An unbreakable dipole – The controversial relations between Libya and Italy


According to physics a dipole is “a pair of equal and oppositely charged poles separated by a distance”, and there is no better definition for Libya and Italy.

Since the early beginning of the 20th Century, the fates of these completely opposite countries have been strongly bonded one to the other.

From playing “master and slave” to switching to the role of strong allies, these two countries have built a lasting relation based on unbridgeable differences and mutual dependence.


How it all began: the colonizer Italy and the colonized Libya

From 1911 to 1947, Libya was an Italian colony. This period can be divided in two phases; the first one that goes from 1911 to 1934 called “Italian colonization”, and the second from 1934 to 1947 called “Italian Libya”.

1911-1934: The Italian colonization

Italy was an early-born country, its independence indeed occurred only in 1871, and as a “late comer” it was struggling to join the Great Powers in the European scene. The best way to do so was to begin an expansionistic mission, to join the 19thCentury trend of the “New Imperialism”; at that time colonialism was one of the most effective tools to gain resources, new economic horizons and especially international prestige.

Naturally, the starting point of its new colonialist empire was Africa, the nearest territory to the Italian soil.

In October 1911, the Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti declared war on the Ottoman Empire, of which Libya was part; at the end of the conflict, in 1912, the Ottoman sultan was forced to cede Libya to the Italians by signing the Treaty of Lausanne.

However, defining the territory conquered by Italy “Libya” is still inappropriate, because in 1911 Libya was not an actual country, but only the ensemble of three different regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.

Tripolitania was largely under Italian control by 1914, while both in Cyrenaica and Fezzan the local resistance to the colonial project resulted in harsh rebellions led by the Senussi, a Muslim political-religious school of Sufism, an “Islamic mysticism”.

Indeed, several reorganizations of the colonial authority were made necessary.

From 1920 to 1929 Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were maintained as two provinces, administratively separated one from the other, then in 1929 they were united in one colonial entity.

1934-1947: Italian Libya

Rebellions, led by the Senussi sheikh Omar Mukhtar, intensified as Benito Mussolini gained the power of the Italian government in 1929. The scale of the conflict kept intensifying until it reached the level of a full-scale war; forced migration of local people in concentration camps was applied by the Italian troops as a punitive measure for the rebels.

The Libyan resistance capitulated only in 1931, with the capture and execution of Mukhtar in Benghazi on the 15thof September of the same year.

Finally, in 1934 Italy achieved the complete imperial status of the colony and named it “Libya”, reviving the ancient name given by the Greeks to the northern part of Africa west of Egypt. The colony was then split into four provinces, Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi and Derna, while the region of Fezzan was called the “Sahara Libyan Territory” and was administered militarily.

From 1934 to 1940 the Italian Governor of Libya, the Marshal of the Air Force Italo Balbo, successfully promoted the integration of Italian emigrants to Libya with the Arab population; for this reason, many Italian historians have been defining him as the “Father of modern Libya”.

Starting from 1939, a process of propaganda was promoted by the Italian Fascist Government to gain the support of the local population; laws were introduced to allow Muslims to join the National Fascist Party and the creation of Libyan military units within the Italian Army, that were then used to fight during the Second World War.

Some important civic developments were implemented as well, including a military highway, wanted by Mussolini and named “Via Balbia”, covering the whole geographical area of the colony and used by the Italian troops during the Second World War to invade Egypt. Other important projects of development were the construction of nearly 400 km of railways and new villages, that allowed the Libyan economy to flourish to a level unseen since the time of the Roman Empire.

In 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, under the terms of the peace treaty with the Allies, Italy was forced to relinquish all its claims on Libya, that was then divided between France and Great Britain. It officially became an independent country on the 24thof December 1951, under King Idriss.


The new Libyan Republic of Muammar al-Gaddafi and the “Day of Revenge”

On the 1stSeptember 1969, while King Idriss was absent from the country, a group of Libyan army officers under the lead of the Lieutenant Muammar al-Gaddafi abolished the monarchy with a bloodless military coup, by deposing the king and avoiding the succession of his heir.

The revolutionary council approved a new constitution, which defined Libya as an “Arab, free and democratic” country, embracing the ideologies promoted by the Arab nationalism.

The belief that led Gaddafi to enact the coup was mainly the one that the former Italian coloniser was still exploiting Libya.

For the same reason, on the 21stof July 1970, the council issued a special law that required to all the Italians and Jews living in the country to leave it by the 7 of October of the same year; about 20,000 Italians and 37,000 Jews were then expelled from Libya.

From that moment on, the 7thof October was remembered as the “Day of Revenge” and celebrated like a national holiday.

Despite the decisions undertaken by Gaddafi, Italy decided to maintain its diplomatic relations with Libya; by turning its back on Libya, Italy would have lost its main source of oil, and such a deprivation would have tragically affected its economy.

On the other hand, the Libyan leader proved to fester a significant resentment towards its former coloniser, but at the same time Libya was strongly in need of the technology that only Italy could have provided to it; in fact, since the beginning of Gaddafi’s government, the international community had been considering Libya as a sort of pariah, and Italy was its only ally.

As a proof of this controversial bond between the two nations, on the 15thof April 1986, the Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi alerted Gaddafi of an imminent American raid on Tripoli, giving him the possibility to flee and to save his life.

Furthermore in 2004, thanks to the Italian mediation, Libya succeeded in being delated from the European Union list of trade sanctioned countries.


2008: the “Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation”

 The year 2008 can be defined as the turning point in the relations between Italy and Libya, as on the 30 of August the two countries signed in the Libyan city of Bengasi the “Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation”; thanks to it, Italy confessed and apologized for the damages inflicted during the colonisation period, being the first country in history to undertake a similar decision.

The Treaty was composed of three parts; “General principles”, “Closing with the past and ending the disputes” and “Partnership”.

In the first section a condemnation of Italian colonisation of Libya is set.

In the second part the reparation payment of 5 billion dollars, to be paid in annual instalments, is fixed.

Finally, thanks to the third part of the Treaty, the two countries planned a cooperation in different and various areas, mainly on the economic and industrial side; its most relevant point consisted in mitigating the migratory flows passing through Libya and heading to Italy.


From the end of Gaddafi’s government until the current situation

 The situation drastically changed in 2011, when Libya had to face a harsh civil war, fought between the forces loyal to Gaddafi and the ones that were trying to oust his power.

The NATO decided to support the “rebels” and Italy had to take a difficult choice: staying loyal to its historical ally or following the line undertaken by all the other European countries.

This was not only a political choice, but also an economic one; Italy was worried about the damages that its companies headquartered in Libya, like Eni, the most important Italian oil company, could have suffered due to the conflict. So, in order to mitigate as far as possible the undergone damages, Italy decided to support NATO’s choice of bombing Libya, by also violating UN’s No-Fly Zone.

During the bomb attacks, Gaddafi was captured and killed by the rebels; after his death, a National Transitional Council was established as the new Libyan government, then recognized also by Italy.

Even if for Italy the death of such a strategical ally was a big loss, the European country succeeded in engaging new and pacific relations also with the National Transitional Council; soon after the end of the Libyan civil war, Eni announced the restarting of its oil production.

At the present time, Libya is going through its second civil war, but Italy has not changed its position; indeed it is currently supporting, together with the United States of America, Great Britain and the UN, the Government of National Accord formed as a result of the Libyan Political Agreement signed on the 17thof December 2015 and headed by the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Despite all the difficulties Libya and Italy are still largely relying on each other and seem determined to protect and perpetuate this alliance almost at all costs.



 Sources used:

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