The new Mediterranean

Gianni Bonini

CIHEAM Vice-President

Egypt’s natural role as a key country for Mediterranean stability has been re-established with Pope Francis’ visit to Cairo last spring, the dialogue with al-Azhar the “splendid mosque” and University for Islamic juridical and theological studies, the new start for the ecumenical process with Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II and the joint statement on the common gift of baptism (in short “one baptism is enough” with no need for re-baptism when moving to another Christian community), the spiritual and geopolitical support given to Egypt’s people to protect them from the false fundamentalist alternative, and the normalization of our diplomatic relations with the arrival of the new Ambassador. Egypt is, according to President Mattarella, “A country with a very ancient civilization, and a key interlocutor for the stability of the Mediterranean and the Arab world”.

This was confirmed on my recent visit, when I found a new optimism compared with several years ago, and the will to recover from an unsettled period with a negative impact on development and living standards, especially on the tourism-related economy; it is time to move forward again, with pride in the country’s unique history and concern for social justice. Terrorist attacks and violence against Copts now encounter a new resistance and response after Morsi’s false revolution evoking the Shari’a, opening a new era of religious coexistence and the desire to live in peace. While the security measures which al-Sisi has provided for the Christian churches are a shield and an unavoidable deterrent to terrorism, they are also striking and tell us how much still needs to be done in order to affirm the religious freedom which is the cornerstone of full civil rights.

I have supported this concept, which is particularly meaningful for the Roman Catholic Church, in a recent article in no. 14 of “Il Nodo di Gordio” magazine. I have highlighted the continuity between Ratzinger’s famous speech in the Great Hall of Regensburg University on 12 September 2006 and Pope Francis’ call for inter-religious dialogue and against the misleading identification between terrorism and Islam; so I will not expand on this point and those who are interested can refer to the article.

What is striking in Egypt is the impulse towards the future. Both its ordinary people and the ruling class share a will to improve, to tackle the challenges of development and the obstacles to deployment of the nation’s great resources, starting in the agrifood sector by fighting the production shortage and external dependence that could limit Egyptian national sovereignty, and that of the other Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries.

In particular there is the issue of water, involving supply, sustainable use and irrigation, which has now become a real emergency. This was the focus of an interesting workshop in Rome’s Capitolium on 17 November 2017, promoted by ACEA in collaboration with CIHEAM and FAO, in response to a request from the European Union and its Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan, who emphasized the central importance of water during his visit to the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari last year. This global emergency has been evoked for decades and has multiple causes. First of all, there are population growth and climate changes, but Egypt also faces problems created by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam above Sudan and across the Blue Nile, whose historical annual floods are vital for the country. This huge project will include two hydroelectric plants to produce about 15000 Gwh/year, benefitting Ethiopia greatly, but reducing the flow by over 12 billion cubic meters a year for the States downstream for the six years required to fill the reservoir, although Ethiopia guarantees that the flow would then recover its normal course. However, as seen at the 3rd Mediterranean Water Forum in Cairo on 22-24 January of this year, promoted by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), the Institut Méditerranéen de l’Eau (IME) and the National Water Research Center (NWRC), the concerns or alarms, if you prefer, have not been dispelled at all. Nor did last year’s agreement between the three countries – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia – solve the dangerously unstable situation. The interests of Egyptian national security are on a collision course with those of Ethiopia, whose population is estimated by UN projections to rise to 187 by 2050. Much time has passed since the 1929 Nile Water Agreement, when His Britannic Majesty, after the first agreement with Ethiopia in 1902, gave Egypt, but basically Britain itself, the right of veto over any infrastructure that might affect the river’s water inflow.

Thus the Nile becomes emblematic of food and energy, the two pillars of contemporary geopolitics which must face the challenges of the 21st century, leading in thirty years to a world population of about 9 billion people, or even more.

However, we are fully aware that the best way to combat the neo-Malthusianism sometimes concealed behind non-profit facades is by implementing rationalisation and innovation policies to ensure lower costs and higher yields; Egypt has decided to take this path and to focus on four priorities.

The first of these is to monitor and improve water quality, and the second is to increase water use efficiency through actions aimed to modernise irrigation and reduce network leakage. The third priority involves focusing on mobilising new water resources using modern desalination technologies and private initiatives.

Lastly, the National Water Resources Plan (2017-2027) involves a new law, and a draft has already been approved by the Council of Ministers. It aims to regulate national water use with awareness-raising campaigns, reduce leakages, make pollution a criminal offence, and reduce subsidies to zero, which I think may prove critical for social stability. It will also improve training for technicians, and provide for the technical and financial sustainability of services provided at the central and local level, whereas the current model actually involves the free use of Ministry services by other public bodies.

In this context Italy is committed to a Mediterranean foreign policy based on support for development as the essential groundwork for the real independence of young North African and Middle Eastern countries, and is playing a major role in different programme. Among these I would like to mention EU Joint Rural Development in irrigation; the programmes involving our Mediterranean Institute of Bari, such as the WEE (Women’s Economic Empowerment) project for the women’s communities in rural villages, which aims to improve their social and economic role and capacity to produce and market food and non-food commodities. NEMO (NEtworking for the developMent of maritime tOurism at EUSAIR level) intends to develop independent and synergic social and economic activities in favor of the rural and coastal communities of three neighboring countries, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Aquaculture projects focus especially on scientific and process innovation, while other actions aim to improve irrigation efficiency, notably in the most disadvantaged and poorest areas, such as the Fayoum in Egypt, and there are projects to regulate water flow during the rainy period, for example in Nuweba in the Sinai.

I started with Cairo in the attempt to sketch the framework of the new Mediterranean because Egypt is the heart of global dynamics, and has been even more so since 1956, rightly defined by Luciano Canfora the watershed year, when Nasser gained control of the Suez Canal against the old logic of colonialism, supported by the US and former Soviet Union. It is therefore the best place to gauge the evolution of a geopolitical area in constant tension, with a varying diagram due to its being the “middle land”. In fact, the expression “Middle East” was first used in 1902 by US admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, as reported by Amodeo and Cereghino at the beginning of their crudely written book on Lawrence of Arabia, based on the British archives of Kew Gardens. However, it is also an unlimited source of oil and natural gas, in constant expansion thanks to new drilling technologies, in which our ENI plays a remarkable role.

The most striking sign is Egypt’s offshore Zohr field, with an estimated potential of 850 billion cubic metres, which was officially inaugurated on 31 January by an important ceremony in the presence of President al-Sisi and ENI chief executive officer Descalzi, accompanied by our ambassador Giampaolo Cantini. But I am also thinking of the whole eastern Mediterranean region, the historical centre from which Mesopotamian civilization radiated outwards, an area with rich hydrocarbon deposits creating both tensions and economic development. I am also thinking of Leviathan’s natural gas fields with a potential of 620 billion cubic meters, the Tamar and Aphrodite fields off Cyprus, and the proposed East Med pipeline. An extraordinary series of energy resources that could even reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia, but it needs to “overcome a cocktail of political risks and rivalries” if it is to become a feasible alternative, warns the Financial Times.

The fact is that the Mediterranean and the MENA area are struggling to achieve a balance that can create at least the guidelines for a more stable future balance. Permanent instability is the legacy left by the end of the Ottoman Empire, the colonial muddles of the Sykes-Picot hardly concealing the divergences between the United Kingdom and France, the secret pact discovered by Italy three months later, only in August 1916, but disclosed to the world by Lenin at the end of 1917, the discovery of oil fields in Mesopotamia and Persia and the lucid British geopolitical policy aimed at the Empire’s security. I recommend Fabio Amodeo and Mario José Cereghino’s abovementioned book, an interpretation of the myth of Lawrence of Arabia and the “total disregard for the legitimate aspirations of Arab populations” revolving around oil and the British thalassocracy; decolonization and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict locked in the play of a war – cold near the Iron Curtain but hot on the Asian and African outskirts – have left the new century in a real state of tension and permanent conflict.

The Arab Springs marked the end of Nasserist national socialism, but above all of a political generation shaped among military cadres and educated to the values of the struggle for freedom from the old European colonial powers; but also under the initial hegemony of oil monarchies, no way has been found to end the many endemic conflicts that have weakened the income from this black gold and the huge natural gas fields. Even Obama’s soft power, aimed at limiting the human and economic costs of governing world order using a system of client states modeled on Rome’s great strategy, has not been able to produce a state building policy by redesigning the ethnic and religious divides, if, for example, we are not yet near to a stabilized Kurdish nation or to a redefinition of the governance of Syria and its borders; instead, there is a resurgence and expansion of the conflict that seemed to be an internal conflict, but now appears as what it has actually been since it began, namely a war between more or less “constructed” states, involving the whole Middle East, with no exceptions. The same is true for Iraq.

In short, we are still dealing with Churchill’s legacy, that is – I would say – re-legitimized by the Quincey pact dating back to February 1945 between Roosevelt and Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, which involved military protection for oil. New players have been added from outside the old European colonial club. In particular there is China, pursuing a policy to ensure a food supply and energy for growth; this is not only maritime but also involves land grabbing, which destroys identities and communities. The same can be said of India, but all countries with a certain power, from Australia to Brazil, seek to stake out – the verb really gives the idea of territorial delimitation – the fundamental strategic positions to defend commercial and military interests that are almost the same.

And what about Italy? Fortune in the Latin sense blindly governs human destinies, and what I might define as a situation of “diplomacy in movement” has been produced by the decline in the impetus of the Arab Spring and the revival of moderate political and religious forces in crucial situations, like that of Egypt; the fragile but desirable prospects of a new balance, in Syria, as already mentioned, taking account of the US soft power policy aimed at distributing the costs of global political governance in this multipolar era, and the pivotal role of Russia, determined not to be expelled from the warm seas; Moroccan stability under a firm Alawite dynasty, and Algerian stability due to a ruling class shaped by the struggle for liberation; Erdogan’s centripetal movement under pressure from the new Kurdish nation; Israel’s cautious attitude towards any form of adventurism; last but not least there is the Lebanese capacity to resist frequent fundamentalist attempts to divide national unity. The diplomatic effort involves Italy in re-launching the principles affirmed in the Peace of Westphalia, that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, based on mutual recognition of nation-States after the unfortunate dissolution of states in Mesopotamia and which we have the duty to support against the winds of disorder that at a certain point seemed to prevail.

Let us be quite clear: it will not be easy for us to consolidate the old positions gained since the Second World War by a steady policy of economic cooperation and peace that have made us a privileged partner of this area’s countries. The network to build should recognize that the historical cycle featured by decolonisation and state socialism has ended, and that we are faced with a new scenario.

Libya does not possess “human aggregates with territorial spaces marked by ancient pre-Roman settlements, i.e. Egypt and Carthaginian Tunisia”, as emphasized by Giulio Sapelli. This reminds us that the Mediterranean (in which the great French historian Braudel saw Italy as the central axis) is not an option, but the natural space where we are forced to engage in politics, from the Punic wars to the disasters of the last war, and that in geopolitics spaces are soon filled and remain so for a long time. The absence of the European Union as a political interlocutor and certain neo-colonialist accelerations have forced us to accept very questionable solutions, to put it mildly, such as the fall of Gaddafi and the subsequent re-emergence of tribalization, based this time on energy issues, shifting the controversial issue of migration onto us.

But we now know the game. We depend on the Mediterranean for most of the goods we import and export. It carries 20% of the world’s commercial shipping, 30% of its oil trade, and 65% of Europe’s energy supplies, including those of Italy, without counting the oil and gas pipelines or the oil and gas fields mentioned before. The Mediterranean is the key to our security, which can be ensured only through the vision of an enlarged marine area stretching from the Atlantic coasts to the Caspian Sea and from the Black Sea to the Indian Ocean, with the principal mandatory routes from Suez to Bab el-Mandeb, Hormuz and beyond.

Within this framework, the new Shipping Law, for instance, involving an investment of about € 5.4 billion, is an excellent departure, which requires continuity in the overall renewal of the Navy.

Europe would never have existed without the Mediterranean, and can become a global political player only on the basis of a privileged partnership with the new Mediterranean, which Euro-Mediterranean policy is painstakingly – and even painfully – generating following the Arab Springs.