Brussels MENA Briefing: Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean

Brussels MENA Briefing: Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean

April 14, 2021

On April 14, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and the Stimson Center Europe hosted the eleventh “Brussels MENA Briefing”—a series of after-work briefings on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—on “Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Speakers included Dr. Ahmed Kandil, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Energy Studies Program at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Hafsa Halawa, independent consultant, Visiting Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Non-resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute. The discussion was moderated by Desirée Custers, Research Assistant of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Stimson Centre.

The speakers opened by highlighting the importance of the newly discovered gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean region for Egypt’s development of the coming years. Egypt’s Vision 2030, an ambitious infrastructure plan to boost its economy and self-sufficiency, is highly dependent on the financial output of the new explorations. One speaker emphasized Egypt’s plan to become the central energy exporting hub in the region, cooperating with Israel, Iraq, Lebanon but also several African and European countries. Egypt perceives itself as one of the most stable countries in the region and has a favorable geographical position between Asia, Africa and Europe. Especially the European Union (EU) is assessed as an important partner for the realization of this plan since it is the major buyer of Egyptian gas and important technical supporter.

Main spoilers to Egypt’s ambitious plans for the coming years, as identified during the Briefing included the Covid 19 pandemic, the dispute with Turkey, overall fear of regional instability and the growing demand for renewable energy, especially in Europe, which will lead to a decline in gas demand. The Covid 19 pandemic has contributed to a strong decrease of economic activity and has halted projects in developing the energy sector all over the region. So far Egypt has not been able to obtain larger quantities of vaccines. This problem might open room for other countries than the old allies, like China or Russia, to strengthen relations with Egypt, as one speaker pointed out.

Turkey is seen as a major threat to Egypt, both speakers argued. Besides Turkey’s violation of the maritime boarders in the East Mediterranean, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its actions in Libya are perceived hostile. According to one speaker, Turkey’s policy has been very aggressive in the Eastern Mediterranean region during the last years, but shifted recently because of its growing isolation. Turkey’s political rapprochement has so far not been answered by Egypt, and, as the speakers pointed out, is regarded as too small to overcome the current division.

The speakers further noted the overall shifting geopolitical interest of Egypt. Against the backdrop of the recent Abraham Accords Egypt feels more and more sidelined by many of its prior partners in the Middle East. While Egypt earlier held the important role of a mediator between the Gulf states and Israel, it lost its importance due to the new direct diplomatic channels. Recently the cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the war in Libya has been declining, pointing towards a shift in foreign policy priorities. While in the past the Gulf states formed important allies, Egypt is currently shifting its attention to its neighboring African states and the Horn of Africa. Egypt needs growing external strength in the region to foster internal stability, one speaker argued.

The relationship of the EU and Egypt was described as mutually important by the speakers. The 2003 Maritime Agreement and the multitude of European energy companies active in Egypt are just some examples for this. Especially the south European countries have cooperated intensively with Egypt over the past decades and fostered warm relations, as the 2020 visit of Egypt’s President as-Sisi to France showed. Also the new EU-Egypt Association Agreement, which is about to be finalized, as one speaker pointed out, incorporates little measures against Egypt’s internal human rights violations.

Egypt’s relations to Europe have been strongly shaped by the feeling of being ‘too big to fail’. Still the EU has significant influence over Egypt, which  strongly relies on its global partners, as the Vison 2030 shows. But the internal divide between the European countries has led to a less efficient Egypt policy of the European Union. It has to be determined how the future relations will change due to the new Biden administration’s influence and changes in the EU’s energy demand resulting from its climate change strategy.

MENA Briefing, Mirjam Schmidt