Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Italian-Libyan friendship intrigue

The reactivation of a 2008 agreement between Italy and Libya is a subject of controversy among the latter’s competing political factions, writes Kamel Abdallah


Italian-Libyan friendship intrigue
Italian-Libyan friendship intrigue

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The Italian warship, the Commandante Prozene, arrived in the Abu Sitta Naval Base in Tripoli on 4 August in order to support the Libyan coastguard in its efforts to combat human trafficking and illegal migration. The arrival of the Italian ship is part of the revival of the Libyan-Italian friendship agreement signed between Rome and the colonel Gaddafi regime in 2008 when Silvio Berlusconi was the Italian prime minister. According to Libyan Navy spokesman Ayoub Qassim, in an interview with the Italian news agency, AKI, a third ship is due to arrive 8 August, carrying on board an entire repair shop that would remain in the country for an extensive period in order to perform maintenance tasks on Libyan naval vessels.

The first Italian naval vessel arrived in Abu Sitta on 1 August but was not assigned any tasks in Libyan regional waters. This too comes within the framework of the exchange of expertise between the two countries in accordance with the agreement signed between Libya and Italy in 2008 and on the basis of a request by the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj to the government of Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni who met with Al-Sarraj 26 July the day after Al-Sarraj’s landmark face-to-face meeting with the Commander of the Libyan Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Paris.

However, Al-Sarraj’s request to Italy for stronger naval support to enable the Libyan coastguard become more effective in stemming the flow of illegal migration from Libya triggered widespread controversy in Libya. Some critics expressed their suspicions of Italy’s intentions in supporting the Presidency Council in Tripoli and condemned the “audacious” arrival and operation of Italian warships in Libyan territorial waters and ports.

Italy’s dispatch of its naval mission to support the Libyan coastguard had been approved several days earlier in a vote taken in the Italian parliament 31 July. According to the Italian Corriere della Sera, the mission includes a ground command and officers who would determine how and where to intervene, if necessary, in order to intercept human traffickers. Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told a bicameral parliamentary hearing 31 July that the Italian naval vessels would be tasked with “ensuring logistic, technical and operational support to Libyan naval units by accompanying and supporting them during joint and coordinated activities in order to ensure the efficacy of Libyan crews.” She stressed that “all activities are to be carried out on the basis of the needs expressed by Libyan authorities and in close coordination (between both sides).” She denied that the assistance constituted an intervention or violation of Libyan national sovereignty and added, “Our aim is to strengthen that sovereignty by offering the support to enable Libya to fully undertake all the conventional activities performed by sovereign states.”

Italy’s statements and justifications failed to convince many parties in Libya, especially in the east where they see the Italian intervention as a form of support for Al-Sarraj against Field Marshal Haftar who has made no secret of his intention to move against Tripoli in order to seize control over the capital. Prior to the arrival of the Commandante Prozene, Haftar’s press bureau announced that he had instructed naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Misrata, Zawia, Tripoli and Zourah to intercept any ship that enters Libyan waters without permission from the armed forces, apart from licenced commercial ships.

The House of Representatives, for its part, charged that Italy was attempting to “export the crisis of illegal migration from its territory to Libya”. The House statement claimed that Italy was forcing dozens of illegal immigrants to return to Libya which would “wreak grave security, economic and social consequences”. Warning that the entry of any Italian Navy vessel into Libyan territorial waters would constitute “a violation of sovereignty,” the statement declared the House’s “rejection of any agreement concluded by the Presidency Council or any request submitted by it to Italy”, adding that “such agreements are not valid unless they pass through the legislative authority, namely the House of Representatives, rather than through an executive authority that has yet to receive a vote of confidence.”

In western Libya, some militia groups also declared their opposition to the arrival of the Italian naval mission. Generally hostile to the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord since it took up headquarters in Tripoli, these militia groups charged that Al-Sarraj was using the Italians as a means to strengthen his hand against his domestic rivals.

A statement released by the Libyan Navy on Thursday, a copy of which has been obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that the joint activities launched with its Italian counterpart were in implementation of the 2008 agreement and in fulfilment of Libya’s rights, as stipulated in that agreement, to the provision, on the part of Italy, of technical and logistic support in accordance with the needs of the Libyan navy and coastguard. The Libyan Navy statement stressed that “Libyan sovereignty and security and its territorial and sovereign waters as defined by international laws and conventions are a red line and the commissioned and non-commissioned officers and all other personnel of the naval forces and coastguard will never allow that line to be crossed or violated.”

According to a Reuters report, the outcry and pressures inside Libya stirred by Al-Sarraj’s request for Italian assistance compelled Italy to reduce its mission. Apparently, it had originally planned to send over six ships to help patrol Libyan waters.

It also appears that the Paolo Gentiloni government accelerated the dispatch of the Italian naval mission to Libya as a means to defuse pressures from Italian opposition parties which had charged that Gentiloni’s mishandling of the Libyan question made it possible for the French to acquire greater influence, especially after Macron’s sponsorship of the meeting between Haftar and Al-Sarraj. Accordingly, the Italian intervention in Libya should also be seen in the context of the Gentiloni government’s preparations for the Italian general elections due to be held in May 2018. Following a recent meeting with senior Italian officials connected with the Libyan question, Prime Minister Gentiloni vowed that his government “committed to its agenda in Libya”, signifying that Rome is determined to secure stronger influence in Tripoli so as to further Italian interests there.

The friendship agreement signed by colonel Gaddafi and prime minister Berlusconi in Benghazi on 31 August 2008 contains an Italian apology to the Libyan people for the colonial era and pledges $5 billion to Libya. A portion of that sum was to fund a highway from Emsaed at the border with Egypt to Ras Ajdir at the border with Tunisia. Also in that agreement, Italy pledged to enhance Libya’s security capacities in handling illegal migration and human trafficking and, towards this end, to equip Libya with advanced electronic surveillance systems for its coasts. The agreement was suspended upon the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

The controversy in Libya over the reimplementation of the agreement can only be understood in the context of the political divides that have riddled Libya for the past three years. But if Libyan factions would seek out foreign allies to strengthen their positions with respect to their local political rivals, foreign powers, too, competed to secure partners in Libya. Italy, at present, is keen to ensure that it can assert a stronger influence in Tripoli than other European powers so that it can advance its concerns on issues related to Italian national security and promote Italian interests in Libya.

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