Commentary. The common refrain coming from Italian governments, including the present one, is that we are better informed than anyone else about Libya, and that we are in fact the ‘leading country’ there: in terms of what exactly, nobody knows.

Libya is Italy’s greatest defeat since WWII

Will Libya be lost for good? If so, it will also be the fault of the French ambitions in the Cyrenaica region, of the inability of the EU to have a common Mediterranean policy, and of the thorough American disinterest. However, the instability and the mistakes we are still making in Libya are also Italy’s fault, and derive from two realities that we find it hard to recognize seven years after the fall of Gaddafi:

First, Italy has suffered its worst defeat since World War II  in Libya. And later it helped bring down one of its major allies in the Mediterranean by taking part in the NATO raids. Thus, we have little credibility left on African shores: we have abandoned “our” dictator to his fate, after having welcomed him with great fanfare in Rome just six months before, on Aug. 30, 2010, enthusiastic about business prospects worth billions.

Second, for a while now, Libya has not been one country, but at least two: General Khalifa Haftar’s Cyrenaica, supported by Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, all opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are in turn lending support to the Fayez al-Sarraj government in Tripoli. Even though only the Tripoli government is internationally recognized as representing Libya, in reality almost nobody supports it—except Italy, because of the necessity of making deals concerning migrant flows.

The common refrain coming from Italian governments, including the present one, is that we are better informed than anyone else about Libya, and that we are in fact the “leading country” there: in terms of what exactly, nobody knows. It is true that Eni makes Italy the largest producer of oil there, but that is only because we had to make deals with the armed militias, not with al-Sarraj. This shows how much the United States has been misleading the Renzi, Gentiloni, and now also the Conte government with their supposed recognition of our role in Libya, a role that has been challenged in many ways.

Two Italian ministers, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero, have just been to Tripoli, but they don’t seem to have learned anything. The Interior Minister has stated that “We only deal with recognized governments.” And we have recently seen him ask Hungary’s Viktor Orbán for help in getting a foothold in Libya.

We are not doing well as a country at the moment because for some time now, our ruling class has not only been arrogant and ignorant (in the sense of ignoring reality), but also deaf and blind, because they don’t listen, don’t read and don’t educate themselves.

The only point on which Italy has been right is in opposing the elections on Dec. 10, because the proper conditions are not present in the Tripolitania region. However, this statement, coming from Italian ambassador Giuseppe Perrone, cost him the enmity of the main actors in Cyrenaica, both internal and international.

It is true that the conditions for organizing credible elections are not present in Tripolitania, but Benghazi and Tobruk look set to go their own way in December, with the support of Paris, Moscow and especially Cairo, where the general-president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi wants to establish his “security zone” on the border with Libya.

Luigi Di Maio’s trip to Egypt didn’t just bury Giulio Regeni for a second time, but achieved nothing on this front either. The Egyptian dictator has found the right allies: the French who have their oil interests in Cyrenaica, the Russians interested in a new base in the Mediterranean, and even the United States, strung along by the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood (which they once supported), hostile toward Saudi Arabia as well as toward Israel, Washington’s foremost ally in the region.

In these unfavorable geopolitical conditions, Italy is making deals with a Tripoli government reduced to a a mere figment: over the past year, there have been a dozen attempts to overthrow it, even as it was installed with the help of Italian ships.

At the same time, we’re delivering 12 more Italian patrol boats to this joke of a government, by a Parliament vote with a large majority—a policy in line with that of the previous Gentiloni government, the first to strike deals with the controversial Libyan Coast Guard, which has been accused of being linked to criminal activities, including human trafficking—an industry now concentrated in the areas west of Tripoli, between Sabratha and the surrounding towns, or just to its east, between Misrata and Gasr Garabulli.

How to get the situation in Libya under control? By transforming military actors into political ones, or at least introducing their concerns into the negotiations. A study by the ISPI in Milan argues that we need to rethink the role of the militias in the negotiations: the time has come to ask whether the entire political process should be rethought, particularly to involve those actors who are often excluded, or at least formally relegated to the margins. This should be done while being aware, as the Somalia precedent has shown, that this involves questions and risks that should be carefully considered by those politically responsible for diplomacy—of which there is hardly a trace to be seen for now.

Otherwise, the risk when holding international meetings is that of dealing with representatives who have zero control over the territory. This is why most of the agreements concluded so far are not worth the paper they’re printed on, and why Libya continues to appear, to the international community and especially to Italy, as an ungovernable “strip of desert,” as if under a centuries-old curse.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!