Egypt's involvement adds new dimension to East Med conflict – analyst

Egypt’s involvement is adding a new dimension to the eastern Mediterranean maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece, Deutsche Welle reported on Tuesday.

Last week, Greece signed an accord with Egypt to define the countries' respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean for oil and gas drilling rights. Turkey called it a "pirate agreement" and said it would restart seismic surveys in the region.

The dispute is about more than natural gas reserves and economic zones, and is an extension of the conflict between Turkey and Egypt, Stephan Roll, the head of the Middle East and Africa research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW.

“It goes back to the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which targeted the ruling Muslim Brotherhood,” Roll said. “Cairo accuses Turkey of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and to an extent that is true. Many senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in exile in Turkey. Egypt's leadership feels markedly threatened by Turkey, which it has accused of planning a countercoup.”

Roll said a Turkish-Libyan EEZ agreement in November and Turkey's military intervention in Libya have “infused the current conflict with a new dynamic”. 

“The fact that Turkey is very active in Libya and has sent mercenaries to the country to fight on the side of the government against General Haftar, who in turn is supported by Egypt, is a new situation for Cairo. Cairo feels extremely threatened by the fact that Ankara is suddenly part of the action in its own backyard,” he said.

This week - for the second time in the past few weeks - Greece and Turkey mobilised their fleets for a standoff in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece's government considers Turkey's renewed attempts to survey for hydrocarbons off the coast of the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo - which is just 2 km off the southern Turkish coast – to be a provocation. 

“I can't imagine that this will lead to an armed conflict. Neither Turkey nor Greece and certainly not Egypt is looking for a direct confrontation, especially since the outcome would be uncertain,” Roll said. 

He said there have often been moments in the past when the situation escalated, but the incidents were always contained. 

“What we are seeing at the moment are threatening gestures,” Roll said. “But, in this region, you never know. Things can move in a different direction totally by chance: Shots fired somewhere are an incident that could develop a momentum of its own.”