North Africa is slowly moving away from Europe and the US after decades of tight political, economic, and security interdependence. The US’ selective disengagement from the Middle East and North Africa and Europe’s inward focus on migration have opened opportunities for other regional and international powers, such as Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, to fill this leadership vacuum by expanding their diplomatic and military activities in this area. That said, this expansion has also met with resistance by local groups and governments. Indeed, foreign interference and power politics in the wake of the US and Europe’s partial withdrawal are only one part of this story. North Africa’s grassroots movements and governments are trying to elaborate their own responses to this process, seizing the opportunities offered by this transition to widen their policy space and reduce political and economic overdependence on Europe and the US.
Over the past years (and particularly under the Trump administration) the US has begun a process of selective diplomatic and military disengagement from the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has reorganized its priorities in this area, withdrawing from many regional issues while remaining committed to a more limited set of core interests in the area, such as counterterrorism and Israel’s security. Meanwhile, internal divisions and the migration crisis’ growing relevance to national public debates have undermined the ability of European governments to replace the US while pushing them to re-prioritize stability over democracy promotion, after a brief post-2011 interlude.
This process has had significant repercussions across North Africa. This area is relatively peripheral to US interests (with the major exception of Egypt), but Washington has always played an overwhelmingly influential role in regional affairs, along with its European allies – mainly France, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Its political stability (until 2011) and geographical proximity to Europe meant that Washington was happy for the EU and its member states to take the lead addressing North Africa’s political, economic and social issues, while maintaining its primary role as security provider. While the EU articulated its relations with North Africa through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, after 9/11 the US intensified its bilateral ties with local governments and, in particular, security apparatuses in the fight against jihadism. In parallel to this development, Washington was instrumental in Tripoli’s 2003 decision to renounce its weapons of mass destruction and maintained a privileged relationship with Egypt, which has received around $1.3 billion of military aid every year since 1987 thanks to its geopolitical relevance and peace treaty with Israel.
Despite their reluctance to upset the status quo, the US and Europe also played an important and contradictory role during the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Their conversion to supporting local protesters was slow and contradictory, but eventually they imposed a no-fly zone, provided military support to the Libyan insurgents, with the US leading a NATO intervention that culminated in the removal of Muammar Qadhafi, and offered financial support and security assistance to contain the rising jihadist threat in the region to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia’s transitional governments. In Egypt, the Obama administration only hesitantly contributed to pushing out President Hosni Mubarak. In 2013, when the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, Washington froze military aid to Egypt, but the freeze was over by 2015. In Libya, the Obama administration and the main European governments supported the botched transition and remained involved in diplomatic efforts conducted from 2015 to try to end to the conflict. Yet, the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi was an early warning for Washington that its involvement in Libya came at a high price, pushing the US to gradually disengage from the conflict.
As for Tunisia, the US and main European governments reacted cautiously to the anti-regime uprising, avoiding any position that could irritate their ally. However, after the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the US and Europe provided political, financial and security assistance for the Tunisian democratic transition. Between 2014 and 2020, Brussels provided 1.9 billion euros in aid and 800 million in loans to support the transition. Likewise, Washington offered sovereign bond guarantees of up to $1.5 billion, which were key to financing the transitional governments’ budgets, and provided military assistance to help contain the local jihadist threat, including the 2015 designation of Tunisia as “major non-NATO ally.”
Over the past four years, Washington has selectively reduced its footprint in the region. The Trump administration has shrunk its scope of intervention to counterterrorism and, more recently, opposing Russia’s growing military presence. Libya is the main focus of the US’ counterterrorism policy, with AFRICOM maintaining two “non-enduring footprint” operations Misrata and Tripoli (a third operation is based in Bizerte, Tunisia) and conducting regular joint drills with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia’s military. Despite this military presence, after Trump’s election the US disengaged from the diplomatic process on Libya, with Washington playing only a secondary role in UN-led negotiations and the January 2020 Berlin conference. This approach gradually changed after Russia-linked mercenaries began to appear on Libya’s frontlines, pushing AFRICOM to denounce Moscow’s military expansion in May 2020. Faced with Russia’s growing involvement and rising tensions between Turkey and Egypt, Washington has recently begun to re-engage with this conflict with the aim of avoiding a military escalation in central Libya between its two allies.
Meanwhile, the US has maintained its privileged relationship with Egypt. The personal relationship between Trump and President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has meant that the US has turned a blind eye to Egypt’s human rights performance. Bilateral ties have mostly focused on security, with Washington providing weapons and equipment in support of Cairo’s counterterrorism efforts. The only tensions recorded in this period were in November 2019, when the US warned Egypt of possible sanctions if Cairo went on with the purchase of more than 20 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. Yet, when the sale still happened in August 2020, there was no indication that Washington was ready to act on its threat.
The rest of the region has fallen by the wayside, with the Trump administration expressing little interest in Tunisia and Algeria. Despite a major popular movement emerging in February 2019 and regularly taking to the streets until early 2020, the US only issued two statements on Algeria’s Hirak movement and avoided taking a clear stance. In its March 2019 statement, Washington defended the demonstrators’ right to protest peacefully. In the second statement, the US congratulated President Abdelmajid Tebboune on his December 2019 election, despite the record-low turnout rate due to the protest movement’s massive boycott. Likewise, since Trump’s election, Washington has limited itself to supporting Tunis’ counterterrorism activities. The US’ last sovereign bond guarantee to highly-indebted Tunisia goes back to August 2016.
As for Morocco, the Trump administration has only shown interest in the negotiations around the diplomatic exchange between the US, Morocco, and Israel. Thanks to this deal in December 2020 Washington recognized Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Saharan territory in return for Morocco normalizing ties with Israel. The groundwork for this agreement was laid by Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner and Pompeo’s multiple visits to Morocco over the past two years, in sharp contrast with the fact that Kushner, Trump, and Pompeo have never been to any other country in North Africa (with the exception of a single trip by Pompeo to Egypt). Only in October 2020 Defense Secretary Mark Esper paid an official visit to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, mainly to counter Russia’s growing presence in the region.
This selective disengagement has weakened Europe’s leverage on its North African neighbors, as European governments have been unable to fill the security gap left by Washington. Even though the EU remains a key political and economic partner for these countries, the US’ partial withdrawal has left in its trail a lack of leadership that the main European governments have struggled to fill because of their internal divisions and an inward focus on migration. A case in point was the French-Italian competition over Libya in 2018-19, with the two allied countries unable to reconcile their different viewpoints. This persistent disagreement contributed to undermining a possible diplomatic resolution of the conflict. Likewise, Paris’ alignment with the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati coalition on Libya and the East Mediterranean issues and its increasingly aggressive stance towards Turkey (a NATO ally), is at odds with Germany and Italy’s more cautious positions. At the same time European governments’ inability to craft a coherent policy on migration has pushed them to re-prioritize political stability in North Africa. For example, the EU and France were unclear in their stances on Algeria’s 2019-20 protest movement and were quick to recognize Tebboune’s election to the presidency.
The US’ selective disengagement from regional affairs and Europe’s inward turn have coincided with a series of crises that have shaken North Africa. Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco have been facing overlapping political and socio-economic crises, as local governments and populations have been struggling to agree on new social contracts that could lay the foundations for political inclusion and economic development. Meanwhile, the Libyan war has become increasingly internationalized, as foreign powers continue to step up their diplomatic and military involvement in the conflict. On top of all this, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc to the region, putting considerable strain on the livelihood of millions of people and further eroding the limited support local governments enjoy from their populations.
The convergence among the US’ partial withdrawal, the EU’s introversion, and North Africa’s persistent state of political, economic, and security crisis has left a vacuum that regional and other international powers have opportunistically tried to fill by projecting their diplomatic and military capabilities. The Middle East’s powers, locked in a regional proxy war between the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Turkey and Qatar on the other, have transposed and adapted their rivalry to the North African context, where both coalitions have been trying to recruit supporters and undermine each other.
This Middle Eastern rivalry spill-over particularly found fertile ground in Egypt and Libya. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were instrumental in Sisi’s rise to power and provided indispensable financial support in the aftermath of the coup. Sisi’s resolutely anti-Islamist worldview was the perfect match for the two Gulf countries. Even though Cairo has tried to regain some of its autonomy vis-à-vis Abu Dhabi and Riyad (for example, it recognized the Assad regime in Syria in 2016 and expressed support for Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017, in both cases against Saudi wishes), its alignment with these two countries has become a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy.
This alignment is particularly evident in the Libyan crisis. With its rival state institutions, fragmented armed groups, fragile coalitions, and poorly enforced arms embargo, Libya has lent itself to foreign interference. Since the country’s de facto split in 2014, Turkey and Qatar on the one hand, and Egypt and the UAE on the other, have been fighting each other by proxy—with Ankara and Doha supporting Western Libya’s armed groups and politicians and Abu Dhabi and Cairo throwing in their lot with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s East Libyan camp. Turkey’s early 2020 military intervention in the Libyan crisis has accelerated this trend, pushing Ankara and Cairo to the brink of a direct confrontation. In turn, this regional polarisation and Egypt’s growing involvement in Libya have exacerbated domestic political tensions in Tunisia between pro-Turkey Islamists and pro-UAE anti-Islamists and pushed Algeria to warn Cairo against intervening in this conflict, while maintaining a less clear stance towards Ankara.
Elsewhere, however, the rivalry between these two coalitions has encountered opposition and local realities ill-suited to this dichotomy. In Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood-related party Ennahda has been a central player in the country’s post-2011 political landscape and has made no mystery of its ties to Qatar and Turkey. Opposition to this party remains strong within Tunisia, most recently thanks to the Free Destourian Party and its secularist (and former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s supporter) leader, Abir Moussi, who enjoys wide coverage on Egypt and the UAE’s media channels. Her calls to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization resonate with Cairo and Abu Dhabi. However, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE’s room for maneuver has significantly shrunk following the 2019 legislative and presidential elections, which have returned a fragmented parliament and have seen the rise of a new political class reluctant to side with either coalition.
Algeria and Morocco have been even less hospitable to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE’s wishes. Both countries have opted for a policy of independence from both coalitions, even at the cost of sometimes antagonizing them. In 2015, Morocco did not hesitate to send six F16 warplanes in support of the anti-Houthi campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. Later on, however, and despite Emirati and Saudi pressure on Morocco, Rabat refused to break off ties with Qatar at the height of the Gulf crisis in 2017, with King Mohamed VI defying the embargo in his November 2017 visit to Doha. This decision did not undermine the relationship between Rabat and Abu Dhabi though, as in November 2020 the UAE opened a consulate in Western Sahara, in an implicit recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over this territory. Likewise, Algeria has remained neutral towards the Gulf crisis and the Libyan conflict, keeping open its channels of communication with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE.
Yet, it would be an oversimplification to look at North African dynamics purely through the lens of this regional struggle. Over the past few years, Russia has also stepped up its diplomatic and military involvement in regional affairs, while avoiding any direct implication in the Middle Eastern rivalry. Over the past years, Sisi’s Egypt has emerged as Russia’s key ally in North Africa, thanks to their close diplomatic and military ties, while Algeria has been the largest recipient of Russian arms sales in Africa for more than a decade Since 2019, Moscow has also become increasingly implicated in the Libyan conflict, mainly through the presence of Wagner Group private contractors. While aligned with Egypt and the UAE in Libya, Russia regularly communicates with Turkey on several regional issues, including North Africa, showing that a binary interpretation (Turkey/Qatar versus Saudi Arabia/UAE) is not enough to explain the situation on the ground. Indeed, Moscow has been able to exploit this regional cleavage to establish itself as a central player in diplomatic negotiations and military developments in Libya.
Back to Sovereignty
The US’ partial withdrawal and lessened European engagement have had repercussions not just on the diplomatic and security spheres, but their wide-ranging ramifications have also reached the political and economic levels. The post-2011 collapse (or, in the case of Algeria and Morocco, the partial erosion) of the previous authoritarian social pacts and the search for new political and economic models has partly overlapped with Washington’s retreat from the region and Europe’s inward focus, generating feedback effects that have accelerated both trends. It would be misleading to assume that local governments and actors have just been passive pawns in the hands of regional and international powers. On the contrary, it is in this long geopolitical transition that local players have identified opportunities to get organized, diversify their political and economic relations, and regain some of that policy space that has been lost over the years.
Since the 2011 uprisings, North African countries have gone through two broad political cycles. The first cycle followed the previous authoritarian coalitions’ collapse or erosion and the ensuing redistribution of power and resources to previously marginalized actors. Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia went through a major reorganization of their political structures, making room for Islamists, leftists, and civil society representatives, and temporarily pushing aside or even banning the previous regimes’ elites. This was exemplified in the 2013 Libya’s Political Isolation law and Tunisia’s Political Exclusion law (which was eventually rejected), which aimed to ban former regime officials from holding office. At the same time, the new ruling elites started to stretch the existing social contracts to distribute available resources to social and economic categories that had been previously on the margins. This was often done by increasing government spending: between 2011 and 2013 Egypt’s public sector salary bill grew by eighty percent, while in Tunisia the number of public sector employees went from around 450,000 in 2011 to 600,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, Algeria and Morocco tried to appease protesters by introducing limited political reforms and increasing public spending. Despite some initial reluctance, the US and the main European governments encouraged this process, which the international media compared to the mid-1970s democratic transitions in Southern Europe or the 1990s collapse of the Soviet bloc. Qatar and Turkey were also happy to provide their support to North Africa’s transitions and, in particular, local Islamist actors.
Within a few years, the fragmentation of political power and the fiscally unsustainable redistribution of economic resources unleashed a countervailing force that aimed to recentralize power. Scared by Islamism’s rising force and afraid of economic instability middle-class Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians turned to those political forces that promised to strengthen state institutions, restore security, and redress the economic situation. This second political cycle has had stronger and more evident effects in Egypt, where Sisi has succeeded in rebuilding an authoritarian coalition and ending the democratic transition. Libya and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia have also gone through a similar rejection of the previous phase, with Haftar’s war against Islamist and jihadist groups in the former and President Beji Caid Essebsi’s rallying call to restore the prestige of the state in the latter. In neither case, however, was the attempt to go back to the status quo ante (or its closest approximation) completed. As for Algeria and Morocco, the largely cosmetic political reforms that were introduced in 2011 have been rolled back, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (until his forced resignation in 2019) and King Mohamed VI reclaiming their centrality in their respective political systems. The US and the main European governments have done little to oppose this countertrend. Washington’s sympathy for the new ruling elites and Europe’s prioritization of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean space meant that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were able to provide support to the region’s new authoritarians, leaving Qatar and Turkey to support Islamist forces.
These two cycles have fuelled regional polarization, but also encouraged many North Africans to move away from this divergence and attempt to regain control of their destinies. The Algerian protest movement or Hirak, with its lively internal debates on the country’s transitional arrangements and its rejection of external interferences, or the sovereign-minded politicians and movements that Tunisians have recently voted in cannot be neatly sorted in the dichotomy between Islamists on the one hand and neo-authoritarians on the other. These movements have been trying to resist the ongoing regional polarization and carve a space for their own activities and ideas. Through his call for direct democracy, disdain for political parties, and strict interpretation of the constitution, Tunisian President Kais Saied can simultaneously embody the desire for stronger state institutions, the populist call to chastise the country’s political and economic elites, and the demand for more democracy and the continuation of the 2011 revolution. Some of these grassroots movements, particularly in Tunisia, explicitly aim to reaffirm and strengthen their countries’ national sovereignty and reduce their political and economic dependence vis-à-vis the US, Europe, and the main international financial institutions, as well as the Gulf. Likewise, external actors such as Turkey and the UAE have remained undecided about these groups, which have been reluctant to take sides in the regional polarization, wavering between a desire to co-opt them and the fear that they might support their adversaries.
This drive to strengthen national sovereignty has not been exclusive to local grassroots movements, as ruling elites have also been trying to regain some of the policy space that economic dependence on Europe and the US has eroded. The past decade of slow growth, high unemployment, rising social pressures, increasing levels of external debt, and weak investment rates has pushed local governments to reassess their traditional economic relationships. This diversification policy has been mainly a survival tactic employed by North Africa’s precarious ruling elites, which have been losing confidence in their usual foreign policy and economic reference points and have been looking for alternatives. These attempts to reduce economic overdependence on the US and Europe have also coincided with some still immature and hazy debates in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia on the need for a new development model. This shift is not necessarily the result of a new sovereign-minded strategy, but often the consequence of a pragmatic pursuit of new sources of growth and investment by countries that are struggling to generate jobs and are increasingly saddled with foreign debt.
This new approach also marks a reversal in the economic ties traditionally linking North Africa with Europe and the US. While North Africa’s economic ties with France, Italy, and the United Kingdom go back to colonialism, over the past decades North African economies have become increasingly connected to Europe and the US via trade, investment, remittances, tourism and financial aid. An ever-growing architecture of international agreements has solidified this picture, in the belief that economic integration would have eventually led to development and convergence. This has been the logic behind the Association Agreements that the EU signed with North Africa’s countries (with the notable exception of Libya) in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as the 2004 US-Morocco free trade agreement.
Instead, over the past ten years, North African governments have not signed any new treaty with either the EU or the US. Morocco has taken a cautious approach to the EU’s proposed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), whose negotiations have been ongoing for seven years with no end in sight. Likewise, despite its growing dependence on Europe’s external financing and trade, Tunisia has so far been dragging its feet in its negotiations over the DCFTA, with multiple local economic groups and academics expressing doubts about it. As for the US, despite calls to establish a free trade agreement with Egypt and Tunisia, there has been no serious effort by either side to even begin negotiations.
At the same time, North African governments have been looking to strengthen their economic ties with other actors and, in particular, sub-Saharan Africa and China. Morocco has been very proactive in its strategy to diversify its trade and investment relations, for example, by expanding its economic presence in sub-Saharan Africa and demanding to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Tunisia has also expressed its interest in joining ECOWAS, after joining the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in 2018. In addition, Egypt and Morocco have already signed and ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement. As for economic relations with China, all North African countries have signed up to its Belt and Road Initiative’s global infrastructure strategy. In addition, in 2014, Algeria and Egypt signed Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with China, while in 2016, Rabat agreed to enter into a Strategic Partnership with Beijing. However, these agreements are likely to display their effects in the long term, leaving unanswered the pressing questions on how to deal with unemployment, slow growth, and social pressures in the short to medium term.
Some governments have also been trying to diversify their sources of external financing. In the fiscal year 2010/11, right before Mubarak’s downfall, Egypt’s external debt breakdown indicated that international financial institutions, the US, France, Germany, Japan, and the UK accounted for 76.5 percent of Cairo’s liabilities, while Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE made up only 4.6 percent of total debt. Following Sisi’s rise to power, thanks to his close ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt started to look elsewhere to find the money needed to plug its growing fiscal and current account deficits. In 2017/18 international financial institutions, the US and Europe represented only forty-one percent of Egypt’s external debt, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait’s share had grown to twenty-five percent of Egypt’s foreign funding. Moreover, China made up 5.5 percent of Egypt’s debt, up from a very marginal percentage in 2010/11. Meanwhile, Algeria, a country traditionally preoccupied with protecting its sovereignty, has repeatedly stated its refusal to accept financial support from the IMF, despite its increasingly unsustainable fiscal and balance of payments problems. Instead, Algiers has opted to borrow from politically less intrusive institutions, such as the African Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank. Nevertheless, other North African indebted countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, have been less able or willing to reduce their reliance on US and European financial backing. Their reliance on tourism receipts and remittances has left them more vulnerable and in need of financial support from the IMF and the World Bank to plug their widening deficits.
A Long Decoupling
North Africa is going through what is likely to be a long and uneven process of decoupling from Europe and the US. The transition’s outcome is by no means certain and, though unlikely, Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election could temporarily alter the short-term trajectory by taking a less transactional stance than the previous administration on this region’s main issues. Regardless, North African governments and movements are already adjusting to this shift and looking for new foreign policy and economic opportunities. After decades marked by US hegemony in international and regional relations, Europe’s influence, and the international financial institutions’ “Washington consensus,” the long-term trend towards strengthening national sovereignty and diversifying political and economic ties is accelerating, even though the exact contours of this new policy orientation and its short and medium-term objectives remain ill-defined, to say the least. In the meantime, the overlap between this trend and the new foreign interferences coming from the Gulf, Turkey, and Russia is likely to be a key variable in the region’s trajectory, while a sudden acceleration in Europe’s halting process of integration and foreign policy coordination could also have a significant impact on this process.