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[ANALYSIS] Turkey-Egypt normalization and eastern Mediterranean energy politics

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Turkey and Egypt’s bilateral relations were severed in 2013 when Egypt’s then-defense minister, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, an ally of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Erdoğan at the time declared he would never engage in dialogue with someone like Sisi, who ascended to the presidency of the Arab world’s most populous nation in 2014. This deterioration in Egyptian-Turkish relations led to Turkey’s isolation in the eastern Mediterranean and fostered Egypt’s cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, both of which have disputes with Turkey.

A significant shift occurred in May 2021 when a Turkish delegation visited Egypt to initiate the process of normalization. This was further bolstered when the presidents of both countries shook hands in Qatar during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in November 2022. Erdoğan’s warm handshake with Sisi signaled a fresh start in Turkish-Egyptian relations. The process gained momentum when the two leaders spoke by telephone after two devastating earthquakes hit Turkey in February.

In a recent demonstration of their warming ties, Egypt and Turkey on July 5 announced the appointment of ambassadors to each other’s countries for the first time in a decade. Cairo and Ankara issued statements announcing the “upgrading of diplomatic relations … to the level of ambassador.” The foreign ministries of both countries stated that this move “aims at the renormalization of relations between the two countries and reflects the mutual will to develop bilateral relations.”

Egypt’s President El-Sisi is scheduled to make his first official visit to Turkey as president on July 27, solidifying the recent normalization of relations between the two countries. This raises the question: What will the implications of restored diplomatic relations between Turkey and Egypt be on eastern Mediterranean energy politics?

After the Arab Spring, when a wave of protests spread across the Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Turkey abandoned its fundamental principle of not interfering in other countries’ problems, which had guided its foreign policy since its establishment and resulted in solving problems primarily through diplomacy. Turkey believed it could reshape the foreign policy balances in the Middle East, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. For this reason, it became a direct party to regional conflicts and problems between other countries. This shift in Turkey’s foreign policy, from a non-interference stance to direct involvement in regional conflicts, had been the primary catalyst for souring relations between Turkey and Egypt.

Turkey’s assertive and aggressive foreign policy under the Blue Homeland Doctrine, which defines the boundaries of Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean under a maximalist approach, led anti-Turkey countries, including Egypt, to unite under the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) with the support and guidance of the United States.

The EMGF, a platform for gas producers and consumer and transit countries to cooperate on developing infrastructure for the gas trade within the region and with external markets, was formed by Egypt, Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine in 2019. The organization’s formal charter was signed in September 2020. The EU and the US are permanent observers. The EMGF Gas Industry Advisory Committee was also established in November 2019 as a vehicle to allow the pivotal participation of the private sector and strike the right balance between public and private interests. The significance of the EMGF goes beyond energy; it is a pivotal enabler of regional peace and a vital engine for economic growth and prosperity.

According to the US regional vision, the EMGF will serve as a platform for economic, defense and security cooperation and a driver for regional energy cooperation. There are two projects in the eastern Mediterranean to interconnect power grids. One is the EuroAsia interconnector project, which will connect the power grids of Israel, southern Cyprus and Greece from the seabed; the other is the EuroAfrica interconnector project, which will connect Egypt, southern Cyprus and Greece. The EuroAsia project’s inauguration ceremony was held on Oct. 14, 2022 at the presidential palace in Nicosia. The EuroAsia interconnector will provide a reliable alternative for energy transfer in Europe and expand the energy market beyond its borders. The project will create an energy bridge between the two continents (the total length of the interconnector is 1,520 kilometers) and a reliable alternative corridor for electricity transfer to Europe.

In addition to these projects, Israel, Egypt and the European Union on June 17, 2022 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to export Israeli gas to Europe via two Egyptian LNG plants in Cairo, as Europe struggles to find an energy strategy to replace the Russian supply on which it has depended for decades. The EU will encourage European companies to search for and produce natural gas in Israeli and Egyptian exclusive economic zones.

Feeling very alone in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey abandoned Blue Homeland by making a radical policy shift in the eastern Mediterranean when the EU threatened sanctions in December 2020. Turkey launched an intensive diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

Egypt is currently the energy hub of the eastern Mediterranean. Israel and the Greek Cypriot government have agreed with Egypt to transport offshore natural gas to Egypt’s LNG facilities. While countries in the region are making agreements on natural gas through the EMGF, Turkey cannot participate in the energy equation in the eastern Mediterranean without becoming a member of the EMGF.

In conclusion, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Egypt will likely profoundly impact regional politics and energy dynamics. Turkey’s inclusion in the EMGF, which Egypt could facilitate, would be a significant step forward in regional cooperation and stability. This move would also position Turkey strategically within the eastern Mediterranean energy equation, particularly as the European Union seeks alternative energy sources post the Ukraine crisis. Therefore, Turkey should apply for membership in the EMGF, taking advantage of its diplomatic relations with Egypt before normalization. Against this backdrop, it is in everyone’s interest that all eastern Mediterranean littoral states, including Turkey, cooperate with the EMGF on extracting and transporting natural gas resources in the region.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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