Egypt-Greece agreements send a strong signal to Turkey

Search-and-rescue and agriculture pacts further isolate their mutual rival, despite presidential handshake that indicated a thaw in Egypt-Turkey relations

Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo on Tuesday. Photo: Nikos Dendias / Twitter
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Egypt and Greece have signed search-and-rescue and agriculture agreements in the latest move to increase bilateral co-operation and further isolate Turkey, experts said.

The two bilateral deals were signed in Cairo on Tuesday during meetings between the Egyptian and Greek foreign affairs ministers, Sameh Shoukry and Nikos Dendias, and defence ministers Mohamed Zaki and Nikos Panagiotopoulos.

The Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue agreement signed by the defence ministers will allow the countries to co-operate on migrant search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, according to a statement from the Greek Foreign Ministry.

Under the second agreement on the Employment of Seasonal Workers in the Agricultural Sector, 5,000 Egyptian farmers will have the right to enter and stay in Greece for up to nine months to help harvest Greek crops.

The agreements are meant to “save precious lives” and promote “legal and regular migration”, Mr Dendias said after the signings.

But he also took a jab at long-time adversary Turkey, which signed a controversial maritime and gas deal with one of Libya’s two rival administrations last month.

“We are also sending a clear message that our actions are always based on international norms. In no way do we ever try to infringe upon the sovereignty or the sovereign rights of other countries, contrary to what others in the region are doing on a constant basis,” Mr Dendias said.

Egypt, Greece and the European Union criticised Turkey’s agreement with Libya’s eastern-based government, saying it infringed upon the sovereign rights of third states and does not comply with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Turkey is not a party to the international agreement that establishes a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. Its territorial concern is that it would effectively be locked out of the Aegean Sea owing to the large number of Greek islands.

“Greece is trying to maintain this position that ‘we respect international law and Turkey operates outside the rule of international law’,” said Nikolaos Nikolakakis, an assistant political science professor at the British University in Egypt.

“It’s more like the moral high ground, rather than a negotiating tactic. Because, if you go into the negotiating tactic, Turkey is not bound by a treaty that it has not ratified,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the opening ceremony of the 2022 World Cup in Doha, Qatar, November 20, 2022.  AP

Meanwhile, Egypt has had its own fraught relations with Turkey over the past nine years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed the 2013 fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi and insisted in 2019 that he would never meet his Egyptian counterpart.

That changed this week when Mr Erdogan and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi met and shook hands at the Fifa World Cup in Doha in a rare sign of thawing relations.

Still, the move was more about maintaining regional stability and promoting Egypt’s economic interests rather than choosing sides, said Ashraf Naguib, chief executive of Cairo-based think tank Global Trade Matters.

For example, the free trade agreement between Egypt and Turkey, which was signed in 2005 and came into force in 2007, is worth a potential $5 billion in bilateral trade.

“More stability in the region means there’s going to be more economic growth,” Mr Naguib said. “Egypt has always had this ability to balance between our neighbours, especially within the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Migrants being rescued off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Hannah Wallace Bowman / MSF

This is the second time Egypt and Greece have signed their own agreements in response to Turkey’s deals with the Libyan government in Tripoli, which they view as illegitimate.

“Any kind of agreement that tries to strengthen the relationship between the two countries is also in response to what Turkey is doing in Libya,” Prof Nikolakakis said.

A November 2019 agreement that included the delimitation of Turkish and Libyan exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Eastern Mediterranean was seen as blatantly disregarding Greek sovereign rights in the region.

It also infringed on Egypt’s plans with Cyprus, Greece and Israel to turn the region into a global energy centre after the discovery of natural gas in huge quantities.

In response, Egypt and Greece signed a maritime deal in August 2020 that partially delimited their respective EEZs.

Egypt also helped to establish the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in September 2020, bringing together Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, but excluding Turkey.

Athens hosted the Philia Forum in February 2021 to “promote friendship, peace and prosperity from the Mediterranean to the Gulf” with the participation of Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Egypt and Greece are looking to enhance co-operation in other fields as well, such as by building an undersea cable that will bring electricity powered by renewable energy from Africa to Europe.

Prof Nikolakakis said the latest agreements “show how much Greece values the relationship with Egypt and how much they want to demonstrate to Turkey ― more importantly ― that the alliance between Greece and Egypt is solid”.

Updated: November 23, 2022, 3:22 PM