Italy Is Playing a Very Risky Game in Libya

Italy Is Playing a Very Risky Game in Libya
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh review the honor guard in Tripoli, Libya, May 7, 2024 (AP photo by Yousef Murad).

As working summits between heads of government go, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s meetings with Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli on May 7 had all the trappings of a routine visit. After cordial discussions, Meloni and Dbeibah signed agreements covering university exchanges, renewable energy projects, shared sea patrols and dozens of other coordination initiatives. Yet Meloni’s meeting a few hours later in Benghazi with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the autocratic military leader who dominates a breakaway government in eastern Libya, underscored the dangers lurking just below the surface of Italy’s seemingly calm engagement with Libya.

For over a decade, in dealing with Libya’s fractured political scene, Rome has struggled to protect what it perceives as existentially crucial interests in the country. In its efforts to influence rival factions in Benghazi and Tripoli, successive Italian governments have been drawn deeply into Libyan politics in ways that few had anticipated during the civil war and NATO intervention that brought about Moammar Gadhafi’s fall in 2011. But the geopolitical opportunities offered by the fragmentation of a state with huge oil and gas reserves led to efforts by Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to expand their influence in Libya. That has compounded the strategic dilemmas faced by policymakers in Rome fearful of the impact of such competition on Italy’s energy and border security.

Rome’s efforts to navigate the complexities of Libya’s social and political landscape are frequently tripped up by toxic imperial legacies. Though the histories of southern Italy and northern Libya were intertwined for thousands of years through war, trade and cultural exchange, the relationship between both societies is now profoundly overshadowed by the genocidal brutality of Benito Mussolini’s campaign to impose a racialized colonial system on Libyans in the 1920s and 1930s. The mass murder and starvation of hundreds of thousands of Libyans under Mussolini’s fascist regime has never been systematically addressed in wider Italian political debate. Yet despite today’s factional rivalries in Libya, fascist Italy’s acts of genocide there remain embedded in the historical memory of every Libyan community. 

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