Italian-Libyan Relations

Reconciliation with Ulterior Motives

Muammar al-Gaddafi has made an art out of embarrassing his European hosts in public, and he was certainly on form during his recent state visit to Italy, where he unsubtly reminded Italy of its colonial past as he stepped off the plane. Bernhard Schmid reports

Silvio Berlusconi greets Muammar al-Gaddafi (photo: dpa)
The Libyan leader's recent state visit to Italy was meant to mark a new beginning in relations between Italy and its former colony following the signing of an agreement between the two countries in August 2008

​​Officially, the Libyan head of state and "revolutionary leader" Muammar al-Gaddafi has not been regarded by the international community as a rogue since December 2003. That was when the leadership in Tripoli declared formally to the USA and Great Britain that it would no longer seek to develop nuclear weapons.

All the same, his hosts prefer to see the general with the sunglasses and the pithy comments leaving than arriving. That's a view which the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has probably come to share with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy following Gaddafi's most recent visit to Italy.

Back in December 2007, Gaddafi paid a highly controversial official visit to France which lasted a whole week. During the visit, Gaddafi contradicted Sarkozy in front of the cameras when Sarkozy said that "human rights had also been a topic" at the bilateral talks. Now, from June 10th to 13th, Gaddafi was Berlusconi's guest in Rome.

The Italian apology

Gaddafi was returning a short official visit which Berlusconi made on August 30th last year to Benghazi in Eastern Libya. During that visit Berlusconi caused a small sensation: in spite of the fact that his cabinet includes members of far-right parties, he publicly acknowledged the crimes committed during the period when Italy was the colonial power in Libya, between 1911 and 1942/3.

Gaddafi during a press conference in the Villa Madama in Rome (photo: dpa)
Political scandal: after having been made to wait several hours for Gaddafi to arrive at an official engagement, representatives of the Italian parliament cancelled a meeting with Libya's revolutionary leader on the final day of his visit

​​In spite of this gesture of reconciliation, Gaddafi snubbed his hosts several times during his return visit. For example, he was due to make a speech before several hundred members of parliament and other prominent guests. He kept them waiting for two hours and when he had still not turned up and had not sent an apology, the president of the Italian parliament, Gianfranco Fini, eventually cancelled the meeting altogether – to the applause of part of the assembly.

The Libyan embassy said later that Gaddafi had been held up "by Friday prayers". It's more likely, however, that he'd found out what was in the speech that Fini planned to deliver. Informed sources say that Fini, who's on the right of Italian politics, had included criticism of Gaddafi.

The purest cynicism

He intended to point to something Gaddafi had said on the second day of his visit and accuse him of comparing the US attacks on Libya in 1986 with later terror attacks by Al Qaeda. He also wanted to call on Gaddafi to open up the holding camps – which Libya has set up on its own soil for potentially unwanted immigrants to Europe – to inspection by an Italian parliamentary delegation, so that they could "assure themselves that human rights are being observed in these camps."

Ship full of refugees intercepted by Italian authorities at the Italian coast (photo: AP)
Human rights groups criticised the agreement to deport refugees who illegally try to enter Italy after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya

​​Seen objectively, these planned criticisms are the purest cynicism. In reality, the inmates of the camps are subject to an absolute tyranny in a country which does not acknowledge the existence of a right to asylum in its laws. Bearing in mind the way the country treats its unwanted black African migrants, it would be more appropriate to ban the deportation of potential immigrants to Libya. But that by no means is current Italian policy.

Since early May, two boats carrying refugees near the southern coast of Italy have been forced to turn back and hand over their passengers to the Libyan authorities, instead of checking whether any of the refugees might be entitled to rights in Italy such as the right to apply for asylum. Five hundred people were thus handed over to Libya.

A crafty tactician

Gaddafi is not just vain. He knows that Europe has an enormous interest in the huge oil and gas reserves in his country. And he's a crafty tactician, with enough experience to prevent the leaders of European democracies from meddling in his affairs while still managing to make them look like fools.

Omar Mukhtar is arrested by Italian colonialists, 1931 (photo: public domain)
When he arrived in Italy, Gaddafi demonstratively wore on his uniform a photo of the legendary Libyan revolutionary fighter Omar Mukhtar (<i>centre</i>), who was hung by Italian colonialists in 1931

​​Another of Gaddafi's snubs was more justified. On his arrival at Rome Airport, he was wearing a large photo of Omar al-Mokhtar, the leader of a Libyan uprising in 1931, on the lapel of his uniform. With the photo, he was bringing a generally repressed episode in Italian colonial history to the attention of those Italians who were following the visit in the media.

Libya had already been conquered by Italy in 1911, but it suffered serious oppression during the period of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini from 1922 to 1943. Historians estimate that 20,000 Libyans were killed for resisting the colonial regime, and 100,000 were deported to camps in the desert. Half of those died of their privations, or from epidemics and executions, including al-Mokhtar.

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours

Gaddafi during his state visit to Italy (photo: dpa)
A temporary marriage of convenience: in the friendship agreement concluded by the two nations, Italy undertakes to pay Libya $5 billion in compensation for the period of Italian occupation; in return, it is hoping for closer ties in the energy sector

​​When Berlusconi made his "national apology" in 2008, it was agreed that Italy would pay Libya five billion dollars (currently 3.4 million euros) over the next 25 years in reparations. In concrete terms, Italy was to invest 200 million dollars a year in Libyan infrastructure, such as an East-West motorway along the coast from the Tunisian to the Egyptian border, or "a large number" of social housing units.

Rome also promised to grant scholarships to Libyan students and to pay an invalidity pension to victims of the mines laid by the Italians.

What made the deal particularly attractive for Berlusconi was what Libya was to give in return. During his recent visit, Gaddafi assured him that "Italian enterprises" would in future "enjoy priority status" in his country.

Italian is Libya's main business partner, both for imports and exports. And the treatment of the migrants the EU doesn't want – whatever the human rights situation – is also part of the political deal between the two governments. This is "the other side of the coin" – the bitterest aspect of the reconciliation between the two countries.

Bernard Schmid

© Qantara 2009

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