MILAN, Italy — In attempts to face down the myriad militias in the fractured country that is modern Libya, the UN-recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is looking to partner with one of its former colonial occupiers: Italy.
The Sarraj-led government has communicated with Italian authorities in an attempt to counter human smugglers, but the fragile government is being forced to walk a very fine line between accepting much-needed international assistance and upsetting its population.
“Starting in 1911 — and particularly in the 1930s — Italy’s actions on Libyan soil were hideous,” Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, told Al-Monitor. “And it is true that one century is a short amount of time for those types of historical memories. The latter are still vivid in Libyan minds, no question about it.”
Italy colonized Libya in 1911 and stayed in the country until 1947. Their stay was largely defined by Italy’s fascist regime that committed a number of atrocities, starting with a massacre in Tripoli, the capital, in 1911. During this period, Italy also persecuted Arabs, Berbers and Jews in North Africa.
Recalling Italy’s troubled colonial history has also morphed into a tactic for figures competing with Sarraj for control of Libyan territory. Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who controls large swathes of Libya’s eastern territory and is primarily backed by Egypt, has tried to turn the Libyan population against Sarraj using this tactic.
It has forced Sarraj to engage in doublespeak at times. Sarraj and Hifter both claim to be Libya’s legitimate representatives and have held peace talks in Paris as recently as July. Sarraj, who enjoys UN legitimacy, wrote a letter to Italy on July 23. In it, he requested Italian assistance in stopping refugees and migrants from boarding ships from Libya to Italy. The Italians duly accepted Sarraj’s request. Only five days later, however, Sarraj denied he ever requested Italian naval ships to enter Libyan waters, according to Stratfor website. "Later that same day, al-Sarraj and the Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti discussed possible Italian assistance and managed to overcome domestic resistance in Libya,” Stratfor reported.
“[Stopping the boats to Europe] is clearly not a priority for the Libyans, and it explains why the Italian naval mission can be used by people like Hifter to make some propaganda and delegitimize Sarraj as the puppet of the former colonizers,” Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor. “So Sarraj is in a difficult place: He needs to give Italy something in exchange for the legitimacy that he receives from Rome as from no other capital, but he can't be appearing to give in to foreign demands.”
Italy has a national election next year, and the so-called migrant issue could be a major election swinger. So far this year, more than 94,000 new arrivals have landed on Italy’s shores. The number surpasses figures for 2016 and 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration. Should the current government stop new arrivals from coming, it could be a major boost to the ruling Democrat Party led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
But it could also backfire, as groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have warned Italy that it could be implicated in human rights abuses. "The Italian navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions," said Judith Sunderland, HRW's Europe and Central Asia associate director. "After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence and forced labor.”
At least one security expert said the European Union should form a naval rescue unit for migrants and refugees. “The root causes of migration have to be addressed on the ground; there is no way around it,” Sebastian Bruns, the head of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, said in an interview with German outlet Deutsche Welle. “All the efforts produced by the marine units, private NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] or Frontex are merely fighting the symptoms.”
The Libyans, meanwhile, want to curb migration to Italy because most refugees and migrants pay fees to smugglers. The refugees and migrants also directly or indirectly via smugglers pay militias for safe passage. The money bolsters these militias, which are outside of the government’s control. Effectively, the road to Europe through Libya is funding Libyan instability.
“Smugglers and the informal economy are the ‘anti-state’ in Libya: They thrive on the illicit trade of government-subsidized goods and with their militias block the building of a modern state,” Toaldo said. “With this respect, anyone who fights against the smugglers will find allies in Libya. The problem is that, despite the official rhetoric, it is very clear that Italy's and Europe's interests in Libya are more immediate: Curb migration flows.”
The Libyan government of Sarraj seems to believe that Italian naval vessels will deter future attempts to get to Italy. But even if that happens to be the case, Libya still has a major issue on its hands.
“Paradoxically, this balancing act will be even more complex should the current policy manage to curb flows,” said Toaldo. “From the Italian point of view, this could be a game changer and bring the flows gradually close to zero, but from the Libyan point of view, this creates two problems: What's to be done with the migrants who get stuck in Libya? Second, what will the smugglers do if they stop irregular migration? Their other activities are petrol smuggling and drugs and arms trafficking. But many in Europe think that we will cross that bridge when we get there.”
Libya is walking a fine line. On the one hand, they would do well to take power out of the hands of smugglers and local militias. But, as history has shown, European assistance is often self-serving, and in an election year, Italy may not be looking for sustainable solutions in their former colony.
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