Libya Tribune

By Anthony Dworkin and Tarek Megerisi

Victory for Joe Biden is likely to bring three big policy shifts in the region, opening new possibilities and challenges for Europeans.

Many European governments hope that with Joe Biden as president the United States would re-embrace the transatlantic relationship in pursuit of common interests.

But what would such a shift mean for US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa and associated European interests?

This is a region where a potential Biden administration is expected to both refocus US policy on issues such as Iran and push for respect of normative values across the region. But he is also likely to want to lower the level of US engagement.

These positions will create openings and challenges for Europeans. ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa programme experts look at the most likely possibilities ahead if Biden is wins the US elections.

NORTH AFRICA .. By Anthony Dworkin

In terms of US relations in North Africa, a Biden presidency is likely to usher in most change in relations with Egypt. Trump has been largely supportive of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who he notoriously called “my favourite dictator”.

Biden and his advisers have strongly criticised Egypt’s human rights violations and will be encouraged to take a tougher line by a growing sense in Democrat foreign policy circles that Egypt is decreasingly important as a US partner.

The US is heavily focused on counter-terrorism in its regional policy, and some Biden advisers believe that Sisi’s heavy-handed approach is counter-productive because it encourages radicalisation.

Egypt’s importance as a regional power has indeed diminished.

If there is any further uptick in human rights violations in Egypt, Biden can be expected to suspend some of the large annual US funding to Egypt.

He is also likely to adopt a more balanced stance on the dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. Trump had undermined US credibility as a possible mediator by backing Egypt’s position.

This reorientation of US policy could offer an opening for the EU to recalibrate its own policy.

Europeans tend to share Biden’s concerns, as well as a broader sense that Sisi is losing time to address Egypt’s multiple challenges.

A coordinated approach with the US could persuade the Egyptian leadership to make some policy adjustments and influence some specific human rights cases.

Elsewhere in North Africa there is likely to be greater continuity. The Trump administration viewed the Maghreb through a counter-terrorism lens and the wider context of a push to limit Chinese and Russian influence in Africa.

Biden is likely to adopt the same priorities towards Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, but unless the situation in these countries deteriorates, they are unlikely to be a major focus of his presidency.

While security is also a European concern, the EU should recognise that the US will not invest in addressing social, economic, and governance problems contributing to instability in these countries. This will remain a challenge that Europe must take the lead on by working with regional partners.

LIBYA .. By Tarek Megerisi

American elections always provoke hopeful expectation and jostling from Libyan elites believing that they can convince a new administration to back their side. But there is little indication that US inertia on Libya will be shifted by Biden.

Libya remains a low-priority issue, and ever since the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012 it has been considered a political bête noire.

Given that Biden was reportedly against the 2011 intervention, it seems even less likely that he will prioritise stabilising the country.

The one exception to a more assertive US role might be the emergence of a perceived security threat, such as an ISIS re-emergence, which could provoke some form of narrow US military action.

This being said, the likely rejuvenation of the State Department and a greater belief in multilateralism could translate into greater backing for the UN political track.

This could mean quiet yet enhanced diplomatic support and if Europeans can coalesce around a coherent Libya policy, they could benefit from stepped-up US assistance, particularly if Washington senses a deepening Russian role given that a Biden presidency will likely refocus on Moscow as public enemy number one.

Ultimately, the greatest effect of a Biden presidency would likely be on the many states intervening in Libya.

Biden’s team has intimated that they will have shorter shrift for Egyptian, Turkish, and Emirati unilateralism, humanitarian violations and general spoiling of UN and US positions in the region.

Over the coming months, this may push Libyan and intervening actors to accelerate their on-the-ground positioning in the hope of locking in gains before the US can reorientate itself.

But once a Biden team is settled in, it could result in a more cautious approach from regional states wary of alienating the new US administration.

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Anthony Dworkin is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He leads the organisation’s work in the areas of human rights, democracy, and justice.

Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in Libyan affairs and more generally politics, governance and development in the Arab world.

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