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Turkey’s push to win over the Maghreb: The gateway to Africa

By Frida Dahmani, Larissa Samba
Posted on Friday, 4 September 2020 18:22

Tunisia Turkey
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left and Tunisian President Kais Saied, inspect a military honour guard at the airport, in Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. (Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency via AP)

For several years, the Turks have been working to strengthen their ties with Algiers, Tunis and Rabat. This strategy is all the more crucial since Recep Tayyip Erdogan has engaged his country on several fronts in the region.

Gateway to the African market, the Maghreb is not terra incognita for Turkey. Diplomacy, trade, soft power … Morocco, and especially Algeria and Tunisia – once Ottoman provinces – have been the subject of special attention from Ankara for several years. This desire to establish a climate of trust is redoubling today, as Turkey ardently defends its interests and needs support more than ever.

This is the case in Syria, where it is working to guarantee its border against any presence of the PYD (the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party ). It is also the case in Libya, where it is struggling to help the President of the Council Fayez al-Sarraj, whose legitimacy is recognised by the UN, to triumph over what it calls the “pirate putschist Haftar”.

READ MORE Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms

And this is also the case in the eastern Mediterranean, where ships were sent to prospect in gas-rich areas also claimed by Greece.

In the face of criticism from the EU, which supports Athens, and the roar of Egypt, which is threatening to send troops to Libya, Ankara is trying to convince Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco of the legitimacy of its actions, but failing to get them out of their default neutral stance.

Mevlüt Çavusoglu, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, calls daily his Algerian counterpart Sabri Boukadoum, who was recently received in Ankara by his counterpart and Turkish President Erdogan. The latter is also taking care of his relations with his new Algerian and Tunisian peers, and is planning a visit to Morocco; one which promises to be delicate.

Tunisia: pro-Turkish

A revolution, 64 years of independence and 75 years of French protectorate seem not to have erased 300 years of Ottoman presence from the memory of Tunisians. Even Bourguiba, though very attached to the sovereignty of independent Tunisia, did not hide his admiration for the modernity instilled by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 2020, it is rather Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is the example to follow for Tunisian Islamists. But it is not only a question of ideology; in Tunisia, pro-Turkish tropism is a reality.

“It is a destination accessible without a visa and not expensive. For Tunisians, going to Istanbul is a must,” explains a tour operator, who points out that the Turkish megalopolis has long been one of the most popular shopping destinations for Tunisian customers.

Those days are over and have given way to the flow of business. Since the revision in 2013 of the free trade agreement in force since 2005, things have not changed in favor of Tunisia. The elimination of customs taxes on certain food, consumer and equipment products has widened, at the end of 2019, a trade deficit of $913 million with Turkey, or 38.5% of Tunisia’s foreign debt service.

READ MORE Turkey’s leader puts Tunisia at risk of Libyan chaos

Tunisia is also struggling to sell its production, especially agricultural, in Turkey. “We have similar products; selling olive oil to the Turks is absurd,” said an olive grower in Mahdia. He is upset with the Tunisian Ministry of Trade for allowing Turkish food products to compete with local production.

Turkish investors not very interested in Tunisia

The situation is such that even Ali Onaner, the Turkish ambassador in Tunis, wants a rebalancing. He will have much to do in view of Tunisia’s low attractiveness for Turkish investors: out of 3,455 foreign companies established in the country, only 25 are Turkish. They work in services, international trade and tourism, for a total investment of 138 million dollars.

Ankara considers Tunisia as an open door to Africa, but was counting on an electoral victory of the Islamists of Ennahdha to advance its pawns. The Tunisian elections of October 2019 have shaken things up. This did not prevent President Erdogan from making a surprise visit to Carthage in December 2019, during which he exchanged views with his Tunisian counterpart, Kaïs Saïed, before launching his anti-Haftar offensive in Libya.

It is difficult to see clearly in this relationship of fascination-rejection between Turks and Tunisians. “On the political level, Erdogan’s attempts at interference are as much a source of discomfort as the Islamists’ servility towards him,” notes a left-wing observer. It is a different matter in everyday life, where the Tunisians’ attraction for Sublime Porte – the former central government of Ottoman Turkey – is largely satisfied through Turkish soap operas and a kind of nostalgia for the pomp of the Beylical period.

“At that time, the state apparatus was functioning,” asserts one detractor of the revolution. The craze was such that some institutions offered Turkish language courses, while kebabs and ice-cream parlors abounded alongside stores selling “made in Turkey” clothing. “This has destroyed our clothing sector, but it’s a fad that will pass,” says a former leader of the textile federation, who stoically asserts: “We’ll come to our senses when our debt has become unsustainable and politics can’t remedy it.”

Algeria: nostalgia and realpolitik

The restoration, by the Tika (the Turkish development agency), of the Ketchaoua mosque in Algiers illustrates the role that Turkey intends to play in this Algeria which was once an Ottoman province: that of a benevolent friend who exalts nostalgia for a common past, without losing sight of realpolitik and business sense. 500 years of history link the two countries, from that day in 1519, when the pirate Barbarossa proposed the attachment of the regency of Algiers to the Sublime Porte, until June 30, 2020, when Ankara donated to Algeria a whole medical arsenal to fight coronavirus.

Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, right, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greet each other during a welcoming ceremony at the airport, in Algiers, Algeria, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

Four official trips by Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Prime Minister (2006 and 2013), then as President (2014 and 2020), as well as the signing of a friendship and cooperation agreement (2006) have consolidated the bilateral relationship and boosted trade, which amounts to about 4 billion dollars, making Algeria the second partner (after Egypt) of Turkey in Africa.

With nearly 800 companies in the country, the Turks are the largest foreign employers (28,000 people) and, outside the hydrocarbon sector, the largest investors ($3.5 billion). Fuat Tosyali, the Turkish steel magnate, whose holding company has been present in Algeria since 2007, heads the local branch of Deik, the Council for Foreign Economic Relations. Close to Erdogan, the 59-year-old plays a key role at the crossroads of business and politics.

Algerian gas in Turkey

Turkey is of course present in its preferred sectors (construction, steel, textiles), but also in food and energy. Algeria is its fourth gas supplier. Thus, Sonatrach is linked to the Turkish company Botas by an agreement that provides for the annual delivery of 5.4 billion m3 of liquefied natural gas until 2024. The national company is also working with the Rönesans group on the construction of a petrochemical plant near Adana (southern Turkey), which should open in 2022. Cost of the project: 1.4 billion dollars.

READ MORE Two corruption cases rattle Sonatrach in Algeria and Lebanon

Of course, the “Turkish model”, from television series to the economic success of the last fifteen years, does not leave Algerians indifferent. Big buyers of weapons, they are interested in the Turkish combat drones Bayraktar, which have proven their worth in Libya, as well as the armoured vehicles by BMC – from which Tunisia has bought nine units.

On the political side, the cartel, good overall, is complicated by competition between Paris and Ankara, which are opposed on many issues (Libya, Eastern Mediterranean …). Erdogan did not refrain from castigating France’s colonial crimes, to the “surprise” of the Algerian authorities, who were reluctant to see a third party interfere in their complex relations with Paris. On the other hand, with regard to Syria, Algiers has sided (like its old Russian comrade) with the camp of Bashar al-Assad, of which Turkey is fighting.

The current passes between Tebboune and Erdogan

However, the current is going rather well between the Algerian and Turkish heads of state, who met for the first time in January, on the occasion of the Berlin conference on Libya. During their tête-à-tête, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune invited Erdogan to Algeria – an invitation that the latter honoured a few days later.

Much was said about Libya, where Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are actively helping Haftar, and where Qatar and Turkey are equally active in supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNA).

Algerians want to play a mediating, if not a major diplomatic role, in resolving the conflict. And given they share 1,000 km of borders with Libya, they are concerned about the repercussions that Libya’s chaos could have on their own security. These two factors explain why, although they clearly are in favour of al-Sarraj, like the Turks, they persist a façade of neutrality.

Morocco: warming up the cold front

“The next visit of our president to Morocco should be a landmark,” said a relative of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commenting on the invitation that Mohammed VI extended to the Turkish head of state in September 2019 as a sign of opening relations. To say that this trip will be carefully prepared is a sweet euphemism. For, if in 2005, Erdogan – then Prime Minister – had been received with all honors, it was not the same in 2013.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks with Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane at Rabat airport June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

While Gezi’s revolt undermined Erdogan’s authority and blurred his image on the international stage, the king did not receive him, and Moroccan businessmen also ignored him, forcing him to shorten his stay.

Between the Commander of the Faithful, perhaps too close to Westerners in the eyes of Ankara, and a Turkish president, perhaps too close to the Muslim Brotherhood according to the Palace, relations did not return to normal, even if both sides now seem eager to improve them. “Some are trying to influence His Majesty. No doubt the North wind…”, says a Turkish diplomatic source alluding to France.

Free trade agreement and frictions

This being so, and even if Morocco is the Maghreb country with which Ankara has the least affinity, the “Turkish miracle” and the longevity in power of the AKP arouses a certain admiration, at least in the ranks of the Justice and Development Party (PJD). There is no doubt that President Erdogan’s visit – through the front door – will eventually materialise. Ankara’s position in the Western Sahara affair is likely to facilitate it. Like most chancelleries,” said another Turkish diplomatic source, “Turkey touts the line of Morocco, even if it refrains from making strong statements to spare the Algerians.

On the trade front, the entry into force of a free trade agreement in 2006 has been a source of progress… and the subject of some friction. Trade increased from $435m in 2004 to $2.7bn in 2018. More than 150 Turkish companies, employing 8,000 Moroccans, are established in the kingdom, whose skies are assiduously criss-crossed by Turkish Airlines.

Trade worth $1.9bn is more favourable to Turkey, whose exports (steel, textiles, industrial vehicles) far exceed those of Morocco (phosphoric acid, fertilisers, lead, leather, paper pulp).

As a result, earlier this year Rabat threatened to withdraw from the free trade agreement, leading Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan to promise that it would be revised and to call on its compatriots to invest in Morocco. At the centre of the dispute is Turkish textiles and clothing, whose imports, already taxed at 27% since January, have been taxed at 36% since July 27 under Morocco’s amended finance law.

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