Egypt’s relations with Turkey remain at their lowest levels since the 1950s, due to a variety of factors. The most prominent factor was Turkey’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood regime (illegal in Syria, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia) which briefly ruled Egypt between June of 2012 and July of 2013.
The Muslim Brotherhood which was initially banned under the revolutionary Presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, is once again outlawed in the country. The restored secular government of Egypt that was toppled in the 2011 US backed coup against former President Hosni Mubarak, continues to draw a line of hostility and suspicion across Ankara-Cairo relations.
This seemingly insurmountable divide has been further augmented by wider political developments in the Arab world. Last year, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, Egypt happily joined in. This is due not only to Egypt’s close economic relationship with Riyadh, but also due to Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Likewise, in neighbouring Libya, while Egypt supports the secular Tobruk based Libyan House of Representatives, Turkey supports Muslim Brotherhood aligned factions based in Misurata, while the EU and US back the fledgling Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which itself is competing against the Tripoli based National Salvation Government. Although Russia officially recognises the GNA as the Libyan government in line with the UN’s position, Russia maintains high level contacts with the House of Representatives’ military leader, Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army – the strongest anti-terrorist military faction in the country.
Further disputes between Turkey and Egypt revolve around eastern Mediterranean off-shore gas fields. At the moment, a five party dispute over gas rights in the eastern Mediterranean is brewing. “Israel” claims gas fields under Lebanese jurisdiction, while Egypt and Cyprus both accuse Turkey of encroaching onto their respective gas fields. All the while, Turkey claims that the internationally unrecognised North Cyprus entity entitles its Turkish mother country to its share of gas fields off the island – gas fields which themselves are close to waters claimed by Cairo.
The US considers Egypt and Turkey allies (in spite of woefully bad relations between Washington and Ankara), while “Israel” is undoubtedly a US ally. Lebanon’s relationship with the US is touch-and-go due to the sectarian make-up of the Lebanese political system in which the pro-US Future Movement controls the Premiership but the anti-US Free Patriotic Movement and Amal Movement control the Presidency and Parliamentary Speakership, respectively. Meanwhile, although Cyprus is a member of the pro-US European Union, it is not associated with NATO, while many ordinary Cypriots remain sceptical of the US due to its historic tendency to tacitly, if not explicitly take Ankara’s side in territorial disputes with its Hellenic neighbours.
Russia on the other hand, has good relations with Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Cyprus and “Israel”, as well as Palestine, a country which would stand to gain from east Mediterranean gas exploration if its international situation is ever normalised.
Because of this, Russia could help balance out the interests of all the parties who are disputing claims to east Mediterranean gas deposits. In particular, with Egypt’s President Sisi on the verge of an assured election victory in March of this year, Egypt will almost certainly look to increase its already flourishing relations with Russia, which as the USSR, was a close ally of Egypt during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Russia has a clear incentive for helping to resolve the various gas disputes in the eastern Mediterranean. Aside from bolstering the prestige of Russian “win-win” style diplomacy at the expense of an increasingly diplomatically impotent United States, Russia’s substantial energy sector would benefit from having multiple disputing countries, relying on a common Russian partner to help extract their gas deposits.
This way Russia and its Mediterranean partners could economically benefit from Russia’s diplomats turning a vocal dispute over territorial rights into a jump-started project to extract gas for the benefit of all the regional parties. While this will likely not guarantee a rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, “Israel” and Lebanon or Cyprus and Turkey, it will in fact demonstrate the power of Russia’s ‘go-between’ diplomacy whereby countries that do not like each other, are able to communicate their positions to one another via neutral Russian intermediaries.
While Russia would still prefer to ease tensions in the wider Levant, the model Russia has implemented in Syria whereby Ankara and Damascus are able to speak to each other via Russia, while still refraining from publicly considering restoring relations, has been surprisingly effective in keeping possible warring parties out of each other’s way in the Syrian conflict.
Russia’s petro-politics in the eastern Mediterranean therefore has the potential to turn several new and increasingly heated disputes into a thaw based on mutual cooperation with friendly Russian diplomats and energy companies – all the while serving Russia’s own economic and geo-strategic interests in the region.