Egypt has recently shown significant interest in Balkan states through several diplomatic and economic movements.
There is no doubt that some of these moves are related to Egypt’s economic needs as it faces one of its harshest economic problems in its history. However, Egypt has also conducted talks about possible gas exploration and military cooperation which would seem suspicious to other regional powers as Turkey.
On November 2, 2016, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, who was in an official visit to Cairo, as reported by Trend News Agency, a private news agency in Azerbaijan.
Egypt started to approach the Azerbaijan oil market in search for alternatives to overcome the suspension of oil supply from Saudi Aramco company.
Saudi Arabia has recently informed Egypt that shipments of oil products expected under a $23 billion aid deal have been halted indefinitely, suggesting a deepening rift between the Arab world’s richest country and its most populous, according to Reuters.
As a result, “Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding to import crude from the State Oil Co. of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as Socar, to supply its refineries,” as reported by Bloomberg.
Moreover, Azerbaijan plans to organize an export mission to Egypt in 2016 said Rufat Mammadov, head of Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation (AZPROMO), as reported by Trend.
He noted, “Entrepreneurs, who will visit Egypt and Dubai, will present spheres of agriculture, processing, food industry, including the production of soft drinks.”
Mammadov said that during the visit, the entrepreneurs will hold negotiations with local companies to expand their export opportunities, as well as one of the companies’ plans to sign a contract on results of the visit.
Trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Egypt amounted to about $4.5 million in January-September 2016, $4.2 million of which accounted for import of Egyptian products, according to Azerbaijan’s State Customs Committee.
The official Facebook page of Egypt’s foreign ministry stated that Egypt’s ambassador in Albania Mohamed Khalil met the Albanian minister of defense Mimi Kodheli at the defense ministry headquarters.
The two parties discussed the cooperation between both countries to support the security and regional stability in the Middle East and the Balkan.
In addition, the Albanian defense minister stressed its country’s support to Egypt’s war against terrorism and hard-line ideas that started to threaten the security of both the Middle East and the western Balkan areas. She also stressed that the international community should exert more efforts against the terrorism phenomenon.
In the same context, Egypt’s ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina Yasser al-Atawy met the Bosnian minister of defense Marina Pendes as they discussed the means needed to support cooperation and develop the bilateral relations between both countries.
During the meeting at the headquarters of the ministry of defense in Sarajevo, the Egyptian ambassador stressed on Egypt’s interest to activate and implement various paths to enhance and support the bilateral relations; including the military cooperation between both countries.
On the other hand, the Bosnian minister of defense stressed that her country supports Egypt completely in its legitimate war against terrorism.
* Greece and Cyprus
In fact, cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus started during November 2014 summit and resulted in “Cairo Declaration” that included a preliminary agreement among the countries on their visions for political, economic and security cooperation, especially with regard to energy and counterterrorism, according to al-Watan newspaper, Egypt’s’ private-owned newspaper.
In December 2015, a second trilateral meeting was held between the three countries in Athens. The Athens Declaration was the product of the meeting that “set a solid basis for more organized and regulated cooperation on maritime and energy policies.”
The gas explorations in the eastern Mediterranean have resulted in crucial discoveries for the three states, especially Egypt, as it is in dire need of an economical boast, and Greece, which is still suffering from the economic crisis.
In this context, George Filis, Adjunct Professor of European Affairs at the American College of Greece,” believes this alliance is important for both geo-economic and geo-political reasons, “as reported by Daily News Egypt.
In August 2015, Eni-the Italian company- announced the discovery of a giant natural gas deposit in the deep waters of Egypt. The discovery could hold a potential of 30tr cubic feet of gas on an area of about 100 sqkm. According to Eni, the Zohr reserve is the largest gas discovery ever made in Egypt and in the Mediterranean Sea, according to Eni.
On the other hand, Noble Energy, which is responsible for exploration of hydrocarbons in Block 12 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, announced the discovery of the Aphrodite natural gas field in the same year.
Filis believes that the discovery of the super-giant natural gas deposit (Zohr) in the Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) could be a game-changer in the energy developments of the region, while it might reorient the plans and priorities of both Cairo and other stakeholders.
“This discovery, in combination with the recent developments and findings in the Cypriot EEZ (Aphrodite deposit), along with the fact that the newfound Egyptian deposit is very close to the Cypriot EEZ, increases the probability of discovering something similar on the other side of the maritime borders. Greece’s preparations of for the conduction of similar explorations in the region south of Crete and in the Ionian Sea make the demand for cooperation and coordination urgent and natural,” according to Daily News Egypt.
As a result, Nicosia and Cairo held discussions regarding the possibility of transporting Cypriot natural gas to existing Egyptian facilities for further processing, and exports are moving in this direction. This could increase Greece’s importance as an emerging regional energy hub through the full materialization of the potentials of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project.
Filis added, “This means Greece will need to secure extra natural gas quantities (LNG or conventional), a part of which might come from Cyprus and Egypt.”
The third-round meeting between the three countries was held in Athens in December 2015. The three countries signed a declaration in which they agreed to work more closely on security and energy issues. In addition, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi agreed on the formation of a “standing Joint Committee of Cooperation” that will “develop, formulate and promote practical project of trilateral interest, “as reported by Natural gas world.
The fourth round of talks between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt was in Cairo where the three countries issued a common declaration.
Energy issues were discussed, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, “We discussed the possibility of deepening our cooperation on renewable energy and transporting natural gas from the major reserves of Egypt and Cyprus to Europe and for the demarcation of our exclusive economic zones.”
Prime Minister Tsipras said, “Beyond this, the trilateral cooperation is a strategic decision in pursuing peace, security, stability, and development in our fragile region.” He added,” The Mediterranean nurtured some of the most important civilizations throughout history but is often at the epicenter of challenges in such areas as security, financial and migration.”
With regard to the refugees, the three leaders said “solutions should be addressed regionally and comprehensively” placing emphasis on reducing incentives for irregular migration in collaboration with the European Commission, boosting socio-economic growth and creating opportunities, and also by acting to provide safe and legal resettlement of people.
The UAE role in enhancing Egypt’s relations with Balkan countries
It is noteworthy that the United Arab Emirates -Egypt’s Gulf ally and one of the main supporters of al-Sisi regime- has strong relations with the Balkan states. So, it is possible that the UAE had played a major role in opening the Balkan gate to Egypt.
The UAE is almost encircling the Greek and the Serbian economy after buying the Greek Airline, and its contribution in the Cyprus banking sector, in addition to its gigantic investments in Serbia.
Moreover, the United Arab Emirates will lend Serbia “$1 billion to help the indebted Balkan country refinance its existing debts and to help it finance its ongoing budget deficit,” as was reported by Reuters last month.
Furthermore, the UAE has received weapons from Balkan states. A research released by Balkan Investigating Reporting Network and cited by Middle East Eye in 2015 stated that “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bought large quantities of Soviet-style weapons and ammunition from Bulgaria in the past two years, almost certainly destined for factions in Syria and possibly also Yemen.”
What is Egypt doing in Turkey’s backyard?
There is no doubt that the Egyptian regime’s moves will raise suspicions to the Turkish side, especially in the light of tensions between Egypt and Ankara.
The Egyptian-Turkish relations have deteriorated after the military coup in 2013 led by General Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi against Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president.
In response, Turkey didn’t recognize al-Sisi’s military regime and it also provided support to the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.
Since then, the relations have soared between both countries. However, the deep dispute has re-emerged after Turkey’s failed coup attempt last July.
The latest failed coup attempt in Turkey has unveiled the different stances and roles of the two countries that go far beyond the coup attempt itself.
From the early hours of Turkey’s coup attempt, both Egypt and UAE media reported that it has succeeded!
In addition, Fetullah Gulen appeared on al-Ghad al-Arabi Channel-in his first interview with an Arabian Egyptian Channel after Turkey’s failed coup attempt last July. Al-Ghad Al-Arabi TV is owned by former Fatah leader Mohamed Dahlan, the exiled Palestinian and Emirati middleman. The channel headquarters were in London but they have recently moved to Egypt.
In addition, Egypt started to provide a platform for Gulen’s media with the financial support of the UAE.
In this context, a meeting of a number of leaders in “Fethullah Gulen’s organization” who are located in African countries has been held in Cairo, according to the New Khaleej, an investigative online newspaper.
The meeting discussed the repercussions of the failed coup attempt and how to face the latest Turkish action against the organization and its cells within the Turkish state institutions as well as its external arms.
Moreover, sources stated that Fethullah Gulen’s media arm, represented on the electronic website of Zaman-Arabic newspaper, is working from Cairo.
The Gulen-affiliated media outlet, including a team of Arab and Turkish journalists who administer the website of Zaman newspaper, related to Gulen, works in official headquarters based in Cairo with the acknowledgment of the Egyptian authorities, according to the source.
In addition, it is noteworthy to mention reports that have not been stated by the Turkish newspapers on a wide scale, on a conference that was held in Cairo under the title of, “Restrictions on the Freedom of Expression and Human Rights Violations in Turkey”, under the auspices of Fethullah Gulen’s and PKK terrorist organizations.
There are also talks that Egypt would possibly be the new residence for the ‘parallel state’ organization (FETO) of Fetullah Gulen. Turkey’s Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag said that there is intelligence information that Fethullah Gulen is seeking to escape to a number of countries, including Egypt, Canada, Mexico and South Africa, according to Rassd News Network. In response, Egypt said through its Prime Minister Sherif Ismail that “We have not received any request related to this issue, and if a request is presented, it will be studied.”
So, Egypt’s moves to strengthen its relations with the Balkan states may have much to do with Turkey’s strained relation with Cairo,” especially since there’s an old conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey about gas discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea, “as reported by al-Monitor.
In November 2014 during the Cairo Declaration conference, Turkey was warned to stop natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea without a clear demarcation of the maritime borders to protect each state’s discoveries and gas fields.
In response, Turkey commissioned naval forces to engage in the area to protect against any actions toward its projects of oil and gas excavation. This suggested that the gas exploration operations may stir conflict among Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.
Al-Monitor quoted Yasri al-Ezbawi, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, saying that Egypt, as a pre-emptive step, rushed to ally with Cyprus and Greece.