Turkey and North Africa: An Intricate Network of Trade and Tension


    Turkey and North Africa

    In the Eastern Mediterranean, tensions are rising over maritime jurisdiction. This is not only bringing Turkey into an intensifying dispute with Greece, but also alarming officials in Cairo. An agreement with Libya declares a maritime boundary which would facilitate oil and gas exploration. This boundary is disputed by Greece, declaring a violation of Crete’s waters as well as contested territory surrounding Cyprus. The escalation of events is in part enabled with Turkey’s increasingly closer ties with Africa, facilitating political leverage to reach an agreement with Libya. This influence brings Turkey into confrontation with Egypt, a regional competitor, politically and ideologically. Turkey has entrenched interests in North Africa, significantly benefitting from bilateral trade and an increased influence in the region.

    Trade and cooperation are highly apparent in across North African countries, even with its competitor. Egypt and Turkey have a flourishing trade which would in theory make an escalation of this dispute unlikely. With military flexing however, Turkey’s endeavours as a result of its North African network is bringing an escalation with the EU and NATO closer to reality.

    The Cyprus Love Triangle

    The Turkish deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has led to Libya’s ambassador to Athens to be expelled. The deal undermines the natural resource aspirations between Greece/Cyprus and Egypt through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which would also include Jordan, Italy, Israel, and Palestine in the equation. Continued naval activity and extension of its capabilities in the Mediterranean has created tension with Egypt, seeking to extend its own influence in the region and become an energy hub, which is directly hindered by Turkey’s ambitions.

    Turkey and North Africa

    Turkey was a close supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Morsi, who was removed in 2013 following a military coup. This brought the new regime in a non-amicable relationship with Turkey from the outset but has also failed to improve as the two compete to extend influence in the region.

    Northern Cyprus is only recognised by Turkey, while Turkey refuses to recognise Southern Cyprus, which is the narrative to dispute the complete maritime territory surrounding Cyprus. This is triggering further tensions in the Mediterranean as oil exploration vessels are being accompanied by Turkish warships. Supported by Egypt, Greece is seeking EU intervention and raising the issue to the International Court of Justice, while future activities risk Turkey’s relationship with NATO.

    Libya has strained economic and political ties with the rest of the international community, which means cooperation with Turkey is certainly a relationship Libya will not want to deteriorate. Turkey is playing a key military advisory role against an offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Haftar, which further fosters the GNA reliance on Turkish cooperation. The November 27thmemorandum of understanding between Turkey and Libya is a direct threat to Greece’s exclusive economic zone, with Libya in confrontation with Greece over offshore exploration licences in the contested zone, Libya is highly likely to remain allied with Turkey in the Mediterranean.

    It is hoped that Turkey’s aggressive stance over the issue is leverage for advantageous negotiations, but with military assets in close perimeters, mistrust and rivalry could set off a domino effect of violence that involves various players and interests. With tensions between Turkey and Arab nations high, further extension into North Africa is raising eyebrows. If a productive dialogue is not facilitated, tensions are highly likely to rise. 

    A Closer Look

    Turkey has been actively seeking to boost economic ties with North Africa, albeit this is the same for the rest of Africa. On face value economic ties should be mutually beneficial for two nations, right?

    A free trade agreement between Turkey and Morocco is being scrutinized by Morocco, there is a deep imbalance between the trade deficit, with Turkey exporting significantly more than it imports, having a detrimental effect on Moroccan industries. This has been a pattern in African countries across the continent, as Turkey, through soft power, has been opening up new economies, exporting its goods, as well as its cultural exports such as soap operas which are highly viewed in the African continent and in the Middle East.

    The Saudi-owned “Kingdoms of Fire” series displays the Turks as bloodthirsty invaders of the Arab world, as Riyadh competes with Ankara over influence in Africa. This image is likely to be repeated to undermine Turkey’s sphere of influence in Africa. Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport in Tunisia being given to Turkish operators to cover the cost of investments, undermines Tunisian credibility and reduces the attraction of other foreign investors. As in Morocco, Tunisia also suffers from the trade deficit, which witnesses the influx of Turkish exports to Tunisia far higher than the Turkish import of Tunisian goods.

    Taking this reality into consideration, what does Turkey want when stating that trade with Algeria should be boosted? Turkey has increasingly become closer to Sudan as well, designs over the Suakin Island, which was a historical Ottoman trading post, symbolises a relationship which is seemingly becoming more one sided.

    Turkey must transform the nature of its bilateral trade agreements with North African, and other African nations if it seeks to maintain a growing sphere of influence. Allegations of Turkish citizens being tortured in Egypt show the growing contempt from the Arab world against Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. An aggressive stance is inevitable to be met with repercussions, and with a growing lobby of frustrated interests in the East Mediterranean, Turkey is not gaining any allies with the status quo.

    A productive dialogue would be an ideal outcome, but as Turkey is clinging onto the decision that Libya’s backing of the boundaries is all it needs, the future is worrying as a violent confrontation is becoming more possible. Turkey’s trade minister, Rushar Pekcan declared 2020 to be Africa year for Turkey, signing more free trade agreements in a bid to boost bilateral trade, based on the existing African experience, will benefit Turkey the most.

    Image: Screen capture of Al-Sharqiyah video

    Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.

    Eren Ersozoglu
    Eren Ersozoglu
    Eren Ersozoglu is an analyst at Grey Dynamics. A former history graduate from Coventry University with a focus on links between terrorism and organised crime and intelligence and security studies graduate at Brunel University.

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