The world is closely watching the intense diplomatic rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, over the past month. The many disagreements between Cairo and Ankara kept the two countries apart for nearly eight years. But, eventually, the two countries found themselves drawn towards each other, not only by the mutual interest in realizing the potential of their unique alliance but also by the need to settle the disturbed waters in their surroundings; either in the eastern Mediterranean or in the Nile River.
On one hand, Turkey’s primary concern, at the moment, is to settle its century-long disputes with Greece and Cyprus over the maritime delimitations in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The Lausanne Treaty, signed in 1922 under the fog of war, prevents Turkey from enjoying its basic right to benefit from seabed resources, even though it owns the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Turkey cannot drill for gas, which is a matter of life or death for the Turkish people. Every year, Turkey pays more than 40 billion dollars to import gas, mainly from Iran and Russia.
Over the past two years, Turkey has been, particularly active in fighting for its rights in the Mediterranean. In December 2019, Turkey decided to get politically and militarily involved in Libya, in the hope that it could help improve its situation in the Mediterranean. Then, in the summer of 2020, Turkey started seismic research for gas in the disputed waters. This aroused military tensions with neighboring Greece and Cyprus and attracted other navy forces from Russia, France, and the United States in a way that threatened the security and stability of the countries sharing the Mediterranean basin.
Amidst this chaos, Greece succeeded in convincing Egypt to sign a maritime agreement that designates an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which crosses with the zone previously delaminated in Turkey’s maritime agreement with the Government of National Accord in Libya. For decades, out of respect to brotherly Turkey, Egypt used to turn down Greece's requests to sign an EEZ agreement. However, in August 2020, Egypt decided to sign the EEZ agreement with Greece in an attempt to deter the Turkish threats to its national security, either from the north in the Mediterranean or from the west in Libya.
The Greece-Egypt maritime agreement and the formation of EastMed Gas Organization, excluding Turkey as a member state, further complicated Turkey’s situation in the Mediterranean. However, by the beginning of 2021, Egypt decided to tone down its standoff with Turkey. In early March, the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum published a new map reassigning the position of its bid block “EGYMED-W18” showing that its planned gas drilling activities will not extend beyond “meridian-28,” which Turkey identifies as a sovereign area, and labels it as the boundary line of the Turkish continental shelf. Egypt’s respect for Turkey’s maritime limitations, despite its EEZ agreement with Greece over this area, leaves the door open for negotiations between Egypt and Turkey on maritime demarcation in the future.
“Egypt’s respect to our continental shelf is important. We have many historical and cultural values in common with Egypt. The activation of these values could make a difference in relations in the coming days;” said the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, who also hinted that a maritime agreement between Turkey and Egypt could be created in the near future. Hulusi Akar’s brief but honest statements, on March 6th, aroused a lot of controversy in the region, especially in Greece and Cyprus, but were positively received in Egypt, on many levels. Despite being part of Erdogan’s regime with its infamous profile of flawed foreign policies, Hulusi Akar is widely respected and trusted for his word. Hulusi Akar’s statements were the spark that initiated a tournament of positive statements from both the Egyptian and Turkish sides and opened the door for actual steps to be taken towards the long-sought reconciliation between Cairo and Ankara.
On the other hand, Egypt’s primary concern, at the moment, is to settle the waters in the Nile River, by winning the conflict with Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which was illegally built in 2010. Ethiopia’s insistence on filling the GERD, despite legitimate objections from other countries sharing the river, especially Egypt where the Nile River ends, represents a serious threat to the lives of the Egyptian and Sudanese people. For two years, Egypt has been lobbying the international community, in vain, to stop Ethiopia from proceeding with building and filling the dam. Recently, the United States Administration of President Biden withdrew itself from acting as a mediator between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. In contrast, the Trump Administration was heavily involved in the issue, in favor of Egypt and Sudan. Today, some observers argue that the current diplomatic dispute may escalate into a military conflict between Ethiopia, on one side, and Egypt and Sudan, on the opposing side. At the beginning of March, Egypt and Sudan signed a military cooperation agreement that allowed the two countries to join forces to counter regional threats.
Meanwhile, Turkey signaled that it could intervene as a mediator in the GERD crisis if Egypt agrees. On March 12th, Erdogan’s special envoy to Iraq said in a televised interview that Turkey is ready to mediate in the GERD, provided that Western countries do not intervene, because their intervention may complicate the issue. Turkey enjoys a massive political and economic influence over Ethiopia, that has continued for decades. According to the official statistics of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, Turkey is the third biggest investor in the operational capital of Ethiopia, after China and Saudi Arabia. Over the past seven years, Turkey supported Ethiopia in its conflict with Egypt over the GERD, due to the long political rift between Cairo and Ankara. If Egypt wins Turkey as an ally, or at least neutralizes Turkey’s involvement in the GERD crisis, this would give leverage to Egypt and Sudan in their negotiations with Ethiopia.
“Su uyur” or “water sleeps” is an idiom the Turkish people use to push away the evil and give power to the good. If Cairo and Ankara manage to successfully settle the political disagreements that kept them apart for almost eight years, their future cooperation may change the geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean and alter the outcomes of several conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. But, most importantly, the Turkey-Egypt alliance may help with making the “water sleep” in a way that serves their national security and the welfare of their people.
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