A week of fighting in Tripoli’s southern suburbs has killed more than 50 people and wounded scores more, most of them civilians, according to a toll published by the Libyan health ministry on Tuesday, with the violence showing no sign of ebbing.
The continued bloodshed is of major concern to Italy, which is desperate for a measure of stability in the war-torn North African country in order to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. It is also a subject of dispute between Libya’s former colonial power and France, whose mediating role in the Libyan crisis is regarded with suspicion in Rome.
In a barely disguised attack on French diplomacy on Monday, Italy’s firebrand deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini suggested French meddling was to blame for the renewed clashes in Tripoli – and for plunging Libya into chaos in the first place.
“My fear is that someone, for economic motives and selfish national interest, is putting at risk the security of North Africa and, as a result, of Europe as a whole,” Salvini, the leader of anti-immigrant League party, told reporters in Rome.
“I’m thinking of someone who waged a war that shouldn’t have been waged; someone who set election dates without discussing this with allies, with the United Nations or indeed with the Libyan people,” he added, referring to French military and diplomatic forays into Libyan affairs under presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the University of Paris VIII, said the comments had more to do with Salvini’s populist instincts than the “tragic reality unfolding in Tripoli”.
“French diplomacy in Libya can be described as disappointing, clumsy, arrogant and hurried,” he told FRANCE 24. “But it did not cause the current bloodshed,” he said, describing Italian and French squabbling over Libya as a “sad spectacle” and a “poor example” for countries across the region.
Seven years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed uprising, Libya remains largely lawless and divided, with rival administrations in Tripoli and the east of the country, and the capital itself regularly prey to fighting between a host of armed groups.
Italy, which initially opposed NATO’s intervention in 2011, rarely misses an opportunity to stress Sarkozy’s leading role in the ill-fated military operation, singling it out as the root cause of Libya’s present chaos and of the migrant crisis on Europe’s shores.
“France, from my point of view, has a responsibility” in Libya’s crisis, Italy’s Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, a member of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.
“It is clearly now undeniable that this country [Libya] finds itself in this situation because someone, in 2011, put their own interests ahead of those of the Libyan people and of Europe itself,” she added.
Trenta’s words echoed earlier comments by the head of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, Roberto Fico, who called the situation in Libya “a serious problem which France has left us”.
The complaints levelled at France reflect both the bluntness of Italy’s self-styled “populist” government – echoing its spats with Macron’s administration on the subject of migrants – and the growing resentment of French involvement in Libya, a country that Italy has traditionally regarded as the cornerstone of its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean.
In 2008, Italy and Libya signed a historic treaty ending the two countries’ long-running feud over the colonial period. Rome agreed to compensate Tripoli for its brutal colonial occupation, in return securing a favoured commercial partner status with the oil-rich country. But since the Sarkozy-led intervention in 2011, Italian officials have suspected France – and its oil major Total – of seeking to supplant Italian interests in Libya.
Italian officials were left seething in July last year when Macron took leadership of Libyan peace talks by inviting the country’s rival administrations for a summit in Paris, and then posing with them for a symbolic handshake.
“Macron wants to be much more involved in Libya. That is fine, but he has brushed us away. We were not consulted,” said a diplomat in the Italian foreign ministry, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, in remarks carried by Reuters. “There is a lot of anger over this,” the diplomat added.
“We can’t say anything to the Italians, because they think this is their subject,” a senior French official countered, acknowledging that “the Italians won’t be happy”.
The clash of egos between former colonial powers conceals real disagreements between Rome and Paris over how to help stabilise Libya.
French diplomats say Italy was wrong to back a powerful militia based in the city of Misrata, while Italy resents the way France has treated General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control Libya’s northeastern coast, on a par with the country’s embattled UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Critics have warned that competition between the two is pushing the country further into chaos.
“If Italy, with its historic knowledge of the terrain, had worked hand in hand with France on the Libyan dossier, we may have witnessed some real progress on the ground,” said Harchaoui. “Instead, we have seen only competing agendas that contradict and scupper each other.”
However, Harchaoui cautioned against exaggerating French and Italian influence in Libya, noting that other players, including non-Western states, are “very active in the country, and causing damage of their own”.
Pleasing the president
Harchaoui said France’s dogged insistence on organising elections in Libya before the end of the year is evidence that Paris “simply does not have a strategy for Libya” and is “merely repeating empty phrases detached from the reality on the ground”.
At a second Paris summit in May of this year, Macron got Libyan rivals Haftar and Sarraj to back his plan for nationwide elections in December – a prospect many analysts, and the Italian government, say is likely to do more damage than good given the continued unrest.
Following a trip to Tripoli in July, Italy’s Defence Minister Trenta insisted a vote should not be rushed and pledged to help Libya “resist foreign interference”.
“We do not believe that an acceleration of the electoral process can bring stability,” she said, adding that the North African nation also needed “reconciliation, the return of security and political work”.
Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi, a veteran of Italy’s previous, less strident administrations, expressed a similar view, stating: “It is the Libyan people and their broader institutions who will decide when the country should hold elections.”
While his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian toured several Libyan cities over the summer to drum up support for the December polls, even in France there is concern that Macron’s initiative may be premature.
Opposition senator Cédric Perrin, the deputy chair of the Senate foreign affairs committee and author of a parliamentary report on Libya, said talk of early elections “was more about pleasing the [French] president that solving the Libyan problem”. He added: “To want everything at once is to be certain of failure.”