Egypt and Greece are two pivotal countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is the joint focal geopolitical space of both countries that often face similar or even identical regional challenges. Egypt is the leader of the Arab world, a state in a strategic position controlling the Suez Canal and a historic hegemonic actor in the Islamic world. Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union, while Cyprus, a state with ethnic Greek population is another EU member working in unison with Greece. Greece and Egypt have also close cooperation in the context of international organizations and in the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.
Egypt and Greece have come closer over the last period with a series of diplomatic initiatives that forward the bilateral cooperation of the two countries. Bilateral relations between Egypt and Greece have steadily grown to become a power bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean that comprises diplomatic, military, financial and cultural ties. The two most characteristic events of this cooperation were the signing in August of the maritime demarcation deal establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)and the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). These important developments are the result of careful diplomatic preparations and mostly of a pro-active strategic mentality of both the Egyptian and the Greek government.
The two Hellenic states, Greece, and Cyprus are Egypt’s best diplomatic allies in the framework of the European Union. On the other hand, Turkey is a major opponent of Egypt concerning state interference and support of Islamist militias, spheres of regional interest and power projection in the greater area of the Middle East. Turkey which has grown to be a major opponent of Egyptian national interests in both internal and foreign policy affairs. Turkish continuous interference in Libya, Syria, Iraq, in Egypt in the past, in Cyprus and in the Aegean Sea creates zones of instability that pose a collective security threat. Cooperation between Egypt and Greece can be the essential core for a new dynamic diplomatic nexus in the Mediterranean and a network of similarly minded states: Egypt, Greece and Cyprus with France and the US acting as the external actors providing diplomatic support.
It is in this changing and often-unstable environment that the two countries, Egypt, and Greece, must move decisively forward and build a coherent framework of bilateral and regional security cooperation. The creation of a solid Greek-Egyptian power bloc shall provide stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and safeguard both Egyptian and Greek national interests.
Strengthening of ties between Egypt and Greece
In August 2020 Greece and Egypt signed an important deal for the partial delimitation of their Exclusive Economic Zones. The EEZ deal demarcated partially national EEZs southeast of Crete and northeast of the Matrouh Governorate. According to Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry the EEZ deal “permits Egypt and Greece to go ahead with maximizing benefits from riches available in the exclusive economic zones of both countries, particularly the promising gas and oil reserves’’. It is also an explicit result of the joint will of the two states to overcome unfounded territorial claims in the Mediterranean by revisionist and aggressive state actors, such as Turkey. The signing of the EEZ agreement is major turning point for the geopolitical equilibrium of the region.
The 2020 EEZ deal between Egypt and Greece de facto and de iure obliterates the EEZ memorandum between the Tripoli government and the Erdogan regime signed in 2019. The Sarraj-Erdogan Memorandum was based on tactics of extortion by Turkey on the then crumbling Tripoli regime. Secondly, the Greek-Egyptian EEZ deal now allows the two countries to move on with the exploitation of their natural deposits without external interference and on a legal basis guaranteed by international law. Again, we should always remind that Turkey is one of the few states globally that have not signed the UNCLOS. Thirdly, Egypt now shares sea borders with Greece and Cyprus -two EU member-states- rather than with a revisionist Turkey that envisages itself as the historic rival of Egypt.
For Greece the EEZ deal confirms the fundamental principle that all islands, as all other land territories of the Greek state, possess an economic zone in full. For Egypt ‘‘this agreement allows both countries to move forward in maximizing the utilization of the resources available in the exclusive economic zone, especially promising oil and gas reserves,” as Egypt’s Foreign Minister Shoukry mentioned. Most importantly, the recent EEZ agreement is only a partial demarcation that needs to be completed with the full demarcation by a new Egyptian-Greek agreement in the near future, when circumstances shall allow such a step.
In November 2020 the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made an official visit to Athens, Greece that confirms the close relationship of the two countries. The Egyptian President met with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. El-Sisi confirmed the ever-strengthening ties between the two countries in his statements during the press conference. Egyptian President El-Sisi said that “there is consensus” between Egypt and Greece to stand against regional threats, while he added that it was agreed to face collectively the transfer of jihadist fighters and weapons to militias active in Libya.
In December 2020 Egypt, along with United Arab Emirates, Cyprus, France, and Jordan participated in the 2020 Medusa aeronautical exercise offshore Alexandria. This important military exercise highlighted the decisiveness of all countries involved to create a powerful security network in the Mediterranean Sea.
In January 2021 the Egyptian Minister of Defence Mohamed Zaki received Chief of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff Konstantinos Floros and accompanying delegation. The visit is part of the attempt of Egypt and Greece to reinforce substantially its bilateral cooperation and military ties.
Prospects for Deepening Greek-Egyptian Ties
Much has been already done by the governments of Egypt and Greece in the rapprochement of the two countries. Still, specific additional steps can further enhance and deepen the strategic cooperation of the two pivotal countries in the Mediterranean.
First, on a diplomatic level Greek-Egyptian cooperation can unfold in various fields. In Libya the necessary political solution and restoration of essential government functions and state institutions throughout the national territory requires the dissolution and removal of militias still active there. As Egypt has consistently stressed, the eventual solution to the Libyan crisis must be based on the outcomes of the Berlin Conference and the Cairo Declaration.
The EEZ agreement signed in August between Egypt and Greece is a partial demarcation that needs to be completed with the full demarcation by a new Egyptian-Greek agreement. This could coincide with an EEZ agreement between Greece and Cyprus, so that three states will have cooperated in the delimitation of EEZs in the region. It is in the best interest of Egypt to share sea borders with two member-states of the European Union than with an unstable and revisionist Turkey.
Second, on an economic level Greek investment can be increased in Egypt, as well as the amount of bilateral commercial relations. More importantly though, Greece can forward the idea of a customs union between Egypt and the European Union, a much more logical step instead of EU’s custom union to Turkey. This would be a considerable upgrade of the 2004 EU-Egypt Association Agreement as well of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. A potential customs union would open a growing market of over 100 million people for European companies and investments; it would also greatly benefit the economic prospects of Egypt itself. Greece can act as an intermediary state with EU bureaucracy and decision-making institutions. The evolution of the EMGF and energy cooperation is fundamental not only for economic gains but primarily for regional stability.
Third, on a military level Egypt and Greece can upgrade their cooperation, especially in the naval and aerial fields. Further steps can be assumed that will deepen the strategic cooperation of Greece and Egypt, such as naval and aerial military cooperation. Egypt’s military due to the initiative of the government under President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is one of the strongest globally. Greece possesses the 16th strongest air-force in the world and a considerable navy fleet. Greece is currently upgrading its military arsenal applying 10 billion Euros over the next years. Greece shall obtain at least 18 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale jets and 4 frigates. Greece has requested to be included in the US F-35 program from which Turkey was expelled. These initiatives shall offer Greece a considerable advantage over Turkey in air power in the Mediterranean by the end of the 2020s. Exchange programs for officers and administrative personnel, joint exercises, temporary stationing of military forces in each national territory and joint naval patrols can create a spirit of a true bilateral bond. Another idea would be to create areas of enhanced NATO cooperation with powerful actors, such as Egypt. Greece as a NATO member can also forward the notion of Egypt as a valuable partner in both Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
In this context of enhanced bilateral and regional cooperation Egypt and Greece can reap the fruits of a power nexus that shall prove to be hegemonic in the Eastern Mediterranean and safeguard stability and prosperity for all actors involved. Prosperity and stability of the greater region are intricately related to the perspective of a regional network of cooperating states, such as Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and a future united Libya. These states can then move on with economic and diplomatic cooperation, and joint energy projects. Egypt and Libya in northern Africa and Greece and Cyprus and France in Europe shall thus form the southern extended flank of the European Union leading to the rise of a dominating energy and security nexus in the Mediterranean Sea for the benefit of its states.
Egypt and Greece are essential allies in the Mediterranean and their national interests coincide in many fields: EEZs and economic partnership, the internal situation in Libya, energy cooperation, creation of a stable geopolitical environment, EU external cooperation. The two countries can move forward with confidence and establish an effective alliance that shall safeguard their interests for the future.