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MENASource February 2, 2023

Egypt just seized part of Libya’s maritime zone. What’s the story behind the Egyptian decree no one is talking about?

By Ali Bakir

On December 13, 2022, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued a presidential decree demarcating the country’s maritime borders with Libya. The presidential decree is believed to cut off thousands of square kilometers of Libya’s maritime zone. Egypt’s unilateral move was taken without prior consultation or negotiation with the Libyans, raising many questions about its content, timing, and justifications.

In response to the Egyptian move, the United Nations-recognized Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) categorically rejected Sisi’s decree. This was followed by the Libyan foreign ministry slamming the decree as “not in compliance with the provisions of international law, unfair, and not taken in good faith.” The ministry asserted that the Egyptian move violates Libyan territorial waters and “contradicts Cairo’s statements in the international forums concerning its respect for Libyan sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Surprisingly, the Egyptian government’s allies in Eastern Libya—led by General Khalifa Haftar— followed suit and condemned Sisi’s decree. The Libyan parliament, headed by Aqila Saleh, issued a statement expressing “disapproval of the unilateral Egyptian move that was taken without prior consultations in this difficult time the country is going through.”

Urging Egypt to withdraw the decree swiftly, the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committees considered Sisi’s decision a “violation of Libyan sovereignty and an infringement [on] the country’s maritime borders.” They asserted that the decree “violates Libya’s interest in the Mediterranean” and stands contrary to international law.

This incident was one of the rare moments in which the two major conflicting parties in Libya agreed on something. However, it is not clear yet whether Cairo’s allies in the eastern part of Libya adopted such a stance out of genuine belief or because they do not prefer to be portrayed as endorsing the Egyptian move to cut off part of Libya’s maritime zone.

On the regional level, Greece celebrated the Egyptian decision to encroach on Libya’s maritime borders. Following the Egyptian move, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dandias phoned his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, to highlight that Athens and Cairo enjoy solid and harmonious relations on several issues. The Greek minister publicly endorsed Sisi’s decision to demarcate the country’s western maritime borders with Libya unilaterally.

It’s worth noting that Greece has disputes with both Libya and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. During the second Libyan civil war (2014-2020), Greece supported Haftar, who was convicted by a US court of committing war crimes. Several actors, including Egypt and Russia, back the warlord. Most recently, Dandias’ visit to Libya triggered a new crisis between Tripoli and Athens. The Greek foreign minister refused to disembark from his plane and meet with his Libyan counterpart.

The Greek press claimed that Sisi’s decree invalidates the effects of the 2019 Turkish-Libyan delimitation agreement deposited to the United Nations. Responding to these allegations raised by Greece, the semi-official Anadolu Agency quoted Turkish diplomatic sources asserting that Egypt’s unilateral decision to demarcate the western border with Libya through nine geographical coordinates “does not overlap with the continental shelf of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.” Turkish authorities reportedly urged Egypt and Libya to start negotiations on the demarcation of the maritime borders between them as soon as possible.

Egypt has never raised an issue of a dispute with Libya on maritime borders. Hence, the Egyptian declaration created a conflict with Libya that did not exist before. Cairo’s conscious decision to disregard the Libyan side entirely and the absence of good faith in the implementation of its unilateral measure contradicts the spirit of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), raising strong questions about the legitimacy of such a step under international law.

In justification of this action, the pro-Egyptian government Al-Ahram newspaper asserted that it “is a preventive step in light of the state of instability in Libya.” Others, such as the former petroleum minister, argued that the unilateral measure comes in the context of urgency to utilize the wealth of the Eastern Mediterranean. In other words, the Egyptian government decided to seize part of Libya’s maritime zone—where more gas fields could be found—due to Libya’s inability to defend itself against other countries’ encroachments and ambitions. 

Sisi and his close circle have a history of eying the fortunes of oil-rich Arab countries. In one of the leaks in 2015, Sisi was heard mocking Gulf wealth as he asked the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to funnel him tens of billions of dollars. “They have money like rice,” Sisi said. According to some estimates, Sisi’s regime received around $42 billion from a handful of GCC countries between 2013 and 2015. The total amount Egypt received from the GCC countries from 2011 to 2019 is estimated to be $92 billion.

Last April, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia pledged to give Egypt $22 billion to cover its current account deficit. The Egyptian government has managed to secure an additional $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), thus, raising the borrowed amount from the international body between 2016 and 2022 to over $20 billion. Despite the unprecedented amounts of money pouring into the regime’s treasury, Egypt’s economy is collapsing after a decade of obdurate despotic military rule. 

During Sisi’s reign, the Egyptian economy turned into a black hole. Egypt’s total debt climbed to $392 billion by the end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The military is running pretty much everything related to the economy. The involvement of the military establishment in business as well as the economy and politics has ruined the country’s future and is preparing the ground for an apocalypse scenario.

For so long, Sisi bet that the bogeyman of political Islam would force Arab Gulf countries to maintain their unconditional funding for his ailing regime. However, there have been increasing signs that these countries are reluctant to lend him financial support in the future. This might explain why Saudi Arabia and Kuwait did not attend the recent meeting of the leaders from the GCC, Egypt, and Jordan in Abu Dhabi. The meeting was convened by UAE President Mohammad bin Zayed on January 18 and is believed to have primarily addressed Sisi’s economic problems. In support of this thesis, the Saudi finance minister announced on the same day that his country is no longer willing to “give direct grants and deposits without strings attached.”

In the absence of free support, Sisi would be looking for ways to increase the country’s resources and decrease the people’s needs without changing the way the country has been run for a decade. The Egyptian president hopes that the Libya-related decree would divert the public’s attention away from the ticking economic time bomb and result in the discovery of new oil and gas resources that would support the country’s collapsing economy. While Sisi might be able to sell seizing part of Libya’s maritime zone to the public as a cheap and swift victory, it is unlikely that it would be the answer to his mounting internal problems. Furthermore, this measure would complicate the Libyan crisis, Libya-Egypt relations, and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Ali Bakir is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He is also an assistant professor at Qatar University. Follow him on Twitter: @AliBakeer.

Further reading

Image: President of United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meets with King Abdullah II, King of Jordan, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, Abdel Fattah al Sisi, President of Egypt and Haitham bin Tariq, Sultan of Oman, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 18, 2023. Ryan Carter/UAE Presidential Court/Handout via REUTERS