Shadow of French, Italian divergences hangs over Libya

Among ordinary Libyans, there is as much mistrust of Italian intentions as there is of French.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron at EU headquarters in Brussels, last June 24. (AFP)
Looking south. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron at EU headquarters in Brussels, last June 24. (AFP)

TUNIS - Seven years on from Libya’s 2011 revolution, the country’s divisions remain as intractable as ever.

Officially, the international community supports the plan driven by the UN Support Mission in Libya headed by Ghassan Salame but some countries, including France and Italy, have been pursuing their own political plans for Libya.

While Paris and Rome officially support Salame and the UN-brokered Government of National Accord in Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and the Presidency Council, there are sharp divergences between the two in their Libya policies. They have become barely disguised rivals for influence in the country.

On July 23, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made a lightning tour of the country, visiting Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi and Tobruk. The following day, Italian Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, accompanied by Italian Chief of Staff General Claudio Graziano, was in Libya. She met with Sarraj in Tripoli, visited Misrata and promised she would return soon for talks with Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The central pillar of French policy in Libya is elections before the end of the year. That was the deal hammered out in Paris among French President Emmanuel Macron, Sarraj, Haftar and the presidents of the House of Representatives and the State Council.

The aim of Le Drian’s visit was to pressure all four to stick to the deal, including having a constitutional framework for elections in place by September 16 and elections December 10.

Italy’s new right-wing, anti-immigration government has a very different take on Libya. Its prime objective is to stanch the flow of immigrants arriving on its shores. Making that happen tops its domestic agenda, seen in the fact that Trenta’s was not the first Italian diplomatic offensive towards Libya.

There is much more to this than a different focus.

For the Italians, stability, security and reconciliation in Libya are more immediate desires, not elections. Like many in the international community, they say polls by December 10 are recklessly overly ambitious. Trenta told Sarraj that elections should not be rushed.

Privately, Italian officials go further. Unlike themselves, they say, the French, simply do not understand Libya. How well Italy really understands Libya is another matter. "Italy is close to Libya and will help it to resist foreign interference," Trenta said after returning to Italy.

Among ordinary Libyans, there is as much mistrust of Italian intentions as there is of French.

Franco-Italian rivalry in Libya, seen in a practical manner with Italy offering more money for Libyan health care while France reportedly offered millions for the elections, looks set to sharpen further. The Italian government is cosying up to the United States and it was reported that Libya would be on the agenda at talks between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and US President Donald Trump.

Ideologically the two are close: Trump likewise sees immigration as major issue. “The United States and Italy will look to deepen cooperation in addressing global conflicts,” the White House said of the Washington meeting when it was announced in June.

The prospect of Italian-French rivalry over Libya with the Americans on the side of the Italians looks like a distinct possibility. Whether any of this helps Libyans to a better life is another matter.

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