Ankara promotes an anti-Western narrative. In an astute game of mirrors, it cultivates regional trends, however, that are at variance with its own practices.
Turkish Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to expand his country’s influence in North Africa at the expense of the traditional influence of France and other European countries such as Italy and Germany.
However, with limited Turkish economic and investment in the region, Erdogan is betting on fuelling differences between the Maghreb countries and their European allies by trying to rewrite Ottoman history and disrupt European presence in North Africa.
Analysts say Turkey has been trying to boost its influence across North Africa through various means. It is intervening militarily in war-torn Libya while using “soft power,” trade and investment in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
While Turkish-made drones have won battles in Libya, Ankara is pushing soap operas and other cultural products to win hearts and minds in Maghreb countries, several of which were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes, it mixes its influence-peddling means. With the soap operas, it is promoting security cooperation with Algeria and selling drones to Tunisia.
In recent years, Erdogan has asserted Ankara’s role as a regional player, sparring with Greece and the European Union as well as with Russia and Gulf nations.
Turkey’s growing influence in the Maghreb is the result of Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamic” foreign policy strategy, said historian Pierre Vermeren of Sorbonne University.
“It really started in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring” when popular revolts toppled the region’s autocrats and Turkey backed Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.
“In 2020 there was a sudden acceleration of Turkish influence, which is now direct with its intervention in Libya, putting Turkish soldiers and mercenaries on the borders of Algeria and Tunisia.”
Ankara-backed networks are promoting Turkey “through social media and the press,” Vermeren said.
Political analyst Ali Bakeer, based in Ankara, agreed that “Turkey is seeking to strengthen its relations with the countries of the Maghreb region as a part of its opening up on Africa strategy.
“Turkish-Algerian relations are emerging fast. Meanwhile mutual interests between Turkey and Libya are evolving day by day. When it comes to Tunisia and Morocco, Turkey is trying to focus on the mutual economic benefits.” Many in the two countries are complaining, however, of the trade imbalance in favour of Turkey.
Turkey’s impact has been most dramatic in oil-rich Libya, which was thrown into chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled and led to the killing of longtime ruler Muammar Gadhafi.
Ankara’s help with military advisers, materiel and mercenaries — echoing its interventions and defence support from Syria to Azerbaijan — proved decisive this year when it rescued the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Turkey helped the Tripoli-based GNA push back an offensive by forces loyal to eastern-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. It did not hesitate to defy UN resolution to smuggle military equipment to L.ibya.
This defiance also helped Turkey on a separate issue — a contest with Greece and Cyprus for offshore gas deposits — after Ankara signed a deal with the GNA laying claim to vast maritime territories.
Emadeddin Badi, an analyst at the Global Initiative Network, said that “Turkey is trying… to leverage its military investment for influence.”
Its military footprint is now significant in Libya, a country seeking a permanent peace settlement following a UN-brokered ceasefire.
“Turkey has the largest military base on the Tunisian border, a naval base, (and) camps populated by Syrian mercenaries,” said Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday authorised an 18-month extension of its Libya troop deployment.
Vermeren said that “in Libya, Turkey has made itself essential, through ‘hard power.’
“In the rest of the Maghreb, it is ‘soft power’ perhaps — but with major economic artillery all the same.”
In the countries west of Libya, Turkey’s focus has been on trade and investment.
More than 1,200 Turkish companies have set up shop in Algeria, a country Erdogan visited early this year and also helped with COVID-19 medical supplies.
Turkey has become the third largest importer of Algerian products, and the two countries aim to boost trade to 4.1 billion euros ($5 billion) a year.
In other outreach, Turkey helped in recent years with the restoration of the Ottoman-era Ketchaoua Mosque in Algiers.
Turkish imports to the Maghreb region have risen sharply, especially “Made in Turkey” textiles that squeeze out locally made goods.
“The Turks have flooded the textile market and killed many Moroccan brands,” said one manufacturer in the kingdom, which in October revised a 2006 free trade deal.
In Tunisia, businesses have also been hit by low-cost Turkish products which have increased since a 2004 free trade deal, and Tunis in 2018 re-imposed some import duties. Moroccans have also pushed back by taking a second look at the bilateral tarde agreement.
There is, however, another source of appeal to Maghreb’s Islamists, in particular — Erdogan himself, who has backed the Muslim Brotherhood even as it is labelled a “terrorist organisation” by Egypt and several other Arab nations.
Ankara, in fact, does not conceal its bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood and is hoping to shore up its image among North Africa’s bulging youth population, struggling with soaring unemployment worsened by the pandemic.
For this to work, Erdogan has been borrowing from a tradition dating back to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as “another Mediterranean leader who insults Europe and presents himself as a defender of Muslims,” Vermeren said.
This “model of independence,” that Erdogan is pushing may, ironically, entail a new form of dominion by Turkey and an unprecedented wave of radicalisation of Maghreb’s youth through discourse that portrays the other — Westerners and Europeans — as the “infidel enemy.”
In an astute game of mirrors, Turkey cultivates regional trends that are at variance with its own practices. While it raises anti-Western and anti-Israeli slogans, Turkey remains a member of NATO, still wants to be a member of the European Union and maintains decades-old diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
But soft power has its limits. Turkey is hence perceived in Tunisia as the official sponsor of the increasingly isolated Islamists. This could be the source of an unexpected challenge for Ankara.