Turkey on collision course with Egypt over drilling off Cyprus

Cairo’s reaction also shows anger at the destabilising role that Turkey has been playing in the region and its interference in Egypt’s affairs and those of other countries in the region.

CAIRO — Relations between Egypt and Turkey are expected to deteriorate after Cairo warned Ankara against drilling off Cyprus.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said May 4 that it followed “with concern Turkish plans to drill off the western coast of Cyprus,” warning of ramifications of the move on stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

Cairo’s warning follows a series of Turkish provocations, in the face of which Cairo had either declined to reciprocate or abided by the strictest diplomatic lines.

Turkey’s plans to drill off Cyprus would significantly threaten Egypt’s economic interests in the region, something Cairo would not allow, analysts said.

“Egypt has been trying to launch a legal regional umbrella for the exploitation of natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Nourhan el-Sheikh, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Turkish moves… destabilise the region and open the door for conflict because it has no legal right to drill in it.”

Egypt is at the centre of potential wealth in the eastern Mediterranean, having discovered major gas reserves off its Mediterranean coast. Cairo has tried to turn this potential wealth into a source of cooperation among eastern Mediterranean countries. In 2013, it signed an agreement on the joint exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves with Cyprus.

In January, seven Mediterranean countries, including Egypt, formed Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, allowing for the creation of a regional gas market. Forum members invited other countries to join. Turkey apparently accepted the invitation but that hasn’t stopped conflicts.

The Egyptian warning is probably a signal of frustration towards Turkey’s conduct over the years. Cairo’s reaction also shows anger at the destabilising role that Turkey has been playing in the region and its interference in Egypt’s affairs and those of other countries in the region, analysts said.

In February, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry declined to comment on criticism from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the European-Arab League summit the same month.

“The fact is that we are busy doing more important things,” Shoukry said. “We will not descend to this level.”

Erdogan has adopted a hostile stance towards Egypt since Egyptians ousted Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Muhammad Morsi in 2013, in an army-backed uprising that led to the collapse of political Islam empowerment supported by Turkey and Qatar.

Apart from attacking Cairo and inciting international public opinion against it, Turkey offers refuge to Muslim Brotherhood fugitives wanted by Egyptian authorities. Turkish authorities allow many Brotherhood media channels to air from Turkey, as part of a campaign by the Islamist movement against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In late April, Erdogan vowed to offer support to the Islamist-backed government of Tripoli in Libya. Egypt views that government as an amalgam of terrorist militias. It backs the campaign against the militias by the Libyan National Army.

Nonetheless, Turkish threats to stability in the Eastern Mediterranean may trigger harsher Egyptian anger, analysts said.

This is particularly so with the region containing huge gas reserves and Egypt pinning hopes on its own natural gas finds to drive its economic reawakening, they added.

“Despite the lack of specific estimates, all studies expect the reserves in the region to be gigantic,” said oil and gas expert Ramadan Abul Ela.

Egypt plans to utilise its liquefaction plants in becoming a regional energy hub as part of efforts that can turn the eastern Mediterranean into an oasis of wealth, peace and cooperation.

This may explain Egypt’s military buildup in the Mediterranean. Cairo has spent billions of dollars to modernise its navy, including with purchases of helicopter carriers, advanced corvettes and speedboats. A day before Egypt issued its warning against planned Turkish drilling off Cyprus, Egypt received a new submarine from Germany, the third from the European country.

“A confrontation is possible, especially if Turkey violates the sovereignty of Cyprus and Greece, given economic and political cooperation between Egypt and these countries,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of local think-tank Centre for Strategic Studies. “Egypt has whatever naval power it needs in this regard.”

Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.

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