Seven years of chaos in Libya

Seven years of chaos in Libya

Why is it in Italy's interest to stabilise the country?

10/2018  | Reading time: 12 minutes

Libya’s fragmented political situation followed by the removal of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has not been resolved until now. The political power has been split between two main rival actors. In addition to these two main centres of power, militias and tribes are playing a key role in different areas of the country. Although a (fragile) ceasefire was agreed on 4 September, domestic political relations remain chaotic. Today, the North African country is the main crossing point for illegal immigrants who aim at reaching Italy and Europe. Our article reveals the main issues that make it important for the Italian foreign policy to resolve the country’s situation as soon as possible.

Source: Shutterstock

Italian–Libyan relations have a rather long history, and their roots are to be found in colonial times. In order to understand the close political, economic, and trade ties between the two countries, it is important to remember that between 1911 and 1943, Libya was an Italian colony. From 1912 to 1927, the conquered colony was called Italian North Africa, and then—from 1927 to 1934—Libya was split into two colonies: Italian Tripolitania and Italian Cyrenaica, both ruled by Italian governors.


The former colonies of Italy (green: Italian Lybia, dark grey: other Italian possessions and occupied territory, darkest grey: Italy)
Source: Wikimedia Commons, made by VoodooIsland

In 1934, Italy adopted the name “Libya” as the official name for the colony that was comprised of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. From 1943, i.e. the collapse of the Italian Fascist government, until the proclamation of independence in 1951, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were put under British administration, while Fezzan was put under French control. After the Second World War, in 1956, according to the resolution No. 388 adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 December 1950, Italy and the United Kingdom of Libya signed an agreement. Under the latter, Italy transferred its ownership of infrastructure—gained under the colonial period—to the Libyan state, and undertook reparations for the damage caused by the colonialisation. As a result of the contract, Italians residing in Libya were put under Libyan control, with their rights and property respected. The colonial past and its legacies (compensation, the question of Italian citizens residing in Libya, and the roots of bilateral economic relations) had a clear impact on the relations between the two countries in the coming years—and these relations were also influenced by positive (conclusion of many bilateral agreements between 1998 and 2000), and negative (the support of terrorism by the Libyan state, the negative consequences of the Lockerbie affair and the subsequent international isolation of Libya)* events until the second half of the 2000s.


The geopolitical location of Libya
Source: Wikimedia Commons, created by: Burmesedays, licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Maintaining tight bilateral relations with Libya has always been crucial for Italy during its history—actually, it also continues to be so today—and it is motivated by factors such as the necessity of the Libyan oil and natural gas export deriving from the country’s energy needs, the close economic and trade relations between the two countries (with particular respect to the Italian companies in Libya), and, considering its geopolitical situation, the key position the country has in the management of migration. In terms of economic relations, the presence of the ENI oil and gas company, which has been present in the country since 1959, is one of the most significant Italian investments in Libya. A further milestone in strengthening bilateral relations was the conclusion of the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation between Italy and Libya (more widely known as Treaty of Benghazi), signed in August 2008 by Berlusconi and Gaddafi in Benghazi. Its primary aim was to conclude the conflicts arising from the colonial period with special regard to the question of compensation. Under the Treaty, Italy undertook to pay a total of $5 billion in compensation to Libya over 20 years, mainly in the form of infrastructural investments. On the basis of the treaty, a privileged partnership between the two states was established, and the parties set up closer cooperation in key areas, such as culture and science, economy and industry, energy policy, defence policy, non-proliferation and disarmament, and immigration. The significance of the treaty is also illustrated by the fact that, as a result of the agreement, instead of the “Day of Revenge” (Giornata della vendetta—the celebration of the expulsion of Libyan Italians in 1970), which was celebrated in Libya on 7 October, the “Day of Friendship” (Giornata dell’Amicizia italo-libica) has been introduced to be celebrated on 30 August, which is the date when the treaty was signed.

Maintaining a strong partnership with Libya is a strategic priority for Italy even today. Migration trends in recent years have shown that an effective cooperation with the North African country—taking into account the geopolitical significance of Libya—is indispensable to handle the phenomenon. The main reason for this is that Libya remains the key gathering and departure place for illegal migrants who try to reach Italy and Europe. Libya has always been one of Italy’s most important partners to address the challenge of migration, but in the year of 2011, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi’s removal was a significant turning point. While the former Libyan–Italian cooperation has largely guaranteed the control of migration, this guarantee has practically ceased, due to the unstable political and security situation following the removal of the leader. The political power has been split between two main rival actors** in Tripoli (which is the centre of the internationally backed Government of National Accord, GNA, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj) and in Tobruk, Eastern Libya, where Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has the powers. In addition to these two main centres of power, militias and tribes***—including the Tuareg and Tebu tribes dominating the southern oasis—are also playing a key role in the different areas of the country. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya’s political leadership has gradually fallen into the hands of the different violent rival groups, and the power of the central leadership has significantly reduced. Libya has become the main gathering place for Sub-Saharan migrants, and the country has remained without a functioning state, providing an excellent platform for the flourishing of human smuggling as well.

Silvio Berlusconi with the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi
Source: Flickr, created by: LIBero libeEros, licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

In view of the above, it is not surprising that apparently the Libyan issue belongs to Italy’s main foreign policy priorities; its importance is also represented by the regular meetings between the political leaders of the two countries. As a result of the country’s division, Italy seeks to maintain close relationship both with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and with the leader of the UN-backed unity government of Tripoli. In the context of the migration challenge, it is worth highlighting the importance of the meeting held in June between the interior ministers of the two countries. During this, Matteo Salvini addressed the issue of hotspots outside Europe (on the background of the plan, see our previous post). The plan would aim at setting up centres to handle asylum requests, clarify the status of migrants, and decide whether they are eligible for international protection or coming for economic purposes. The main role of these centres would be the sorting of people with the purpose to decide who is eligible for international protection under the Geneva Convention. This procedure would stop those who are not eligible for protection upon their entering Europe. Regarding this matter, there was no concrete proposal between the parties; the Libyan Interior Minister rejected the establishment of the centres in Libya, and Matteo Salvini did not set out a specific plan as to how (and exactly where) Italy could imagine the creation of such centres to the south of Libya. Thus, the proposal will continue to be one of the plans aimed at managing migration in the long run, but the international community does not have a unique vision about the concrete steps and the implementation of the plan yet.

On the occasion of a meeting in Benghazi between the Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in September, the parties reaffirmed their intentions of a further cooperation and their commitment to a stable and unified Libya. Khalifa Haftar expressed his country’s appreciation of Italy’s foreign policy commitment and activity, the aim of which is to address the situation in Libya, and assured the Foreign Minister that Italy could count on a future cooperation and a common dialogue in order to create the stability and security of the country to serve the interests of the Libyan people. The Italian Foreign Minister stressed that the guarantee of freedom and sovereignty of the Libyan people should be a top priority in order to make it possible for them to decide freely about their own destiny in the future. An overriding common political goal is also to create a transparent, secure framework for the next elections in Libya. Regarding the issue of immigration, the parties highlighted the importance of the Italian financial support to the country, as well as the Italian assistance to reinforce the Libyan Coast Guard, and discussed issues such as the importance of counter-terrorism and the various forms of illegal smuggling, with a special focus on combating human trafficking.

In the process of the reunification of the country, Italy will host a conference on the situation in Libya in autumn, which could be a new stage for the further political process. The main objective of the meeting is to allow the parties to further review possible steps to stabilise the country, and the alternatives that aim at working together for the latter, as this is an essential pre-condition for holding the elections. It should be mentioned that the latter issue is a significant friction point between the Italian and French governments: France urged to hold the elections as soon as possible (the scheduled date is 10 December), while Italy stressed that a rush to elections without the necessary pre-conditions will not result in stabilisation, but rather it could rather deepen existing disagreements. According to Italy, if these conditions are not met—especially in terms of security—the date of the elections should be reconsidered and postponed.

On 5 September—after renewed violence and fighting in August—Italy and France, together with the United States and the United Kingdom, called on all Libyan parties in a joint statement to refrain from any actions that could undermine the ceasefire announcement, jeopardize the security of civilians, or set back Libyan efforts to advance the political process and to move forward in the spirit of compromise.

Considering the country’s internal instability over the past years, it remains a question whether the Libyan conference in November could be a new chapter in the negotiation process and the political dialogue aimed at establishing a stable Libyan state. In the light of the experiences of previous years, this latter goal seems to be extremely ambitious. The success of the conference can be influenced by which participants will sit at the negotiating table, and that beside the two main power centres, what will be the exact role of the militias. Taking into account the role of the latter in controlling migration flows, cracking down on human smuggling networks, and controlling oil facilities and incomes coming from the oil industry, many experts agree that addressing the situation in Libya cannot be realized without the active involvement of these militias.

Considering this—beside many other factors—the outcome of the conference depends on the question of what role the international community intends to give to the militias during the negotiation process, as well as the willingness and cooperation of the key groups. Undoubtedly, the creation of a stable Libya is a key priority for both Italy and Europe in the long run, and in this process Italy intends to continue to play a protagonist role. Beside the interests of the civilian population of Libya—which is a crucial question—the challenge and risk caused by human smuggling and migration will remain such issues that cannot be effectively dealt with in the absence of a strong Libyan central state power.



* After the nationalisation of the oil industry in the 1970s (the main victims of which were British and American companies), during the 1980s and 1990s, Gaddafi openly supported international terrorism. One example of this is the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing (also called La Belle discotheque bombing that resulted in the international isolation and the American bombing of Libya. Another example is the Lockerbie case of 1988, for which Libya later assumed responsibility.

** By the end of 2014, public institutions in Libya were divided into two parts, resulting in the competing legitimacy of the two governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. It is important to emphasize that the central power cannot be considered as territorially unified in Libya, and the autonomy of local armed groups in the country weakens the power of the central government.

*** The tribal division of Libya is quite complex, as almost every major city has its dominant tribe, while in the southern oasis, two Saharan tribes, the Tuareg and the Tebu, are dominant. President Gaddafi himself was a descendant of one of the (Western) tribes, and this was also reflected in his policy: he neglected the eastern Cyrenaica, focusing on the development of the western Tripolitania. Hence, the revolt against Gaddafi had its main centre in the eastern city of Benghazi.

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