If you want to know what it will look like for the status quo crack-up to actually happen, as the stabilizing influence of the Pax Americana fades in the rearview mirror, a recent legislative proposal in Egypt is a good place to start.
Elder of Ziyon caught this a few days ago. According to regional media, the upper chamber of parliament, the Shura Council, last week approved a bill submitted by MP Khaled Adbel Qader Ouda to invalidate Egypt’s 2003 accord with Cyprus on the maritime demarcation of the two nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Ouda’s pretext for doing this is reportedly that Egypt was not “present at the signing” of Cyprus’s later (2010) EEZ accord with Israel.
As Elder notes, it is questionable whether the language about third-party coordination in the 2003 agreement means that Egypt had to actually be “present at the signing” in order for the Cyprus-Israel accord to be valid. What is not in question is that the Cyprus-Egypt accord was concluded by the Mubarak government, eight years prior to the Arab Spring.
In my judgment, Ouda has simply come up with a weasel-worded pretext for proposing to dump the accord with Cyprus. His real objective is to move on to the next phase, explicitly outlined in the media report: bringing in Turkey as Egypt’s principal partner in determining access to seabed resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Even if it didn’t mention this measure, the Ouda proposal would be laden with meaning for regional power relations. Egypt’s agreement with Cyprus in 2003 was based on an acceptance, not of any eternal reality about Cypriot rights or power, but of stability in the general distribution of power in the region. The ascendancy of the EU, tacitly allied in most ways with the United States, was the power context for the 2003 agreement.
In 2003, Egypt would not have considered a partnership with Turkey as a viable alternative to dealing with Cyprus in the context of EU/US power. Turkey, of course, occupies the northeastern part of Cyprus following a military invasion in 1974, a situation endorsed by no other nation, and certainly not by the EU or US. The Republic of Cyprus, the recognized nation subsisting on the rest of the island, is a member of the EU. Bringing Turkey into any diplomatic initiative involving Cypriot national arrangements is effectively a poke in the EU’s eye. If Egypt were to do it, it would be a signal of alignment with Turkish policies, and against the EU’s, in the Eastern Med.
A great deal of money – income for people and governments in the region – hinges on the EEZ agreements, which divide up the national rights to seabed resources. Israel and Cyprus are already actively exploiting the oil and gas on either side of their EEZ line, following the agreement between them in December 2010. Turkey waded into the drilling area with warships in 2011, and has kept up a presence of naval patrols and air surveillance in the 18 months since, continuing to reject the Cyprus-Israel agreement as not having properly considered Turkish rights (theoretically exercised through occupied Cyprus). Lebanon has objected to the Cyprus-Israel agreement all along, partly on the strength of Beirut’s own refusal to delineate a maritime boundary with Israel.
But while the Pax Americana’s waning sway still holds, the objections are all just noise. Cyprus and Israel can both drill for oil and gas unmolested. Egypt can do the same, having a recognized agreement with Cyprus. Turkey has enormous oil and gas resources under the status quo. Preventing Israel from drilling and gaining income may be a pipe dream, but no one needs to chafe under restrictions that prevent his own national enrichment.
The question is how long the status quo will hold. At least one faction in Egypt wants to begin dismantling it – not with military action, but by withdrawing the diplomatic props of the old order and moving to alternative power arrangements. The alternative power arrangement is the real security issue in this case.
It is no surprise that MP Ouda and the Shura Council look to Turkey – once the seat of the Islamic caliphate, and still populous, wealthy, Sunni, and increasingly Islamist – for a future Egyptian partnership. The prospect of such a partnership will raise centuries-old alarms in Eastern Europe – and modern ones in Western Europe if it is used to discard and replace an EEZ agreement with an EU member. It will force nations like Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria to reexamine their own orientations. It will alarm Russia, interest China, confound NATO, and change Israel’s security calculus for the worse.
If there is insufficient pushback from the EU or the US on a gambit like this, its implications could become quite real for Israel and Cyprus very quickly, including the threat of armed interference with their commercial activities at sea, and emerging pretexts for armed intervention of various kinds, by anyone.
Alternatively, the potential for the Ouda gambit being deployed could become a new bargaining chip for Egyptian diplomacy – a category of chip with endless possibilities for other nations across the Middle East. Could Egypt get the EU to pay through the nose to keep Egypt in the EEZ bargain with Cyprus? International relations have been greased in such ways for centuries. How long would such a bargaining dynamic remain stable? Good question.
I don’t know that Mohammed Morsi is ready just now to lob this flaming missile at the EU. The timing may not be right; certainly Cypriot officials are downplaying the reports about it. But this is how the Pax Americana is likely to crack up. If it isn’t this particular issue, it will be another one. The cracks have been showing for a while, and now they are being probed.
Note: EEZ map reproduced from The Muqata. Not all the EEZ representations on the map are formally agreed to by the relevant parties.