Shifting US policy in North Africa
US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa has been preoccupied by responses to crises resulting from civil wars and protracted instability, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Yet, in several key North African countries — Egypt, Libya and Tunisia — US policies could shift under the Trump presidency to reflect a security-driven agenda.
Experts can do little more than speculate until after the January 20th inauguration but an examination of US-North Africa relations over the past year offers insight into how policies may change under the new administration.
The United States’ relationship with Egypt under the Obama administration has been rocky, although in the past year there were efforts to strengthen ties. US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry several times, and top US national security officials and congressional delegations visited Cairo to discuss regional security and counterterrorism efforts. In August, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that “Egyptian-American relations are strategic and they have been improving”.
Still, Cairo bristles from concerns expressed by the United States over alleged human rights violations in Egypt. Those concerns, which recently focused on the restriction of public space for non-governmental organisations to operate and the detention of Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy, were on display during meetings between Shoukry and US lawmakers in early December.
Based on US President-elect Donald Trump’s emphasis on counterterrorism and security and his presumed preference for strongmen, US-Egypt relations are expected to strengthen and prioritise national security interests; little attention will likely be paid to human rights concerns or issues of democratisation.
It is no surprise that Cairo welcomed Trump’s election or that Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his victory. Trump’s emerging relationship with Sisi was recently demonstrated when the president-elect intervened through a direct phone discussion with him to convince Egypt to postpone a vote in the UN Security Council concerning Israeli settlements.
Much of Sisi’s worldview appears to be reflected in that of Trump. The US president-elect has surrounded himself with advisers who seem to make no distinction between political Islam and Islamic extremism. A designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organisation is a distinct possibility under the Trump administration, a move that would certainly be welcomed by Cairo. Trump has repeatedly praised Cairo’s counterterrorism efforts against extremists, which some observers say have been used too broadly to crack down on opponents of the government.
As for Libya, over the past year Kerry has had numerous talks with European counterparts and officials from the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to strengthen the position of the GNA. The United States launched, following a request from the GNA, air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Libyan city of Sirte.
Kerry’s diplomatic efforts and US military assistance came amid US President Barack Obama’s admitting that failing to prepare for the chaotic aftermath following the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency.
Future US policy in Libya is tied to Trump’s relationship with Egypt. Egypt has joined the international community many times in rhetorically recognising the GNA as the sole legitimate government of Libya and has hosted talks aimed at finding a resolution to the political stalemate in Libya.
However, Cairo has also continued to support anti-Islamist strongman Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) and is allied with the House of Representatives, which refuses to endorse the GNA. Both Sisi and Haftar have moved closer to Russia, challenging Western influence in the region.
Strong ties between Trump, Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin could lead to a shift in US policy towards Libya in which the new US administration throws support behind Haftar and his forces. The abandonment of the UN-backed process that produced the GNA, as well the emboldening of Haftar and his anti-Islamist forces, would deal a heavy blow to the GNA’s shaky credibility and could produce further turmoil in the country.
What closer counterterror cooperation between Washington, Moscow, and Cairo against Islamist forces in Egypt and Libya would mean for other countries in the broader MENA region, such as Syria, remains unclear.
Where does this leave Tunisia? The small North African country has been struggling to push forward with its democratisation process and has received significant Western support. The Obama administration designated Tunisia a major non-NATO ally in 2015 and has had several strategic dialogues with the country. The European Union has also tried to strengthen Western ties with Tunisia.
Should Trump pursue a more robust counterterror effort in North Africa by cooperating with Cairo and throwing support behind Haftar, Tunisia could face an escalation in threats from militants in Libya. The country was targeted in a terror attack by extremists trained in Libya. A Trump administration could, through this security-focused lens, strengthen ties with Tunisia’s army and security forces and help Tunis prevent further threat spillovers from Libya.
However, given Trump’s seeming affinity for transactional relationships and the fact that instability in Tunisia is a larger threat to Europe, it is unclear whether his administration would invest in the support that Tunisia needs.