Egypt as the cornerstone of the Middle East’s new regional security architecture

The stability and orientation of the region’s most populous country, Egypt, remain crucial components of the newly emerging regional security architecture and its strategic alignments.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in November 2018. Source: Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency/Facebook.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in November 2018. Source: Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency/Facebook.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Egypt has been present in various ways, both directly and indirectly, in the events and developments that have resulted in the current alignment of forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond:

1. Following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, under pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, saw the need to engage with the new Egyptian leadership under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel. They share their concerns, whereas much of the European establishment does not.

As a result, tripartite summits and numerous ministerial and professional meetings have been occurring regularly since 2015 in the two triangles of Greece-Cyprus-Israel and Greece-Cyprus-Egypt, resulting in the establishment of two parallel secretariats in Nicosia.

With the U.S. increasingly involved in military and other aspects, the Israeli triangle is now known as the 3+1 alignment. While Egypt has yet to agree to joint strategic consultations, Egypt’s future is on everyone’s mind.

2. Egypt played a direct, leading role in establishing the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as an internationally recognized regional organization, initially in 2019 and formally in 2020. This reflected more than just a shared interest in energy. Originally, a 3+3 arrangement involving Italy, Greece and Cyprus, as well as Egypt, Israel and Jordan—with a problematic Palestinian add-on—is reminiscent of the Western Mediterranean Forum, commonly referred to as the 5+5 Dialogue, which included Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, along with five EU countries. But unlike it, it is an alliance of nations with similar ideologies. Later, France became a member, and the United States and the European Union became observers.

3. The Palestinians, in their folly, blocked the United Arab Emirate’s participation, but the Emiratis and Saudis did come in as Mediterranean players for their own reasons. The UAE contributed to forming a foreign ministers’ consultation group, the Paphos Forum, which brought together the UAE, Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

While Egypt is not fully present, its national concerns and long-term goals are clearly on the agenda. The same can be said of the more recent breakthrough in Greek-Saudi cooperation due to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Athens.

4. The so-called “Negev Summit” was actually a meeting of American and Israeli foreign ministers, along with Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain. It will be held twice in 2022— once in Sde Boker in Israel’s southern desert and once in Bahrain. Unlike Cairo’s stance in previous decades, which tended to express concern about Arab “normalization” with Israel, el-Sisi gave his full support to the Abraham Accords and their consequences, and even hosted an Egyptian-Emirati-Israeli summit in Sharm al-Sheikh in March.

This time, Greece and Cyprus were not there, but Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said they should be invited to the opening of the B’nai B’rith-sponsored Israel-Hellenic forum on June 27.

5. During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, a new multilateral building block for this regional security architecture emerged: India’s idea of a “Western Quad,” translated into the so-called “I2U2” group virtual summit. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Yair Lapid of Israel, President Mohammed bin Zayid of the UAE and Biden met on Zoom and authorized a common agenda.

While there is no apparent link to the Mediterranean, one of the UAE and Israel’s long-standing concerns has been to support Egyptian stability and mitigate the potential effects of great power competition in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and beyond. All of this has long piqued the U.S.’s interest, which is now spreading to India as it seeks to exert influence over the regional balance of power and counter the ambitions of China and its Belt and Road Initiative.

What Makes Egypt so Important?

A thread connecting the majority, if not all, of these recent interactions is a concern for Egypt’s future (and the related issue of control of Libya). Indeed, while there are several compelling reasons for the rise of these alliances, ranging from energy cooperation and other economic and environmental initiatives to military exercises, two strategic issues stand out.

One has to do with Egypt’s political stability and orientation following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. The other is Erdogan’s bid for regional leadership under the banner (until recently) of support for Islamist political forces such as Hamas in Gaza and the Government of National Accord in Libya. Until recently, Erdogan’s position toward Israel and her Sunni Arab allies was clear and posed an aggressive challenge to Egypt and Israel.

Indeed, Sisi’s ascension to power in 2013 fueled the increasingly common perspectives that brought Israel, Greece and Cyprus together. So too did the outbreak of war in Libya in 2014, which quickly devolved into a proxy conflict between Sisi’s Egypt and Erdogan’s bid for regional hegemony. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey came to see itself as the overarching patron of Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Gaza and elsewhere, fueled by Erdogan’s AK Party ideology.

Despite the decline of its direct influence, Egypt remains the most critical part of the regional order. The days of former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser casting a long shadow across the Arab world are long gone; former President Anwar al-Sadat transformed the conflict, first in war and then in peace; and President Hosni Mubarak was America’s most important ally in the region, despite his population’s deep anti-Americanism.

But Egypt remains the region’s most populous country, the only one to have crossed the 100 million mark between Pakistan and the Atlantic (and, for that matter, between the Sahara and the Russian border). It is also situated at a critical strategic crossroads because China’s Belt and Road Initiative must pass through the Suez Canal. Last but not least is Egypt’s role as host and leader of the Arab League, which was founded in Egypt in 1944 and has been led by Egyptians for most of its history.

The interconnected issues of Egypt’s stability and economic viability are thus critical. At this point, two specific questions loom: Will Egypt benefit significantly from the eastern Mediterranean gas fields’ potential? And, as a result of the assault on Ukraine, will there be widespread deprivation, even famine, that threatens the stability of Sisi’s rule and provides totalitarian Islamist radicals with opportunities for mischief?

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Conflict and Its Ramifications

One of the keys to Egypt’s future has become a practical and moral struggle between two maps of the eastern Mediterranean representing two opposing visions. The first was part of a memorandum of understanding signed in November 2019 in Ankara by Erdogan and the prime minister of Libya’s so-called Government of National Accord (a sure sign of discord). A separate agreement provided for direct Turkish military support, which indeed turned the tide of battle and led to the collapse of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army siege of Tripoli. This map, which has never been made public, appears to draw the Eastern Mediterranean EEZ in a way that deliberately ignores Greece’s rights to sovereignty in Crete, Carpatos and Rhodes; and purportedly creates a border between Turkey and Libya, which would bottle up all possible energy links between Israel, Egypt and Cyprus on the one hand, and Greece and the rest of Europe on the other.

Another map was created in response to the first after extensive discussions between Greece and Egypt, and the foreign ministers of both countries signed it in Cairo on August 7, 2020. When it comes to the waters off Crete, it contradicts the Turkish-Libyan map and relies on the law of the sea, implying that Greece and Egypt share an extensive EEZ.

Significantly, the UAE declared its support for the Egyptian-Greek agreement a day later, followed six days later by Israel. Almost immediately after, the Abraham Accords were announced. This was not entirely coincidental: Israel’s stance on the neo-Ottoman challenge was crucial for the UAE and others in the region. The fight is far from over.

Egypt’s Predicament and Israel’s Role

The prospect of food shortages and social disruption adds to the difficulty of energy extraction. The challenge now is to translate the alignment into an effective energy policy, with European and U.S. support, to help Europe break its Russian energy habit, as well as to design a solution to the delineation issue that respects the law of the sea and the legal rights of all while providing reasonable answers to Turkish concerns.

As long as the regional alignment remains in place and the United States, which has significant sway over Ankara in the run-up to a Turkish election year, commits to supporting Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on this matter, this should not be beyond human capacity. Israel and its Washington allies must play an active role in promoting this agenda.

Meanwhile, given the magnitude of the crisis and what is at stake, it may be necessary to seek additional U.S. and E.U. assistance. Once again, it may be up to Israel to help lobby for this kind of emergency help, given all that could happen (for Israel and the whole region) if Egypt fell into the wrong hands or its society fell apart.

While the specifics of Israel’s role do not need to be publicized, Sisi should be aware of these efforts.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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