Stephan Roll is head of the Middle East and Africa research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Roll's areas of expertise include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, elites and social mobilisation in Arab countries
Interview with Middle East analyst Stephan Roll

"Egypt's leadership feels markedly threatened by Turkey"

The dispute about maritime territories between Turkey and Greece is heating up. Egypt's involvement has added a new dimension to the conflict, says Middle East analyst Stephan Roll. Interview by Panagiotis Kouparanis

Greece and Egypt have been negotiating the division of their respective EEZs for almost 15 years. As of 13 August, they have an agreement, signed by the Greek and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo. Why the sudden rush?

Stephan Roll: This agreement is directly related to the EEZ agreement signed by Turkey and Libya in November 2019, which Greece and Egypt saw as a massive violation of their interests. I don't know to what extent Athens and Cairo negotiated a perfect agreement. In the end, it was a question of putting Turkey in its place.

The EEZ agreement between Greece and Egypt does not take into account the areas east of the island of Rhodes to the easternmost Greek island of Kastellorizo. Those negotiations are still on-going. Why is that?

Roll: The most important thing was to send a message to Ankara, as quickly as possible, making it clear that they would not tolerate Turkey re-defining its maritime borders. That could explain why the agreement was signed now and why the details still need to be negotiated.

We're seeing a tense situation between Greece and Turkey, but also between Egypt and Turkey. What is that all about?

Roll: First and foremost, it is clearly about gas deposits. It is very important for Egypt to develop them: The country's energy strategy rests on large-scale gas exports. But, ultimately, this conflict with Turkey is much, much bigger. It goes back to the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which targeted the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Infographic showing EEZ agreements in the Eastern Mediterranean (source: Deutsche Welle)
NATO allies at loggerheads, yet the dispute has implications for the entire Eastern Mediterranean: on 13 August, Greece, which claims the waters and other areas south of Greek islands as an exclusive economic zone, signed an accord with Egypt to define the countries' respective EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey called it a "pirate agreement" – and took the opportunity to restart seismic surveys in the region, recently on hold as a result of mediation by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union

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.

The Turkish-Libyan EEZ agreement and Turkey's engagement 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.

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