Toxic politics in Italy, Libya further complicate migration problem

Stuck in the middle. Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (L) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at Palazzo Chigi in Rome, last February. (AP)

2017/08/20 Issue: 120 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Justin Salhani

Milan - Over the past several years, thousands of people have boarded boats in Libyan waters intent on crossing the Mediterranean and landing on Ital­ian shores. The number of people illegally headed towards Europe has been a financial boon for hu­man smugglers in Africa.

This has caused concern in Italy where the parliament voted to deploy naval patrol ships to deter immigrant-laden boats from mak­ing the perilous journey.

While Italy and Libya seem to have come to some sort of agree­ment, the fractured state of Libya and its government’s attempts to gain international assistance are complicating the issue.

“Libyan politics is toxic,” Jona­than M. Winer, former US special envoy for Libya and a fellow with the Middle East Institute in Wash­ington, said. “When [international actors] try to help they get drawn in. Libyan factions are manoeu­vring against one another and will reject what they agree on [with foreign partners] even though they need their help.”

Ever since the “Arab spring” up­rising led to NATO bombings in Libya and the overthrow of long-time autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, the country has been embroiled in political fracture and civil war.

“The most fundamental problem that has characterised the Libyan crisis since 2011 is absence of mo­nopoly of the control over the use of force,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 Université whose research focuses on Libya. “Said simply, you have thousands of armed groups across the country following their own agendas.”

The decentralisation of force and power has led to “protection econ­omies,” Harchaoui said, in which a migrant must pay a fee to pass through each militia’s territory. “Once you have that kind of illicit economy somewhere, it is very dif­ficult to get rid of it,” he said.

About 95,000 immigrants have landed on Italian shores so far this year, most having set sail from Libya. The new arrivals have be­come a major campaign issue for politicians in Italy facing elections in 2018. To dissuade more peo­ple from crossing the sea, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said his government would answer a request from Libyan Prime Min­ister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Italy’s parliament approved a plan involving six Italian na­val vessels coordinating with Libyan forces to counter human trafficking. The plan was scaled back, however, after popular pro­tests from Libyans who recall the Italian’s colonial history in their country.

Time magazine reported: “Liby­ans have reportedly been posting images of Omar al-Mukhtar, a na­tional hero who battled Italian rule in the early 1900s, on social media in response to the Italian presence — reflecting the widespread un­ease over a former colonial power intervening on domestic affairs.”

Other competing factions cast a shadow over the agreement. Lib­yan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army con­trols eastern Libya, purportedly ordered his forces to attack Ital­ian ships entering Libyan waters. Italian officials reportedly said the threats were unfounded and unre­liable.

Just days after he supposedly sent Italy a request for aid, “Sarraj denied that he had requested Ital­ian ships enter Libyan waters, say­ing that Libyan sovereignty was a red line that could not be crossed,” reported Stratfor, a US-based intel­ligence consultancy. “But later that same day, Sarraj and the Italian In­terior Minister Marco Minniti dis­cussed possible Italian assistance and managed to overcome domes­tic resistance in Libya.”

Sarraj is stuck in the middle, try­ing to please international actors who will provide Libya — and his government — with much-needed aid and legitimacy while trying to win over a divided populace. Re­ceiving foreign aid should go a long way towards providing services and gaining loyalty in Libya.

Justin Salhani is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Washington.

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