A New Policy for North Africa in the Trump Era?

A New Policy for North Africa in the Trump Era?
AP Photo/Riadh Dridi

Karim Mezran is resident senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Elissa Miller is assistant director at the Hariri Center. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the authors’ own.

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There has been much speculation across the Middle East and North Africa regarding what U.S. foreign policy in the region will look like under the Trump administration. We can infer some insights from Trump’s comments during the 2016 campaign, from his character, and from the personalities of his recent cabinet appointments. For the Maghreb region of North Africa, the Trump administration will likely continue the same level of engagement as the previous administration, although it will emphasize different policy priorities.

Several of the new president’s cabinet appointments, such as retired generals Michael Flynn and James Mattis, have at times articulated a non-interventionist foreign policy, except in cases that directly involve U.S. national security interests. This worldview has parallels with the Obama administration, which had endeavored to pull the United States out of quagmires in the Middle East. However, this global outlook will likely be motivated by a strong security first emphasis that prioritizes the realization of order and stability in foreign countries over support for pluralism and democratization. It could also reflect Trump’s presumed preference for strongmen and authoritative personalities in the region and elsewhere.

Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, is an outspoken and well-documented critic not only of Muslim extremism, but also of the religion itself. In an August 2016 speech, the retired three-star general stated that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology, and that Islam is like a “malignant cancer.” Such rhetoric from Trump’s inner circle suggests that the new administration might paint international Islamist organizations with a much broader brush than previous administrations, and in policy terms this could lead to the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

North Africa will certainly not be a regional priority for Trump. The only instances in which the real estate mogul mentioned the region during the campaign were in reference to Libya, and then only in regard to the fight against the Islamic State. Still, there is no doubt that the policies of the new administration will have consequences for the countries of the Maghreb.

Variation in policy toward Morocco and Algeria will probably be minimal. The Trump administration will likely maintain and strengthen U.S. ties with Rabat even though an Islamist party holds the majority in parliament. This favorable approach to the country is due to the stability of the Moroccan monarchy and the relatively wide consensus that it enjoys. The Trump administration may also strengthen relations with Algeria, which plays a critical role in the maintenance of security and counterterrorism operations in North Africa. President Trump’s focus on stability will be well received by leaders in both countries. For Algeria in particular, this will likely mean more support for cooperation on counterterrorism, which has been a longstanding priority for Algerian policymakers.

While U.S. support for Tunisia’s stability will continue in the political development and economic fields, it will be designed through a security lens rather than a focus on democratic development. A security-focused foreign policy will push Trump to emphasize support for the army and the security forces and to aid the country’s counterterrorism efforts. Therefore, even though there is a clear recognition of the importance of economic development for the country’s stability, security assistance will be the main avenue through which the latter is pursued.

This will not carry immediate consequences for the foreign policy of Tunisia, which has relied heavily on Western security support, especially since terror attacks in 2015. A strong relationship with the United States benefits the country’s standing in the region and in the international community overall. However, Trump’s policies could have an impact on Tunisian domestic policy. The U.S. administration’s anti-Islamist line may make it difficult for it to work with a Tunisian government in which an Islamist party, Ennahda, plays a strong role. But like in the case of the Moroccan Islamist party, Tunisia’s Ennahda  has shown itself able to act in a pluralistic environment and respect the rules of the democratization process. At the same time, Ennahda could have a difficult time in dealing with an openly anti-Islamist administration, but it has made a number of critical compromises in recent years and the party’s leaders recognize the utility of a strong relationship with Trump’s administration.

Trump’s foreign policy will likely have the most critical effect on Libya. Trump’s stated support for strongmen and the administration’s anti-Islamist views will likely push the United States, and possibly its key European allies, to support Egypt and its proxy Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army has been waging a war against Islamists in Libya’s east. Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his counterterrorism efforts against Islamist extremists. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently met with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss shared U.S.-Egypt security efforts. Strong ties between Trump and Sissi could push the administration to throw its support behind Haftar and his anti-Islamist fight and to abandon support for the U.N.-backed process that produced a weak unity government.

This could have dire consequences for the situation in Libya. A shift by the international community, led by the United States, could empower and embolden Haftar to expand his authority throughout the country and pursue his hegemonic plans. This could divide the country into two or more zones of influence, or worse, leading to an all-out war between Haftar’s Libyan National Army and its western opponents. This would have a lasting and dangerous effect on the Libyan population, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and sustained turmoil.

Trump’s shift in emphasis toward stability and security, while not constituting a wholesale reordering of U.S. policy in the region, will be perceived differently by different stakeholders in each country. Civil society activists, human rights defenders, and democratization supporters will react negatively to what they will perceive as a pro-authoritarian shift, while the middle classes and entrepreneurs will likely welcome the U.S. administration’s support of their own governments’ stabilization efforts.

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