international analysis and commentary

A false competition

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The story goes as follows: with Gheddafi’s fall, Italy lost its role in Tripoli. True: after some initial hesitation, Rome sided with Benghazi, gave NATO its bases for operations, took part in those operations, and so forth. But the “drole de guerre” in Libya was basically Paris’s idea, with London coming in a close second. Nicolas Sarkozy is therefore going to attempt to cash in on his commitment by leading the economic reconstruction process – starting with the Paris conference. Italy’s presence in Libya, as a consequence, is bound to be cut down.

There is one truth that we should take into account. The Cyrenaica leaders, the famous east Libyan “rebels”, have never been particularly enamored of Italy. The history of it is well known, but it is always worthwhile recalling that the area around Benghazi was part of the Ottoman Empire until Italy kicked Turkey out of Libya and decided, as the colonial power in 1911, to unite Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. It was from Benghazi that future King Idris al-Senussi stirred up resistance against the Italians during World War II. In this connection there is an interesting note in the British diplomatic archives. In January 1942 Sir Anthony Eden, his Britannic majesty’s then foreign secretary, promised Idris that “at the end of the war, the al-Senussi of Cyrenaica will under no circumstances fall back under Italian domination.” There you have it: However much Italy may have recognized and assisted the Benghazi council over the past few months, there is a history to reckon with and it carries some weight. Rome must be aware of it when it puts itself forward as a priority interlocutor to the leaders of the Transition National Council – which contains a little of everything: former Gheddafi aides, rival tribe leaders, Islamists.

Thus it is true that Italy stood to lose a great deal in this “drole de guerre” in Libya. Yet a detail that many seem to overlook is that it has not lost. Paolo Scaroni’s visit to Benghazi tells us that ENI is capable of safeguarding its energy accords. If Libya fails to remain united, if it fails to stabilize, then we will all have lost out – and that includes Paris and London. After splitting over the war – and the war is still going on, with resistance in Sirte, fighting in Tripoli, and a rising casualty toll – the Europeans have everything to gain from working together on promoting an accord among Gheddafi’s successors, avoiding the mistakes that the United States made in Iraq after 2003.  I know that this idea that the Europeans are actually all in the same boat may sound like pure rhetoric, but it is absolutely true. There is not a chance in the world that Paris can gain any great advantages to Rome’s detriment in a negative scenario: a huge Somalia in place of Gheddafi’s Libya, a new “failed state” just across the Mediterranean. But by the same token, Italy will have plenty of room to safeguard its own interests in a positive scenario: a successful transition toward a pacified Libya.

The notion that Italy has already lost the (yet unfinished) war in Libya sounds like one of the many variations on the theme: “We were better off when we were worse off.” It was far easier to deal with the erstwhile Lockerbie terrorist, with his tents and his Amazons, his claims for war damages, and so on, rather than with the multifarious group of his successors. That may be true, but at least we should recall also Gheddafi’s constant blackmail in the field of emigration. Nor should we forget the basic premise: However the Arab uprisings of 2011 ends, the status quo in North Africa had reached the end of the line in any case. That may give us no guarantees for the future, but it has made the past – including the Tripoli Colonel’s long dictatorship – unsustainable.

The clout of other interlocutors, primarily from the region itself, is unquestionably going to grow in relations with post-Gheddafi Libya – from Turkey as it mends its historic ties with Benghazi, to Qatar which has provided the uprising with important military support. On the international stage, we must seek today’s losers elsewhere. For instance, in a Russia that is still trying to mediate an agreement with the former leader while part of his family has already reached Algeria; and probably also in China, which has had first-hand experience of the limits of its Africa policy for the very first time. The withdrawal of 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya in March marked the first hiccup in China’s expansion in Africa. The Tripoli regime’s fall has also been a defeat for the “authoritarian model” that Beijing has been proposing to the various African dictators in recent years.

Does Europe have a different model to put forward, as the Libyan war draws to a close? That is going to be the basic challenge in the post-Gheddafi phase for a Europe that watched the grassroots uprising in Tunisia and the military “coup” in Egypt from the sidelines. It is going to provide Europe with an opportunity to get back into North Africa after several decades during which its influence has been waning. Whatever the reasons for the war orchestrated by Sarkozy (but fought with the support of the United States, of British special forces, of NATO command, and of Italy’s bases), at this juncture the European capitals should be seeing Libya as part of the global competition in the 21st century, not as a replay of old colonial rivalries.

The illusions of a Franco-British condominium have already failed in the past here in the Mediterranean. They are going to fail again if the Europeans in Libya start bickering over a “cake” – a terrible term – which the Libyans themselves must learn to govern with other means. The shared interest of the Europeans and of the Libyan people alike is that they not end up regretting Gheddafi’’s fall. Once that has been established, business deals will be there for those capable of procuring them. That is the only competition admissible between the democracies of the Old World.