Could Egypt and Turkey come to blows in the Eastern Mediterranean?

The Eastern Mediterranean is heating up. Turkey's decision to drill off the coast of southern Cyprus has once again drawn attention to the volatile region, and a number of international agencies and countries, including the United States and the European Union, have warned Turkey over its drilling activities.

One of these countries is Egypt. Turkish-Egyptian relations have been at a low point since 2013, when the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. On May 4, Egypt warned Turkey not to start drilling near southern Cyprus, saying it would “impact the security and stability in the eastern Mediterranean.”

This has raised the question of whether the two prominent Muslim countries could come to a confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean.

The rifts between President Abdel Fettah Al-Sisi's Egypt and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Turkey mostly stem from ideological differences, but the maritime jurisdiction dispute in the eastern Mediterranean is a whole different matter.

The Greek Republic of Cyprus signed an agreement to demarcate its exclusive economic zones (EEZ) with Egypt in 2003. But Turkey claims that this agreement “violates the Turkish continental shelf", and Ankara does not recognise the Greek Cypriot administration’s sovereignty over the whole island. 

It instead backs the Turkish administration in Northern Cyprus, and says any exploitation of energy reserves by the Greek Cypriots would deny Turkish Cypriots their rightful share of the potential wealth. 

Turkey has flexed its naval muscles to prevent survey and drilling ships from entering both the area it claims is on its continental shelf and the blocks licensed by the Northern Cyprus administration. However, it has so far refrained from intervening in Egypt's activities. 

"Egypt is the most critical country in the energy equation in the eastern Mediterranean with its infrastructure and proven reserves" said Fatoş San, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the European University of Lefke. "It is also a key country for what I call the Greek Cypriots’ 'cable and pipeline diplomacy'.” 

The Greek Cypriot administration plans to export its gas via Egypt to the energy-hungry European market. This would provide the EU, which signed a deal with Egypt for strategic cooperation in energy in April 2018, with its long-sought after alternative to Russian gas.

Egypt could also become an important alternative energy source for Turkey, which currently depends heavily on Russian and Iranian gas. Egyptian exports could become especially important given the U.S. sanctions against Iran, for which Turkey is seeking but is not guaranteed to receive a waiver. 

San noted that Turkey began importing what is set to be 3 percent of its annual gas need from Egypt in January 2019. This makes a Turkey-Egypt conflict unlikely.

Egypt, one of the biggest military powers in the MENA, is in the process of modernising its naval and air forces with Western and Russian-built high-tech ships, aircrafts and weapons. It is also building new naval bases and headquarters. 

"These aren't only related to Turkey, but Egypt is trying to become a regional force with political and military influence on Middle East countries" said Mahmoud Gamal, an Egyptian military affairs researcher. "Egypt is also seeking to control the maritime jurisdiction zones to protect its coasts and secure exclusive sources of energy." 

Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot military relations have become tighter, with a tripartite security agreement signed in 2015, and the three countries began conducting the joint military exercises known as Medusa, in the same year. The drills have been interpreted as a response to Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

"If any of these countries faced any military threat, this country would be supported by the other countries in this alliance", Gamal said, referring to the 2015 agreement.

"I can say that if the situation developed and reached a military escalation between Turkey and Cyprus, Egypt would provide military support to Cyprus, but wouldn't enter directly in any military conflict with Turkey by virtue of its policy and military strategy." 

However, Dr. Nervana Mahmoud, an Egyptian political analyst, believes there is a chance of conflict if Turkey views Egypt as an easier target due to Cyprus’s EU membership. 

“Any attack on Cyprus would be ‘legally' an attack on the EU. This is not the 1970s," she said. 

At the moment, the possibility of Turkey-Egypt conflict appears low. However, the most likely trigger for a breaking point for the countries’ relations would be Egypt’s delineation agreement with Greece, talks for which have been steadily progressing over the past year. 

If Egypt agrees to accept the EEZ claimed by Greece, which includes islands such as Kastelorizo and Crete, this would mean Cairo does not recognise Turkey’s jurisdiction over large areas it says lies on its continental shelf.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.