Opposing alliances create concentric rings around Eastern Mediterranean gas fields
Egypt is back in the new version of the Great Game; in this century the race is not after the vast territories of Central Asia, but after the rich gas fields discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean. On Sunday, June 24, 2012, Mohamed Morsi was declared Egypt’s first Islamist president in the freest elections in the country’s history. Morsi won with 51.7% of last weekend’s run-off vote versus 48.3 for Shafiq; the latter was the last Prime Minister of President’s Mubarak corrupt regime. A new Egypt has been born and is ready to return to its central role in the Arab and Muslim worlds… just a sec, not so fast.
Not so fast…
Morsi is the first civilian president in the history of modern Egypt. The other four presidents came all from the military ranks. Moreover, he is the first president openly identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that was defined illegal by the military-run regime. When it became clear that the army-backed candidate had little chance to win (see Rigged Democracy: Egypt as Israel), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) running the country since Mubarak was deposed, illegitimately changed the rules of the game. President Mursi will have much less power than his predecessor Mubarak; the real power will remain in the hands of the military. The SCAF granted itself legislative powers, and reinforced its role in the drafting of a permanent constitution. Moreover, Field Marshal Tantawi announced the re-establishment of a National Defense Council, leaving the generals in charge of Egypt’s national security policy even after their last president was jailed for life.
Yet, reality is clear. Egypt finally recognized its Muslim heart and the army won’t be able to change that, mainly because most of its soldiers are Muslim. The generation of Field Marshal Tantawi and its America-funded generals will be replaced by a new generation that didn’t know the sweetness of corruption. Hours before his victory was announced, Mursi gave an interview to Iran’s Fars news agency. He declared that he will aim at bettering the relations between the countries, which had not been allies in the last century, in order to “create a balance of pressure in the region.” Shortly afterwards, Iran praised the election of Morsi, as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked an “Islamic Awakening.” Sunni Egypt and Shi’ite Iran are among the biggest and most influential countries in the Middle East. They haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1980, following Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Yet, the current warming up between the countries is not a mere consequence of Islam revival in Egypt. The reference of Mursi to the “balance of power” was a clear reference to the New Great Game. Until now, Egypt was out of it.
An Alliance is Born
At the bottom of this page is a box linking relevant articles on the recently discovered gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean; in this article I’ll just make a short summary of the issue and link it to the new Egyptian reality. The fields have been discovered from 2009 onwards, with new ones being discovered every few months. Some of them are in disputed areas between Israel and Lebanon; others in areas controlled by Cyprus. Studies show that the area between Northern Cyprus and Turkey may also be rich in gas. Because the distances among the countries are less than 400 nautical miles, it is up to the states to delineate the actual boundaries. Israel and Lebanon are not at peace with each other, and Israel and Turkey have lowered their relations to the minimum possible following the Freedom Flotilla Affair. Thus, a peaceful solution is not the most likely outcome.
Following the gas discovery, Israel was fast to create a close military alliance with Cyprus. This has encroached most of the fields between the two countries. Greece was brought into this alliance—providing peripheral support—in a military exercise conducted together with the USA. Israel also strengthened its relations with NATO, to the extent that it got access to NATO’s communications codes (NATO-Israel Joint Drill: Access Codes); thus, despite Turkey being formally part of NATO, it is hard to believe NATO will attack Israel if the conflict escalates. Finally, in the far periphery of the area, Israel has an energy-based alliance with Azerbaijan.
Lebanon was the first country of the opposite alliance to clearly state its intentions regarding the gas fields. Turkey subsequently declared its support, and that it will protect the Northern Cyprus fields when discovered. This almost surrounded the inner ring of Israel-Cyprus, leaving only its southern flank exposed. Shortly after, Iran announced its active support of Lebanon in its claims. Syria was left outside due to the civilian unrest still dominating reality there. In 2009, Egypt was a close ally of Israel and thus didn’t get involved on the issue. After Mubarak’s fall, the political instability caused the gas fields to be neglected by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Now things have changed. Egypt is in position to claim sovereignty over many of the discovered fields; new ones may be discovered between Egypt and Cyprus, as the map above shows. Mursi’s statement regarding the warming up between Egypt and Iran signal which alliance Egypt wants to join. It makes sense in the military angle; with Egypt joining Lebanon and Turkey, an outer naval ring surrounding the Israel-Cyprus one, a new “balance of pressure”—as it was defined by Mursi—will be created. Though cautious, the fine-print in Mursi’s statement is crystal clear. Israel’s claims of ownership will soon be contested at higher levels; an energy-war may erupt in the near future.