market in the region in order through alliances with other producers and consumers, plans to become an energy hub. It seeks to collect natural gas extracted from other regional countries, process it and export it to Europe, a process that would greatly change Egypt’s strategic importance.

A gigantic field discovered by an Italian company off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast in 2015 produces 3 billion cubic feet of gas a day, almost one-third of the Arab country’s daily production.

However, Turkey’s destabilising role may stand in the way, especially with the agreement signed by Sarraj and Erdogan imposing new limits.

Erdogan said in his interview with TRT that Eastern Mediterranean countries cannot extend pipelines in the region without approval from Turkey. This hits at the heart of Egypt’s economic dreams and political aspirations, analysts said.

“Erdogan’s remarks have no basis in international law,” said Ramadan Abul Ela, who teaches petroleum engineering at Suez Canal University. “Turkey cannot prevent any of the Eastern Mediterranean nations from either exploring gas or extending pipelines.”

Egypt rejected the Erdogan-Sarraj memorandum and a document on expanded security and military cooperation.

The Egyptian military projected preparedness for protecting Egypt’s economic interests in the Mediterranean and for possible emergencies in the region. The Egyptian Navy conducted drills December 11 in the Eastern Mediterranean. Participating in the drills were various units and equipment, including a helicopter carrier and a submarine.

“The troops have demonstrated a high proficiency in securing Egypt’s economic interests,” the military said in a statement.

Libya has been a security problem for Egypt ever since the North African state fell into lawlessness following the downfall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011.

The disintegration of the Libyan state means that Egypt must guard its 1,200km border with Libya alone. However, terrorist groups in Libya have been able to smuggle large amounts of arms and explosives into Egypt in recent years.

Turkish military involvement in Libya would make things worse.

Islamist-leaning Erdogan stands at the opposite side of the ideological spectrum to Egypt. He supports the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that rose to power in Egypt in 2012 but was ousted the following year.

In Libya, Erdogan backs Islamist militias controlling western Libya, including Tripoli. Turkey sends military support to the militias, including drones and armoured vehicles.

Libya’s unrest is perceived by Egypt as directly affecting its security. Cairo has called several times for ending foreign interference in Libyan affairs, especially support to terrorist militias in the country.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, speaking December 10, called for a firm stance against states that support terrorist organisations.

“We should not let parochial interests, including economic aid, make us overlook the role some countries play in supporting terrorist organisations. We must have a decisive stance against these states,” Sisi said at an African peace and development conference in southern Egypt.

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