Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

Turkey's Foreign Affairs minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. (AFP)
Turkey's Foreign Affairs minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. (AFP)
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Updated 07 March 2021

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt
  • Bilateral relations strained in recent years by Muslim Brotherhood, Libya conflict and other matters

ANKARA: With Turkey hinting at a potential deal with Egypt on exclusive maritime zones in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean, the impact of such an agreement on energy transit routes and the political concessions that Turkey might be obliged to make have come under the spotlight.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday said that the country wanted to sign a deal over maritime boundaries.

But this willingness is currently limited to declarations from the Turkish side, with no tangible reaction from the Egyptians.

Turkey’s tactical move indicates a willingness to reduce escalatory policies in the region in order to bypass any criticism from Brussels and US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Potential sanctions against Turkey’s controversial exploratory activities in the Eastern Mediterranean would be discussed at the European Summit on March 25-26, pushing it to not make aggressive moves ahead of that meeting.

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But experts regard such a deal to still be far-fetched, at least in the short-term, because Egypt has had an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Greece since last year. This pact angered Turkey because it has had longstanding disagreements with Greece over the extent of their mutual continental shelves.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a phone call on Wednesday evening, after Cavusoglu’s statement, on regional issues of common interest, with a special emphasis on energy and Eastern Mediterranean issues, another strong signal that Greece would do its best to not let a Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement happen.

Turkey said the deal between Greece and Egypt did not include a disputed zone to the south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo which Turkey claims under its own EEZ.

Relations with Egypt have been strained after the Turkish-backed Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by El-Sisi in 2013.

Last year, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece released a joint declaration accusing Turkey of carrying out “provocations” in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt has been involved in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum since 2019 without involving Turkey.

Turkey and Egypt have also backed opposing sides in Libya’s civil war.

“Turkey has tried to lure Egypt into signing an EEZ agreement with it by claiming it will receive a bigger share than it will from a bilateral agreement between Athens and Cairo,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told Arab News. “In a similar manner, it has presented the claim that the EEZ agreement between Israel and Cyprus gives Israel less than what it would receive had it signed an agreement with Turkey.”

While a relaxation in tensions between Turkey and Egypt was plausible, Lindenstrauss did not expect a serious rapprochement happening soon, so an EEZ agreement between the sides was not likely to materialize.

In late February, Egypt and Israel agreed on linking an Israeli offshore natural gas field to liquefied natural gas facilities in northern Egypt through an underwater pipeline to meet the increased demand for natural gas in Europe.

The pipeline will begin from Israel’s Leviathan gas field and then head to Egypt by land before going to Crete through the Greek-Egyptian EEZ.

This route sidesteps Cyprus. In other words, the gas is not likely to be exported through disputed areas that might draw Turkish objections.

Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the UK's Foreign Policy Centre, thought  that Turkey’s recent efforts to improve its relations with Israel and Egypt was motivated by a need to break the alliance between Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt.

“These countries have been united against Turkey’s increasing influence and gas searches in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he told Arab News. “From the Turkish policymakers’ strategic view, Greece and Cyprus interests are in contradiction with Turkey’s ambitions in the region. Therefore, Turkey will try to distance Greece and Cyprus from Egypt and Israel.”

These moves require a change in Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology that inspires Hamas in order to bring Egypt onside and end the bilateral dispute. Turkey hosts several of the organization’s members and supporters since the group’s activities were banned in Egypt.

Last month, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced seizing goods worth $121,000 sent by Turkey-based Hamas members to individuals in the West Bank through two Turkish companies.

“We have recently heard claims that Turkey has been reassessing its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is too early to assess any policy change in relation to this. Any substantial reconciliation with Israel and Egypt will require Turkey to distance its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Caliskan said.

For Caliskan, Turkey’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood was based on ideology and also on a strategic partnership.

“Distancing Turkey’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood would impact Turkey’s influence in Libya for example. Turkey is likely to compartmentalize its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing its support to their presence in Egypt and Palestine, but will continue supporting them in North Africa, especially in Libya and Tunisia.”


From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 7 min 3 sec ago

From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
  • North African states are seeing varying degrees of success at containing the coronavirus amid a devastating third wave 
  • Slow vaccine rollouts, lockdown fatigue and the spreading Delta variant stretch health systems and economies to the limit 

DUBAI: First identified in India, the highly transmissible coronavirus delta variant has since been detected in around 100 countries, prompting new waves of infections, travel restrictions and concerns over the effectiveness of vaccines.

One region that has been especially hard hit is North Africa, where the economic havoc caused by lockdowns has forced governments to reluctantly reopen borders and businesses despite the slow pace of inoculation.

Tunisia, with a population of 11.69 million, has reported 582,638 infections and 19,336 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, making it one of the worst-hit nations in Africa, alongside Namibia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.

The collapse of the health system and severe economic hardship triggered mass protests that in turn have plunged the country into a political crisis.

War-ravaged Libya has also witnessed an alarming surge of COVID-19 cases over the past month. Because of its two centers of political power with parallel institutions, its response and vaccination rollout have been disjointed and sluggish.

The country’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) recorded 3,845 new COVID-19 cases on July 25 — at that time the highest daily rate since the onset of the pandemic.

Libya has recorded roughly 246,200 cases and 3,469 deaths, but the true figure is likely far higher given the country’s acute shortage of tests and laboratory capacity.

“We are alarmed at the rapid spread of the virus in the country,” AbdulKadir Musse, UNICEF Special Representative in Libya, said in a statement.

A Moroccan municipal worker disinfects outside a house in a closed street in the southern port city of Safi on June 9, 2020 after Moroccan authorities declared a total lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)

“The vaccination rate is very low, and the spread is fast. We must be quicker in our response. The most important thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the variants, is ensure everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated.

“Countries with high coverage of two doses of vaccines have been able to drastically reduce the rate of hospitalization and deaths. We also need to follow and abide by preventive measures.”

Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October 2020, but was only labeled a “variant of concern” (VOC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 11 this year.

The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November 2020.

READ MORE

Arab countries of North Africa have particularly felt the economic pain of the coronavirus crisis. Find out why here.

In many countries, including the UK, delta has now become the dominant strain. Although it is thought to cause more severe symptoms than its ancestor variants, placing additional strain on health services, there is currently not enough data to suggest it is more deadly.

More encouraging is the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.

This is all good for countries with high rates of vaccination such as the UK. But for countries in the developing world, including the Arab states of North Africa, the slow rollout of vaccines means there is limited protection against the virus.

Delta is taking a terrible toll in these countries, leaving hospitals overburdened and mortuaries short of space.

Africa as a whole recently recorded a 43 percent week-on-week rise in COVID-19 deaths. Hospital admissions have increased rapidly and countries face shortages of oxygen and ICU beds.

A mask-clad worker measures the body temperature of incoming Muslim worshippers arriving for prayers at the Hasan II mosque, one of the largest in the African continent, in Morocco's Casablanca. (AFP/File Photo)

According to the WHO, the continent has vaccinated around 52 million people since the start of the rollout in March and only 18 million are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5 percent of the continent’s population compared with more than 50 percent in some high-income countries.

South Africa, with its population of almost 60 million, has recorded 2,422,151 cases and 71,431 deaths since the pandemic began. Based on deaths per head of the population, Tunisia tops the region.

However, the picture is not uniform across the region. To date, 1.63 percent of Egyptians and 1.68 percent of Algerians have been fully vaccinated, compared with 27.68 percent of Moroccans, and 8.24 percent of Tunisians. Just 0.43 percent of Sudanese have received two doses, while data for Libya is unavailable.

“Different countries have different epidemiological situations, so we can’t generalize all of North Africa,” Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at the WHO regional office in Cairo, told Arab News.

Some countries have “really invested so much in vaccination and this is paying off,” while other countries have focused on enforcing public-health measures to slow the spread of the virus, he said.

“I think Morocco has really made a great investment and progress on administering more people with the vaccine compared to a number of other countries. And the cases you see are actually very minimal compared to previous waves, so I wouldn’t worry much about Morocco,” Abubakar said.

People queue as they arrive outside a make-shift COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination and testing centre erected at the Martyrs' Square of Libya's capital Tripoli on July 24, 2021. (AFP)

Nevertheless, cases in Morocco have been steadily increasing since mid-May, prompting the government to announce an extension of its state of emergency until Aug. 10.

Having already inoculated older age groups, Moroccan health authorities are now offering vaccines to people over the age of 30. But compliance with social-distancing and other hygiene regulations appears to be slipping.

“In Casablanca, I saw many people wearing masks but without adhering to other physical and social-distancing measures,” said Um Ahmad, who recently returned to Dubai following a family visit.

“I saw crowds on the streets and in markets as usual. And when I visited Fez, I saw people living normally with no precautionary actions whatsoever. I even asked my relative ‘are we on a different planet?’”

A Tunisian woman infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus receives oxygen at the Ibn al-Jazzar hospital in the east-central city of Kairouan. (AFP/File Photo)

In Algeria, which decided to close its borders to curb the spread of the delta variant, there is another more pressing problem — a shortage of oxygen in its hospitals to treat the seriously ill, forcing the government to establish a special unit to supervise the distribution of oxygen cylinders.

Egypt has reported a recent decline in the number of COVID-19 cases, with officials recording less than 70 new infections and less than 10 deaths per day. The country has even started sending its surplus medical kits to Tunisia.

But here too, public compliance with social-distancing measures leaves much to be desired. Eman Amir, an Egyptian working in Dubai who traveled to Cairo in May to visit her ailing mother, said she was shocked by the public’s relaxed attitude toward virus containment.

“Those who don’t care whether they die of coronavirus are those who feel they have little to lose given their already precarious existence,” she told Arab News, referring to contract and informal-sector workers most affected by pandemic restrictions.

In neighboring Sudan, cases are surging, particularly in the eastern city of Port Sudan, capital of the Red Sea State.

Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. (Supplied)

Dr. Ahmed Dreyer, the state’s director of the Emergency and Epidemic Control Department, has urged authorities to impose a three-week lockdown — known in policy circles as a circuit breaker — to help contain the spread of the delta variant.

Hana, a young Sudanese woman who lives with her family in Dubai, says many people back home are still not convinced the coronavirus even exists — the product, it would seem, of widespread misinformation.

“People have enough problems to worry about,” Hana said. “They don’t want to add to them and worry about the pandemic.

“They try to lead normal lives, by earning their livelihood and putting bread on the table.” 

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


Egypt officials say Daesh militants attack kills 5 troops in Sinai

Egypt officials say Daesh militants attack kills 5 troops in Sinai
Updated 16 min 47 sec ago

Egypt officials say Daesh militants attack kills 5 troops in Sinai

Egypt officials say Daesh militants attack kills 5 troops in Sinai
  • At least six other troops were wounded in the attack in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and taken to a military hospital
  • Security personnel killed three militants in the firefight, and the area was reinforced, the officials added

CAIRO: Daesh militants ambushed a checkpoint in the restive northern part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing at least five troops from the security forces, officials said.
At least six other troops were wounded in the attack in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and taken to a military hospital in the Mediterranean city of El-Arish, they said.
Security personnel killed three militants in the firefight, and the area was reinforced, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Egypt has been battling militants in the northern part of Sinai Peninsula for years. Violence and instability there intensified after the 2013 military ouster of Muhammad Mursi, an elected but divisive Islamist president, amid nationwide protests against his brief rule.
The militants carried out numerous attacks, mainly targeting security forces, minority Christians and those who they accuse of collaborating with the military and police.
The pace of Daesh attacks in Sinai’s main theater and elsewhere has slowed to a trickle since February 2018, when the military launched a massive operation in Sinai as well as parts of the Nile Delta and deserts along the country’s western border with Libya.
The fight against militants in Sinai has largely taken place hidden from the public eye, with journalists, non-residents and outside observers barred from the area. The conflict has also been kept at a distance from tourist resorts at the southern end of the peninsula.


US official lands in Sudan to support democratic transition

US official lands in Sudan to support democratic transition
Updated 31 July 2021

US official lands in Sudan to support democratic transition

US official lands in Sudan to support democratic transition
  • Samantha Power is set to meet with top Sudanese officials including Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan
  • She will also travel to Sudan’s western region of Darfur where she said she investigated atrocities in the its civil war in the 2000s

CAIRO: The US official who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide landed Saturday in Khartoum, aiming to support Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy before traveling to Ethiopia to press the government there to allow humanitarian aid to the war-torn Tigray region.
Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, is set to meet with top Sudanese officials including Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the ruling sovereign council, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian face of Sudan’s transitional government.
She will also travel to Sudan’s western region of Darfur where she said she investigated atrocities in the its civil war in the 2000s.
“I first visited Sudan in 2004— investigating a genocide in Darfur perpetrated by a regime whose grip on power seemed unshakeable. I couldn’t imagine Sudan would one day be an inspiring example to the world that no leader is ever permanently immune from the will of their people,” Power wrote on Twitter upon her arrival in Khartoum.
Power’s visit to Khartoum is meant to “strengthen the US Government’s partnership with Sudan’s transitional leaders and citizens, explore how to expand USAID’s support for Sudan’s transition to a civilian-led democracy,” USAID said.
Sudan is now on a fragile path to democracy and is ruled by a military-civilian government after a popular uprising led to the military’s ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in 2019. The Khartoum government, which seeks better ties with the US and the West after nearly three decades of international isolation, faces towering economic and security challenges that threaten to derail its transition into chaos.
The US official would also meet with Ethiopian refugees in Sudan who recently fled the conflict and atrocities in the Tigray region which borders Sudan.
Since the Tigray war began in November, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have crossed into Sudan, adding to the country’s economic and security challenges.
Power’s five-day trip will also take her to Ethiopia as part of international efforts to prevent a looming famine in Tigray, a region of some 6 million people that has been devastated by the months-long war.
Power will meet with Ethiopian officials “to press for unimpeded humanitarian access to prevent famine in Tigray and meet urgent needs in other conflict-affected regions of the country,” USAID said.
The world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade is unfolding in Tigray, where the US says up to 900,000 people now face famine conditions and international food security experts say the crucial planting season “has largely been missed” because of the war.
Ethiopia’s government has blamed the aid blockade on the resurgent Tigray forces who have retaken much of the region and crossed into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, but a senior official with the US Agency for International Development this week told the AP that is “100 percent not the case.”


Jordan lifting border crossing with Syria to full capacity from Aug. 1

This photo taken in 2015 shows the Jaber border crossing with Syria, some 90 kilometres north of Amman. (AFP/File Photo)
This photo taken in 2015 shows the Jaber border crossing with Syria, some 90 kilometres north of Amman. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 31 July 2021

Jordan lifting border crossing with Syria to full capacity from Aug. 1

This photo taken in 2015 shows the Jaber border crossing with Syria, some 90 kilometres north of Amman. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The number of arrivals through the border crossing will be increased
  • All nationalities will be allowed to leave Jordan through the crossing

AMMAN: The border crossing between Jordan and Syria is set to operate at full capacity from Aug. 1, following almost 10 years of complete and partial closure due to rising violence in Syria and the coronavirus pandemic.

Jordanian Interior Minister Mazen Al-Faraya recently announced that the Jaber-Nasib crossing will operate at full capacity after all technical and administrative arrangements were completed with the Syrian side.

Al-Faraya said that the decision came after directives from Prime Minister Bishr Khasawneh following his field visit to the crossing on July 8.

The minister added that a set of new measures will be implemented at the border crossing — located about 90 kilometers north of Amman — to increase passenger and cargo traffic between Jordan and Syria, including the cancellation of the back-to-back shipment protocol.

“This means that the Syrian trucks will continue their way to Saudi Arabia and other the Arab Gulf countries without anymore needing a Jordanian freight forwarder,” he said.

Al-Faraya added that the number of arrivals through the border crossing will be increased and that all nationalities will be allowed to leave Jordan through the border crossing with no prior approval from the interior ministry.

In April 2015, Jordan completely closed its border crossing with Syria as a result of escalating violence in the Syrian bordering town of Nasib, which, at the time, was reportedly captured by the Syrian rebels and fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

With Syrian government forces recapturing the southern regions and raising the country’s red-white-and-black flag above Nasib, Jordan reopened the crossing with Syria in October 2018, but only partially, and for a limited number of passengers and cargo traffic.

Following concerns of the crossing becoming a coronavirus hot spot, Jordanian authorities closed the country’s sole gateway into Syria in August 2020 to reopen it shortly afterward, but also at a limited capacity.

The Nasib crossing is the only functioning crossing between Jordan and Syria and is considered a vital economic artery for Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese traders and merchants.

Strategic analyst Amer Sabaileh said that Jordan “getting closer” to Syria has to do with Amman’s frustration with the international community’s inaction on Syria and its failure to resolve the ongoing crisis.

“After 10 years of crisis, nobody is offering solutions for the Syrian conflict and this puts more pressure on Jordan to start at least exploring for new opportunities to put an end to this crisis, because it is the most affected by its ongoing consequences, be they economic, security or social,” Sabaileh told Arab News.

Jordan is home to about 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR.

Asked whether Jordan’s emerging activism on Syria was approved by the US following King Abdullah’s visit to Washington, Sabaileh said: “These attempt were before his visit to the US, but the activism became more active after he returned home. If there was no green light given from the US, at least there was no rejection.”

Political commentator Shaqfiq Obeidat hailed Jordan’s decision to reopen the border crossing with Syria as “wise and historic,” and reflective of “brotherly ties” between Amman and Damascus.

Obeidat said that the reopening of the Jaber border crossing with Syria is in line with Jordan’s “unaltered position” on Syria which, he said, had always been to promote a comprehensive political solution to the ongoing conflict there.

Describing Syria as “Jordan’s northern gateway” to the world, Obeidat said that the reopening of the border crossing at full capacity will generate “immeasurable” contributions towards enhancing bilateral trade and increasing Jordanian exports to Syria, Lebanon and eastern Europe.


Egypt, Libya pledge closer ties in terror, trafficking probes

Egypt, Libya pledge closer ties in terror, trafficking probes
Updated 31 July 2021

Egypt, Libya pledge closer ties in terror, trafficking probes

Egypt, Libya pledge closer ties in terror, trafficking probes
  • El-Sawy hailed the cooperation over common interests between the two prosecution services
  • The Libyan attorney general expressed hope that his delegation’s Egypt visit will help the restructuring of the public prosecution in Libya

CAIRO: Egypt and Libya have pledged to improve cooperation in investigations into terrorism, misappropriation of public funds, petroleum smuggling and the recovery of antiquities and cultural property.
Hamada El-Sawy, Egypt’s attorney general, and his Libyan counterpart, Al-Siddiq Al-Sour, signed a memorandum of understanding on the issue after discussing bilateral cooperation on Friday.
The two officials pledged to use their ties to combat organized crime, corruption, human trafficking and cybercrime based on existing treaties in force in the two countries.
El-Sawy welcomed the Libyan delegation headed by Al-Sour, and hailed the cooperation over common interests between the two prosecution services.
The Libyan attorney general expressed hope that his delegation’s Egypt visit will help the restructuring of the public prosecution in Libya, pointing to the creation of mechanisms for direct communication between the two sides.
An adviser to Al-Sour thanked his Egyptian counterpart for the invitation to visit the country and experience technical presentations, which generated great interest among the Libyan officials.
Al-Sour said that Libya and Egypt are “united through history, geography and deep-rooted ties,” noting the Libyan public prosecution’s keenness on “serious and effective cooperation” with its Egyptian counterpart.
The Libyan public prosecutor stressed the need to put in place “new mechanisms and patterns” to ensure close cooperation between the two prosecutions, and preserve evidence and confidentiality in investigations.