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Countering Chinese and Russian influence in North Africa
Countering Chinese and Russian influence in North Africa

The US Ambassador to Tunisia discusses the development of competition between the great powers in North Africa with three experts from the Washington Institute.

On July 8, the Washington Institute held a virtual policy forum with Joey Hood, the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia. He was joined by Grant Rumley, Ben Fishman, and Anna Borshchevskaya, co-authors of the Institute’s recent study, “North Africa in an Era of Great Power Competition.” Below is a summary of their remarks by the rapporteur.

Ambassador Joey Hood

The United States has maintained relationships with countries in North Africa for over 200 years. Today, many of those relationships—especially with Tunisia—focus on improving citizens’ livelihoods through economic cooperation. The United States is one of the largest importers of Tunisian products, such as handicrafts, olive oil, high-end electronics, and clothing, and these industries support thousands of jobs in agriculture and other sectors. In fact, American initiatives have helped create more than 80,000 jobs in Tunisia over the past decade. In addition, the United States works directly with small businesses and invests in the country’s energy independence and private sector development, including sponsoring a recent conference for women in technology. Tunisia’s population is highly educated—it ranks second globally after Malaysia in the proportion of STEM graduates and has twice the proportion of women in scientific research as the United States. This makes the country even more attractive to American investment.

The importance of the bilateral security partnership also cannot be overstated. Tunisia has been the victim of several terrorist attacks aimed at damaging the country’s tourism industry while the Islamic State attempted to seize territory near the Libyan border. In response, Washington helped Tunisia expand its surveillance capabilities on its eastern border and provided extensive security assistance to the country’s armed forces and the Interior Ministry’s counterterrorism capabilities. Thanks to this assistance, the country is more stable and is contributing to security and humanitarian assistance efforts across Africa.

The US’s relations with Tunisia are in stark contrast to those of Russia and China. While the country has a trade surplus with the US, it has a massive trade deficit with the other two powers. Moreover, unlike Washington, Moscow and Beijing do not engage in Tunisian civil society and do not work with citizens to address long-term challenges (such as helping farmers and fishermen adapt to climate change). A close look at the facts shows that Tunisia has nothing to fear from Russian and Chinese competition.

Grant Rumley

From a security perspective, North African countries continue to face challenges such as instability in the Sahel, tensions between Algeria and Morocco, and the ongoing conflict in Libya. These regional challenges are exacerbated by the global impact of the war in Ukraine, particularly its impact on the international arms market. Before the war, Russia was one of the world’s largest arms exporters. Since the invasion, however, countries that had previously relied on Moscow to arm their armed forces have struggled to purchase new material and maintain the stocks they already had. At the same time, Western partners are being asked to shed older equipment to support Ukraine. Algeria and Morocco embody this divide.

North African countries have experienced a kind of whiplash in this moment of great power competition. For decades, the belief prevailed that Western economic, political and diplomatic dialogue with China would moderate its foreign policy and integrate it into the established world order. But Beijing’s actions have changed this calculation, as has Washington’s bipartisan turn to strategic competition. Countries around the world have been forced to adapt to this new dynamic.

Going forward, the US should consider the considerations expressed by North African countries and incorporate them into its regional approach. When building security partnerships in the region, it should articulate parameters for a country’s engagement with China and communicate them clearly and consistently. This does not mean that any particular country will follow Washington’s China policy exactly, but it does show that the US cares about maintaining the security partnership and is proactive in communicating its concerns.

For countries that are not U.S. security partners, the message should be clearer: namely, that some level of cooperation with China poses an inherent risk to their sovereignty. Washington should continue to inform and warn these neutral countries about the risks of deepening relations with Beijing, maintaining consistency in its messaging to this important region.

Ben Fishman

The most immediate threat to the US and NATO in North Africa is the growing alliance between Russia and General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Since the death of Moscow’s top mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia’s relationship with Haftar has become increasingly overt. Today, Russia uses air bases and ports in Haftar-controlled areas of eastern Libya to unload weapons and war materials for the Sahel, threatening NATO’s southern flank. The Kremlin’s growing influence is illustrated by the frequent visits of Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to Libya and Haftar’s 2023 meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia wants continued control of Libyan military bases, access to Haftar-controlled oil zones, and the ability to drive North African migrants to Europe.

The United States is doing very little to counter this threat, and dealing with Haftar has so far been unsuccessful. Instead, Washington should impose sanctions on the general (and perhaps his sons, who have played a larger role in his affairs) under the Magnitsky Act, which the Obama administration specifically designed for individuals who disrupt peace and security in Libya. The general’s cooperation with Russia also gives U.S. authorities reason to consider taking action against him under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). For now, the close relationship between Russia and Haftar only underscores that Washington does not have a comprehensive strategy in such a critical area—though the U.S. government’s progress in establishing a full-time presence in Libya after a decade-long absence is a step in the right direction.

North Africa’s lack of economic integration also plays a crucial role in Libya’s politics. A stable Libya could be a source of greater economic prosperity because of its oil wealth. Increasing production in this sector would benefit the entire region by bringing in billions of dollars, creating jobs and boosting economic relations with Europe, Egypt and the Maghreb. Libya’s current lack of economic development – a product of corruption, inefficient government spending and stagnant reforms – is astonishing for a country with such great oil wealth. Even after the devastating flood in Darnah last year brought additional international attention and funding, very little construction has taken place in Libya. Elsewhere, the divide between Algeria and Morocco is similarly hampering economic development and integration, costing both countries billions of dollars in trade.

Anna Borshchevskaya

With the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to create a new world order that changes the Western security architecture. Although Ukraine is the top priority at the NATO summit in Washington this week, the alliance must also look south to counter Moscow’s broader strategy. This makes North Africa even more important as the Russian threat there continues to grow.

Historically, access to a Libyan port has been an important part of Russia’s larger geostrategic plans, beginning with Joseph Stalin’s failed attempt to secure such rights during the Soviet era. Russia already has significant access to the Mediterranean through its naval base in Tartus, Syria, and its close ties with Egypt, but has long hoped to expand its influence in the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean. Libya offers the added advantage of a deep-water port.

Moreover, Libya’s fragmented political atmosphere allows Moscow to gain a foothold in Africa, with the strong presence of the Wagner Group/Afrika Corps in the country serving as a spearhead. Putin has long viewed Africa as part of Russia’s strategic plan and took more concerted action there during the Ukraine war. Accordingly, the continent can no longer be relegated to the sidelines of international relations.

Russia also uses disinformation to influence Africa’s debate on Ukraine, and unfortunately, perception often trumps reality. To counter this narrative, the United States should put more effort into its regional messaging. Traditionally, U.S. diplomats value facts over photo ops and do not seek recognition for their activities. Still, the administration should take a leaf out of Russia’s book by outspokenly supporting U.S. actions in the region and engaging with local media – an extremely effective strategy that Moscow often employs.

Washington should simultaneously empower Ukrainians to spread their own message in the region. Kyiv knows it has a problem with the narrative and is taking steps to counteract it by opening embassies across Africa. The United States can support these efforts by supporting Ukrainian information campaigns that strategically counter Russia’s messaging in the region.

Moscow is also using the influx of people from North Africa as a weapon to overwhelm and destabilize European countries, which must now deal with migrants from Syria, Ukraine and other African countries. US officials recognize that this is a problem, but they need to work more closely with Europe to reach a consensus on a solution.

This summary was created by Kyle Robertson. The Policy Forum series is made possible by the generosity of the Florence and Robert Kaufman family.

By Everly