The Complications Confronting Biden in Northwest Africa

Following four years of American disarray and the absence of an effective foreign policy, the Joe Biden presidency faces both serious challenges in dealing with international affairs and copious opportunities to be a positive actor in the international community. In addition to rehabilitating the ranks and depth of the American foreign policy establishment, the incoming administration needs to imbue its approach to the world with a sense of responsibility, purpose, and humility, recognizing that multilateralism is the only way to move forward. Indeed, the Trump Administration’s careless foreign policy should be seen as a warning to the United States that it must couple its international role with a concern for the interests of other, equally important regional and international actors.

During the Biden presidency, the call to reemphasize multilateralism can be applied to the American approach to the countries of Northwest Africa: Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco. There, issues of domestic reform and regional stability must be met with concerted efforts that can go a long way if augmented by a strong American engagement in a region suffering from underdevelopment, interstate rivalries, and the presence of a stubborn extremist threat. American involvement there, in cooperation with equally concerned European states like France, could help mitigate multiple dangers and ensure regional peace and stability. In essence, and despite its obvious concern with reversing the last four years of foreign policy malpractice, the Biden Administration must be open to innovative policy prescriptions that could help it gain the trust of the governments and peoples of Northwest Africa.

American Relations with Northwest Africa, at a Glance

Owing to different political and economic systems in Northwest Africa, the American approach, by and large, has been characterized by piecemeal dealings with the region’s countries. Algeria’s closed system and closeness with Russia and Europe offer limited American policy options toward that country and risk an overemphasis on counterterrorism cooperation. Mauritania’s halting steps to a seemingly democratic political landscape have not received the requisite support; neither has the country’s endemic poverty. Morocco’s monarchy, with its emphasis on political stability, has won praise from the United States and a status as a non-NATO ally. Relations with these countries have thus required different American strategies that have limited collective action and did not necessarily lead to sustainable successes.

Owing to different political and economic systems in Northwest Africa, the American approach, by and large, has been characterized by piecemeal dealings with the region’s countries.

Algeria figures prominently in American counterterrorism efforts, although the United States is not a major supplier of arms to the country. In fact, the two countries’ relationship has so far failed to bypass a history of close cooperation between the North African country and Russia, heir to the Soviet Union. For example, in response to a recent request by Morocco to buy 25 American F-16 fighters that would be added to others already in its possession, Algeria ordered 14 Russian-made SU-57 fighters at a total cost of $2 billion. There is, however, a healthy commercial relationship between Algeria and the United States, amounting to about $1 billion so far in 2020, mostly in energy products. Algeria is also a member of the US-sponsored Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) that includes Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. The United States hopes that Algeria would host the headquarters of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which would be a radical departure from previous policy. Finally, with the Trump Administration neglecting to support democracy and human rights around the world, the United States played no role in 2019 in helping Algeria’s transition from the regime of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The United States maintains negligible economic relations with Mauritania; total trade with the country has amounted to about $100 million a year since 2018, a marked decline from the days of the Barack Obama Administration. Emphasis has been on humanitarian and security assistance. According to the US Department of State, Mauritania continues to traffic in persons; despite abolishing slavery in 1981, there remain an estimated 90,000 slaves in the country. Ironically, Mauritania succeeded in early 2020 to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is “responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.” The country is also a member of the US-led TSCTP and plays a role in fighting terrorism in western Africa.

American-Moroccan relations, on the other hand, are old and deep, with the North African kingdom enjoying the status of a non-NATO ally since 2004. The United States and Morocco conduct regular joint military exercises and cooperate on counterterrorism measures. Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Morocco in October and signed two military agreements whose contents remained undisclosed. The kingdom continues to serve as a base of American operations in Northwest and West Africa against terrorist threats and as a trusted partner in what American planners call an anti-Russia alliance. Morocco also signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2004. Trade between the two countries reached some $2.5 billion so far in 2020, with American exports dominating the exchange, as is the case with Algeria and Mauritania.

Morocco continues to serve as a base of American operations in Northwest and West Africa against terrorist threats and as a trusted partner in what American planners call an anti-Russia alliance.

Some Facts Awaiting the Biden Team in Northwest Africa

Three important issues should help elevate Northwest Africa to prominence among the members of Biden’s foreign policy establishment over the coming years. Addressing all three effectively promises to advance American interests in a vital region, especially if the United States employs a regional approach to the countries involved.

First, the United States should emphasize its commitment and readiness to devote effort to persistent deficits in development goals and democracy promotion in Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco. Despite having ample energy resources for purposeful and sustainable economic and social development, Algeria continues to fall behind in essential socioeconomic indicators. Youth unemployment for the last three years has been around 30 percent, a dangerous trend that will always be a source of instability, while overall unemployment stands at almost 12 percent. Corruption is endemic: Algeria ranked 106 among 198 countries in 2019 with a score of 35/100, putting it among the most corrupt in the world. With a shrinking economy that is dependent on energy exports and a world slowdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s deficits are increasing and hope for a quick bounce back is disappearing.

The United States should emphasize its commitment and readiness to devote effort to persistent deficits in development goals and democracy promotion in Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco.

This socioeconomic picture is compounded by public apathy and lack of confidence in the political process after the heyday of popular protests in 2019 that resulted in Bouteflika’s resignation. That change at the presidential level was not translated into a program of political change in state and representative institutions, however. Instead, the country’s armed forces and security services continued to wield unchallenged power and shepherded a political process that, in the end, led to the election of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in December 2019. Yet Tebboune’s victory was a mere renewal of the old Bouteflika regime, as he had previously served as prime minister. He received 58 percent of the votes cast in a poll of low turnout—under 40 percent of eligible voters. His tenure since acceding to the presidency has not satisfied the demands for radical political change. Such a failure was evident in another very low turnout referendum on constitutional amendments in November 2020, which the opposition boycotted and in which only 24 percent of voters participated. Two-thirds of those who voted approved limiting presidential terms to two, setting rules for fighting corruption, and declaring states of emergency, among other things.

Mauritania is trying to address serious economic issues as its electoral democracy takes some important steps toward consolidation. In 2019, the World Bank gave the country a hopeful outlook for growth over the next few years, emphasizing good steps toward economic reform and fiscal responsibility. But the country still faces problems in addressing poverty and budget deficits and in helping the extractive sectors of the economy. At the same time, Mauritania has earned good marks for allowing a peaceful transition of power from one elected president (Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz) to another in 2019, although the current president, Mohammed Ould Ghazouani, has run into trouble with his appointed prime minister and many members of his administration who have been accused of corruption. Still, Ghazouani’s election was marred by repression and attacks against opposition figures protesting the conduct and outcome of the poll. Additionally, and despite the international outcry against the practice, Mauritania still has not done what is necessary to completely eradicate slavery in the country.

At present, Morocco seems to be reeling from the domestic and external effects of the coronavirus epidemic. As a report from the World Bank details, Morocco’s growth in 2020 is projected to shrink by over 6 percentage points from last year, which will result in an increase of 7.6 percent in the fiscal deficit. Remittances, tourism, and exports––three essential sectors for the national economy––will decline sharply in 2020. Unemployment is expected to exceed 12 percent while youth unemployment will reach 22 percent. These trends will affect how the Moroccan government addresses such issues as social services, at a time of national emergency, and maintains law and order and political stability.

While political stability is of paramount importance for the monarchy, the unfortunate fact is that such stability is still maintained by a dominant royal court––which controls the deep state (the Makhzen) and military and security services––and associated elite groups. What reforms were instituted in the aftermath of the 2011 public protests remain insufficient to ensure a vibrant democratic atmosphere and truly responsive representative institutions. Despite having added rights and prerogatives in the political system, the prime minister still serves at the pleasure of the monarch and any fundamental changes to the governing process require the latter’s approval. Freedom of speech and of expression are constrained by government policies that have resulted in accusing activists of espionage for exposing episodes of official corruption, as the case of journalist and activist Omar Radi shows. A Facebook post by an unemployed activist, Abdelali Bahmad, landed him in prison for two years after he was charged with disrespecting the national flag. His case was emblematic of increasing restrictions on social media users. Activists have been jailed in connection to protests against corruption in 2016 and 2017 in the northern Rif region. These and other cases of government trespassing on social and individual freedoms erode Morocco’s democracy and stress the need for major improvements in the country’s human rights record.

The second issue that should be prominent on the Biden Administration’s agenda is the ongoing Algerian-Moroccan dispute over the Western Sahara region. While Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory and controls some 80 percent of it, Algeria has sponsored an exiled Saharan leadership in the form of the Polisario Front that controls the rest and demands full independence for the territory. Mauritania, on the other hand, renounced any claims to the area in 1979. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 690 that established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and set in motion a transitional period for elections. So far, no referendum has been conducted because of differences between Morocco and the Polisario in how to frame the question about the territory’s future. If the coming Biden Administration is to construct a viable regional order that can ensure stability for Northwest Africa, it would do well to act as an honest broker between the three parties to the dispute. The administration should be advised to remain impartial and distance itself from the transactional nature of the departing Trump Administration, which offered to back Morocco’s claim to the region in exchange for the kingdom’s normalization of relations with Israel. Morocco rejected the offer.1

The Biden Administration should be no stranger to the issue that makes Northwest Africa an essential region in its foreign policy: the threat from several extremist organizations operating in western Africa.

Third, the Biden Administration should be no stranger to the issue that makes Northwest Africa an essential region in its foreign policy: the threat from several extremist organizations operating in western Africa. As was the case during the Obama and Trump administrations, the American approach should encompass the entire region and should continue to involve the area’s governments and international actors, such as France. While Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco appear to escape the brunt of the threat because of strong security institutions, they are not immune to the potential instability it engenders. As it stands, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are witnessing the worst impact of the violence, but states such as the northwestern trio, Chad, Tunisia, Libya, Nigeria, and others are just as exposed to the strengthening menace. It should be understood that a Biden strategy to deal with the threat of extremism should not focus solely on security cooperation with regional and international actors; indeed, addressing the danger will succeed only if the United States and other developed countries pledge economic assistance to the region’s states. Only by helping to ameliorate socioeconomic ills resulting from underdevelopment can a fight against extremism succeed in western Africa and elsewhere around the world.

It Is Hard … but It Is Doable

After the Trump Administration’s chaotic, incoherent, and incompetent American foreign policy, the Biden Administration will have no choice but to hit the ground running on a slew of issues. While it is likely and expected that the new president and his administration will devote most of their energy dealing with the failures on the domestic front––the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, for starters––they must address equally consequential fiascos that impact American interests abroad. Importantly, the new administration would do well to have a holistic approach to Middle Eastern and North African affairs, including the complications of securing peace and cooperation between the countries of Northwest Africa. Security assistance to Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco may work to help stymie extremists, but a better policy would also be to utilize financial and diplomatic resources to advance the causes of socioeconomic and political development. Open societies and hopeful economies are sure to help change the conditions from which extremist violence springs to the detriment of all.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 Indeed, the Trump Administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara as part of an agreement it negotiated on December 10, 2020 for normalized relations between Morocco and Israel.

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