Libya Wobbles and So Does Italy: what next for this troubled relationship?

Libya is fast becoming the next global security issue. With the Islamic State (IS) announcing its presence in the North African country by executing 21 Coptic Christians, Egypt responding with unilateral air raids, and rival militias battling for political control, Libya is as unstable as it gets.

Those who applauded the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship will surely have now abandoned their initial euphoria. With vast oil reserves, huge stockpiles of weapons and intense factional discord, the international community must return its attention to the failed state. Italy has already done so.

The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control Source: BBC
The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control
Source: BBC

With only a short stretch of the Mediterranean separating the boot of Italy from Libya, the Rome government is concerned that IS may launch terrorist attacks against its economic interests and, potentially, its territory. Furthermore, the extreme unrest has precipitated increasing numbers of helpless civilians to attempt the illegal migration across Mediterranean waters, exacerbating an already costly dilemma for the Italians.

This is just the latest stage in a troubled recent history between Italy and Libya. A 2008 agreement between Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – hardly two pillars of just rule – looked to have buried historical enmity. Berlusconi promised $5bn in colonial reparations to Libya if Gaddafi made a concerted effort to halt the illegal migrant networks between his country and Europe.

Italy’s recent engagement with Libya began in 1911-12 during the Italo-Ottoman War. The Italians invaded the Turkish colony of Tripolitania Vilayet, driving the weakened Ottomans out of North Africa and establishing Italian Libya. Concessions by Britain and France of some of their African possessions – all part of imperialistic charity apparently – saw the colony grow in size.

Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire - something that would preoccupy Mussolini
Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire – something that would preoccupy Mussolini

Ironically, it was the British who helped kick the Italians out of Libya during WWII, after which they administered the territory until its independence. Italy had justified its invasion of Ottoman Libya, in part, through archaeology. It was imperative, its politicians had argued, to preserve the Roman ruins going to waste across the Mediterranean. Their subsequent rule was characterised by harsh treatment of the native population during a period which coincided with the rise of Mussolini and fascism.

The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest
The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest

Gaddafi and Berlusconi’s cozy agreement was soon upended by the former’s overthrow and the subsequent sanctions and embargoes placed on the fragile state. Yet Italy’s Libyan adventure may not yet be over. Over 70 years since the blackshirts were evicted, and almost 1,500 since the Romans departed, the Italians may be sucked back in.

Already the Italian government has offered to mediate a ceasefire. What more could follow? The Mediterranean has proven time and again to be an inadequate geographical barrier. It may foster a rare case of Italian diplomatic leadership, one sorely needed in the absence of a united global response to this latest crisis.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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