Egypt-Libya maritime demarcation: Cairo insists Eastern Mediterranean moves against Turkey

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On December 11, the Egyptian presidency announced the delineation of the western maritime borders of Egypt with its neighbour Libya. The National Unity Government in Libya, a close ally of Turkey, rejected the Egyptian declaration. Tripoli described the Egyptian decision as an “unfair, unilateral decision that violates the principle of goodwill.” The Egyptian declaration stipulates in its first article that the borders of the territorial sea of Egypt start from point No. 1 of the Egyptian-Libyan land border for a distance of 12 nautical miles to point No. 8. Thus, the line of the western maritime borders of Egypt starts from point No. 8 in the direction of the north parallel to meridian 25 east and reaching point No. 9.

Egyptian-Greek disagreement

The essence of disputes between Egypt and its allies, Greece and Greek Cyprus on the one hand, and Turkey and its partner, the Libyan National Unity Government in Tripoli, can be summed up over the “12 miles”. The 1982 UN Law of the Sea stipulates that territorial waters extend for 12 nautical miles from the coast of every country, including the beaches of the islands, while the exclusive economic zone extends to two hundred nautical miles. Governments have the right to carry out prospecting and exploration activities.

Ankara did not sign this convention because several islands are located off a long horizon of the Turkish coasts, which reduces the Turkish maritime zones. The eastern Mediterranean, a region of high natural gas potential, intensifies Ankara’s interest in new standards in drawing maritime economic zones based on a consensus between the regional countries. With the political conflict between Egypt and Turkey since 2013 after the Egyptian military coup against the democratic president Mohamed Morsi, Cairo started to use the maritime demarcation issue to pressure Ankara with Greek help. However, Ankara’s proposals were more beneficial to Egypt as it widened its economic zone.

In December 2013, Egypt signed an agreement with Cyprus, called at the time the Framework Agreement for the Development of Hydrocarbon-bearing Reservoirs, which was rejected by Ankara that upheld its right to exploration. In 2018, Turkey declared to start exploration operations in the region that violates the Egyptian-Cyprus agreement. In response, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus agreed to establish the Mediterranean Gas Forum in January 2019, which included, in addition to the three countries, Jordan, Italy and Israel. Turkey appeared besieged with agreements between the other regional countries away from Turkey, so Ankara has sought to fait accompli by sending its ships for exploration off the Cyprus shores in May 2019.

The Libyan paper

Surprisingly for the competing countries, Ankara played the Libyan card when it signed a maritime border demarcation agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj government in Tripoli after Turkey provided decisive military support to Tripoli’s government against Khalifa Haftar’s Egypt and Emirates-supported military aggression. Libya’s Tobruk parliament and Haftar’s militia rejected this agreement. Ankara recurrently stresses, in addition to the Libyan paper, on its vision that its map to delineate the maritime borders between it and Libya would benefit Egypt more and increase Egypt’s zone in the Mediterranean. But against Turkey’s tendency to separate political disputes from economic interests, Sisi’s Cairo refused the Turkish offer and stayed the course. Ankara started to discuss solutions with other regional actors, normalizing relations with the UAE that, along with Egypt and Russia, support the forces of eastern Libya. This developed to the visit of the current UAE President, Mohammed bin Zayed, to Turkey in late November 2021. Likewise, Turkey normalized its relations with Israel, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey last March.

Political solutions

Cairo-Ankara rapprochement negotiations started in 2020 with recurrent statements from senior Turkish officials topped by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the Turkish goodwill towards Egypt. Negotiations later ended in nothing without apparent causes. After Erdogan and Sisi shook hands in Doha at the inauguration of Fifa WC 2022, reports appeared again about imminent Qatar-sponsored rapprochement, with a promise from Egypt to help Turkey join the five countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Forum. However, the latest declaration messes up hopes of Egyptian-Turkish normalization, so the causes behind the Egyptian step must be analyzed.

The first probability is that tensions between Greece, Egypt’s ally in the forum, and Turkey, which has recently climaxed with the Turkish president’s threat to strike Athens after the later military operations in the Aegean islands, pushes Cairo to assume such challenging positions against Turkey. This point takes us to the second. Cairo rejects any Turkish military presence in the Libyan neighbourhood, and the crisis of the existence of Turkish forces in Tripoli that might head to Sirte and Al-Jufra again in any outbreak of military escalation between the Libyan East and West lies at the heart of Cairo’s fears. While Turkey would like to withdraw its forces from Tripoli, Turkey wants to do something other than that, not in the short or long term.

Furthermore, Turkey’s entry into the Eastern Mediterranean Forum means that the demarcation of the maritime borders between the participating countries in the Mediterranean will be in agreement among all the nations of the forum, according to what Ankara wants. Therefore, with the push of its allies, Cairo is taking a pre-step, even if it is unilateral, making Ankara’s entry. The forum will be based on the forum’s requirements, and it is a pressure step on Ankara to be more lenient in the negotiations.

Though all these strategic reasons, it can be said that the fundamental motive of the Egyptian president in accelerating the demarcation of the borders with Libya unilaterally, not waiting for negotiation, is the economic crisis that Egypt is currently experiencing, which needs to accelerate material benefit from that rich region (now), which may be Followed by usufruct agreements with major companies that keep their eyes on this wealth. Turkish diplomatic sources said to the official Anadolu Agency that Ankara urged Cairo and Tripoli to start negotiations on the demarcation of the borders as soon as possible. Still, Cairo will need help negotiating with any government in Tripoli, whether the internationally recognized government of Dabaiba or Fathi Bashagha affiliated with the House of Representatives in eastern Libya. Both of them rejected the Egyptian presidential decision.