Egypt sent a firm message to its regional rival Turkey this week, flexing its military might even as it engages in steps meant to calm tensions between the two Sunni powers.
Egypt’s message was designed to address both major flashpoints between the two countries. Cairo fought a proxy war with Turkey in Libya in 2014-2020, and hosts a regional gas forum designed to counter Turkish moves in the eastern Mediterranean.
For the better part of a decade, Turkey has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo when Sissi took over in 2013.
Erdogan called Sissi a tyrant and submitted a formal request to the United Nations Security Council to have him recognized as a war criminal. Egypt expelled Turkey’s ambassador in Cairo and recalled its own from Ankara.
The rivalry between the Sunni Muslim powers has metastasized into other areas and split the Middle East, with Turkey and Qatar leading a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a pro-Western camp.
In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Together with Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and they have conducted joint military exercises.
On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi opened a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean Sea to “secure shipping lines,” according to the presidency.
The base lies some 255 kilometers (160 miles) west of Alexandria, toward the border with Libya, a country in which both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have played a key military role backing Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Turkey back the Government of National Accord, the opposing side in the 2014-2020 civil war.
The ceremony, not coincidentally, was attended by the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
“It is the latest Egyptian military base on the Mediterranean, and will be focused on securing the country’s northern and western front,” Sissi said in a statement.
The opening coincides with the eighth anniversary of Sissi leading the military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
افتتاح السيد الرئيس عبد الفتاح السيسي اليوم قاعدة ٣ يوليو البحرية بمنطقة جرجوب علي الساحل الشمالي الغربي لمصر.
The proxy war in Libya looked as if it could turn into a direct confrontation between the powers, when Sissi called the Libyan city of Sirte a “red line” and threatened direct military force if Turkish-backed forces attacked it.
The civil war ended with a ceasefire in October 2020, and both Turkey and Egypt back the political process.
Turkey and Egypt are also at odds over resource control in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has been aggressively asserting its maritime rights, enabled by its support for the GNA in Libya. In 2019, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with the government in Libya, claiming rights to waters Cyprus and Greece see as their own.
In September 2020, Ankara upped the ante by sending a vessel, accompanied by warships, to survey for oil and gas in waters claimed by Greece. At one point, according to Reuters, Greek and Turkish warships collided.
In response, Egypt and Greece signed a maritime border agreement that is rejected by Turkey.
In 2020, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was formally launched, which includes rivals of Turkey like Israel, Greece, Cyprus and France. The EMGF, hosted in Cairo, is understood as an anti-Turkey alliance.
Egypt’s military exercise this week is designed to send a warning about Egypt’s readiness to defend its interests at sea.
On Sunday, Egypt’s Defense Ministry released a video of the Qader 2021 exercise, taking place at the July 3 base. The video stressed that the base helps Egypt protect its natural resources in its territorial waters, a clear message to Erdogan.
The message to Turkey is that Egypt has a capable, advanced military that will defend its waters and its vision of becoming a regional energy hub.
The January 2020 Qader exercise took place a week after Erdogan announced his intention to send Turkish troops to Libya.
Turkey needs friends
After a decade of assertive behavior and speech from Erdogan, global and regional shifts have pushed Ankara’s back against the wall. Isolated from Europe and many Arab states, it is facing an unfriendly White House and a US president who dislikes Erdogan personally, while its economy continues to get buffeted by the pandemic.
Turkey’s tone and policies have changed in recent months, which includes overtures to Egypt. The two sides have held quiet intelligence and diplomatic talks, and Erdogan said in March that he hopes the reconciliation process with Egypt grows much stronger, and that Egypt and Turkey are natural allies.
At the same time, Ankara asked Egyptian opposition television channels in Turkey to tone down their criticism of Sissi and the Egyptian government in a sign that it is eager for reconciliation.
Turkey even stayed quiet in June when Egypt upheld the death penalty for 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood members for the 2013 killing of protesters.
Egypt, on the other hand, has been more circumspect. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry acknowledged the talks but stressed that progress depends on “real change in Turkish policy.”
“Words are not enough, they must be matched by deeds,” he cautioned.
Egypt is still not ready to accept Turkey’s overtures, and is instead countering with displays of military force.
Israel, too, has been cold to Turkish attempts to rekindle ties. With new diplomatic and security relationships with Arab states, Israel likely won’t engage with Turkey until Ankara shuts down Hamas activity in the country, is transparent about its activities in East Jerusalem, and ends its harsh anti-Israel rhetoric.
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