Turkey-GNA maritime deal rings alarms in Egypt

Turkey’s and Egypt’s row over Libya is also about control of natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean
Sunday 08/12/2019
Turbulent waters. Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus. (Reuters)
Turbulent waters. Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Speculation is rife over what Egypt and its allies will do to rein in Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean after Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libya’s Government of National Accord on maritime boundary delimitation.

Cairo rejected the document and said it has no legal standing.

“Such documents have no legal effects and cannot be recognised,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry reiterated the message following a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.

Shoukry and Dendias said Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which rules most of western Libya, did not have the right to sign deals with other countries.

Turkish interference in Libyan affairs, they added, exacerbates the situation in the war-torn country and sabotages efforts to forge a peace settlement.

Turkey said it signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime boundary delineation and another on security cooperation with the GNA. Ankara has not made details of either document public but they are thought to give Istanbul greater influence over the Eastern Mediterranean and allow it to expand its military presence in western Libya.

Turkey has increased military support to the GNA and allied Islamist militias in their showdown with the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls most of eastern, central and southern Libya.

This drew the ire of Cairo, which supports the LNA and is at odds with Turkey over its backing of political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Turkey’s and Egypt’s row over Libya is also about control of natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, analysts said.

Egypt’s energy situation gained strength after an Italian state-owned company drilling off the Egyptian Mediterranean coast found a giant natural gas field in August 2015. The Zohr field produces 2.7 billion cubic feet of gas every day, almost one-third of Egypt’s overall daily production.

Production from the field and from other recent discoveries helped Cairo achieve self-sufficiency and allow the country to export gas to international markets.

Natural gas finds off Egypt and other Eastern Mediterranean countries are contributing to massive political, economic and geostrategic changes in the region.

In January, Egypt, which aspires to become a regional energy hub, formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a mechanism for cooperation between natural gas producers and consumers in the region. The group includes Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Forum members invited other regional countries to join but Turkey has made cooperation difficult, analysts said.

“Turkey wants to hamper cooperation between Egypt and other Eastern Mediterranean states by standing in the way,” said Gehad Auda, a professor of political science at Helwan University. “This is not an ideological conflict but one for controlling resources in a very rich region.”

Turkey has been trying to gain leverage against Egypt by increasing its presence in Egypt’s immediate vicinity. Apart from trying to gain a foothold in Libya, Istanbul nurtured close ties with former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir before his ouster in April.

In September 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement with al-Bashir for administrative control of the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin, just a few kilometres from Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

The security pact and the maritime boundary delimitation deal with Sarraj, which Erdogan said would be implemented once approved by parliament, add pressure on Cairo.

“These deals turn Libya into an operations centre against Egypt,” said former Libyan Ambassador to Egypt Mohamed Fayez Jibril. “This is why Egypt is very concerned.”

The European Union also expressed concern, calling for publication of the maritime boundary delimitation deal between the two sides and expressed support for the sovereign rights of Greece and Cyprus.

The view in Cairo is that further Turkish involvement in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean would lead to more conflict in both areas.

“The deals give Turkey a free hand in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya,” said Nadia Helmy, a political science professor at Beni Suef University. “This poses major threats to Egypt’s national security.”