Here is an English version of my latest piece in Al-Hurra
Zohr Gas Field- Photo via Offshore Technology
Last week, Egypt launched a comprehensive security operation, Sinai 2018, mainly targeting terror groups in the country. A quick glance, however, at the intensive activities of the Egyptian navy within this unprecedented security operation indicates that the operation’s goal also has some regional objectives. Sinai 2018 is not just a mission against terrorists; it is also a message to rival regional foes, mainly Turkey.
Days after Egypt inaugurated the first stage of production at the super-giant Mediterranean Zohr gas field, Turkey announced it would explore oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey justified its clear rejection of 2013’s maritime border demarcation between Egypt and Cyprus by saying it “violates the Turkish continental shelf at latitude 32, 16, and 18 degrees.” Turkey also said Greek Cypriots were disregarding the “inalienable rights on natural resources” of Turkish Cypriots and jeopardizing the region’s stability.
Alarmingly, Turkey’s hostile rhetoric and threats of legal action have been coupled with an aggressive manoeuvre. Last Friday, Turkish warships obstructed a rig belonging to the Italian energy firm, ENI, which discovered and operates the Egyptian Zohr field, and prevented it from approaching an exploration area southeast of Cyprus.
Cairo has not taken Turkey’s rhetoric lightly – even before the latest obstruction of ENI’s rig. Reuters reports that Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Ahmed Abu Zeid, warned that “any attempt to infringe or diminish Egypt’s rights in that area” would be confronted. Abu Zeid added that the accord between Egypt and Cyprus in 2013 had been deposited with the United Nations.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is right to point out that as long as there is no mutual cooperation between the Eastern Mediterranean countries concerned due to the demarcation issue, war could break out at any moment. Indeed, the prospect of an all-out confrontation between Egypt and Turkey as a result of this maritime dispute is much more probable than one arising out of all the other possible Eastern Mediterranean gas disputes.
Observers of the Turkish-Egyptian impasse point to the bitter rivalry between Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi,, which has been brewing for the past five years. Since the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egyptian President Morsi in 2013, Turkey’s President Erdogan has showered the Egyptian leadership with hostile rhetoric. He has also welcomed many exiled Brotherhood figures and allowed Istanbul to be the base for many anti-Sisi TV channels.
Nonetheless, the gas conflict between Egypt and Turkey is much deeper than the two countries’ ideological differences.
President Erdogan sees the Turkish Republic as a continuation of the Ottoman Empire. Despite having a successfully functioning state, Erdogan is keen on reconfiguring it to fit his ideological Islamist agenda, in which he sees himself as the leader of an Ottoman-inspired political Islamist project. Within that contest, the question of gas drilling for Turkey is a matter of prestige and regional influence, and not necessarily based on need or a gas scarcity. Economically, Turkey has adopted a new energy policy, in which it adopts a shift from an energy sector-based mainly on imported natural gas to an integrated energy industry based on local resources such as coal and renewables. Moreover, Turkey aims to trade the excess gas that will have access.
For Egypt, however, the Mediterranean gas issue is a not a matter of ideology or regional rivalry, but a life-or-death situation. ENI SpA’s massive “Zohr” natural gas field and its huge reserves could prove a permanent remedy to the most populous Arab nation’s power needs and bring Egypt closer to its goal of energy self-sufficiency. No Egyptian president can simply afford to let it go. The alternative would be a return of the dreaded era of power blackouts and massive public queues to purchase gas cylinders.
Egypt views security along its Mediterranean borders as a matter of great importance, and that it must be maintained at all costs. Since the start of the Sinai 2018 operation, Egyptian Army spokesmen have made no effort to hide the fact that defending the country’s maritime economic goals is part of the mission.
Turkey’s latest aggressive behavior against the Italian company ENI’s ship will not go unnoticed in Cairo. Ankara’s neo-Ottoman leadership probably understands that settling a maritime legal dispute will take years, and the verdict may not be in its favor; therefore, it has seemingly decided to switch to bullying tactics to make the drilling for the Italian company challenging and costly. Erdogan’s regime has become increasingly unpredictable. Its “playing-with-fire” attitude can easily ignite a regional confrontation Egypt will not shy away from easily.
Backing down to Turkey on the 2013 maritime deal with Cyprus would simply be suicidal for any Egyptian leadership, and not just the current one of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The current year has started with a huge Egyptian military manoeuvre. Egypt is subtly telling the increasingly ambitious Turkish leadership to stay away from its new Mediterranean treasure____ the Zohr gas field.