Egypt Draws Maritime Border, Ignites Tensions Among Regional Gas Alliances

Vast undersea natural gas resources and the right to drill in waters off the coast of Egypt and Libya are prompting recriminations between regional governments after economic interests led Egypt to unilaterally delineate its maritime border with Libya last week.

A decision by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to draw his country’s maritime border with Libya drew protests from the Foreign Ministry of Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Unity over the weekend, in addition to protests from the prime minister of Libya’s rival government backed by the country’s parliament.

The unity government’s ally, Turkey, reportedly called on both countries Sunday to negotiate a maritime border agreement to resolve the conflict.

Egyptian political sociologist Said Sadek told VOA that it is not clear if Egypt made the right decision by drawing its border, but he said important economic interests are at play, and Cairo can’t afford to wait for Libya to become a stable country again.

“I think for the time being, each country has to look out for its own vested interests,” Sadek said. “Taking into consideration that Libya has been very divided since the fall of [former leader] Moammar Gadhafi [n 2011], and it doesn’t seem that there is agreement over [the date of an] election [and] when there will be stability. Egypt can’t afford to not exploit its own natural resources until others resolve their own situation.”

Presidential elections in Libya, originally scheduled for December 2021 were postponed indefinitely, leaving the country in political limbo with two governments supported by rival Libyan and international parties.

Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, told VOA that the “vast undersea gas resources in the East Mediterranean” have put Egypt at loggerheads with both the Tripoli-based Libyan government and Turkey, which supports it.

Abou Diab said that Egypt has been very prudent over the years not to provoke Turkey, despite its ongoing political conflict with Ankara [over Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood group], while the Libyan government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli, which Turkey backs, is exploiting the maritime issue as a chokepoint against Egypt, which does not recognize his government.

Abou Diab argued that it is “probable that negotiations between Egypt and Turkey will intensify in the coming year, given that both countries have major interests in Libya, both strategic and economic.”

Paul Sullivan, a Washington-based political and energy analyst at the Atlantic Council, stressed that given “the significant natural gas reserves” in the East Mediterranean,” all the [regional] countries involved are making claims,” so it is “likely that tensions are going to build until some [sort of] general agreement is made.”

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