A poster from the Fascist era advertising the Tripoli Grand Prix in Italian Libya on March 7, 1933 -Year eleven of the Fascist dictatorship. Cost of a ticket? Lira 12
Muammar Gaddafi is dead since 2011 and Libya has been in chaos ever since. Oil companies were licking their chops in anticipation eager to get their hands on Libyan contracts and concessions – except that the “government” is powerless against armed militia groups now in control of regions of the country, including the oil refineries and ports. We gave them the guns and now no one seems to be able to take them away.
Gadaffi had been in power so long no one under age 60 remembers a Libya without him. He ruled for 42 years and now those now holding the guns do not know how to build new institutions to replace him; nor do they seem to care.
Before Libya, we destroyed Iraq and supported regime change in Syria. By our deeds we created ISIS. Both countries are in ruins.
The worst refugee problem since World War II engulfed Europe. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans flooded onto Greek islands after making their way through Turkey landing in rickety boats. After Greece they head north, leaving the euro-zone through Macedonia and Hungary, heading for Germany or elsewhere.
In Southern Italy, tens of thousands of Eritreans and Libyans have landed crossing from Libya, seeking asylum. Some have stayed but most head north – or try to.
But once upon a time it was the colonialists who lived in and ruled these countries. France ruled Syria and Lebanon. The British reigned in Iraq and Palestine.
And Italy was the colonialpower in Eritrea and Libya. Tens of thousands of Italians lived there. I know. I saw them. I was there.
In 1960 there were still 30,000 Italians in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. Asmara was built by the Fascists; it remains one of the most Italian cities in Africa. Unfortunately, today it’s government is also one of the most oppressive on the planet.
A bit of history is in order.
Libya is one of those “nations” put together by colonialists – it was essentially a Fascist creation. Previous to being “Libya” it was three regions now comprising Libya – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzan. Each region was dominated by its local Berber or Arab tribes and all were ruled on and off, more or less by the Ottomans from 1551 to 1911.
In 1911 Italian forces invaded Cyrenaica and after a two year war with the Turks annexed the region. While the Ottomans ceded the region to Italy via the Treaty of Lausanne, fierce resistance to Italian occupation continued from the Senussi political-religious order, a strongly nationalistic group of Sunni Muslims.
Under the leadership of Omar al-Mukhtar and centered in the mountains of Cyrenaica the group lead the resistance to Italian settlement of Libya. Generals Pietro Badoglio and Rodolfo Graziani waged campaigns of pacification which turned into punitive bloody reprisals and atrocities. Resistance leaders were executed or fled into exile and more than 100,000 Cyrenaicans wound up in Italian concentration camps. Mukhtar was captured and hanged in 1931.
Mukhtar in captivity before his execution.
Fascist Italy then merged the three regions and annexed them as Africa Senttentrionale Italiana, or ASI.
In the aftermath of the violence, Mussolini attempted to improve the image of his government to Libyan Arabs and pursued policies designed to win the trust of Arab leaders there. He and Governor Italo Balbo were successful to the extent that in 1940 nearly 30,000 Libyan Arabs and Berbers joined the Italian Army and fought bravely in North Africa against the British.
Italo Balbo – Fascist Governor of Italian Libya and was considered Mussolini’s heir apparent. Early in World War II, he was accidentally killed by friendly fire when his plane was shot down over Tobruk by Italian anti-aircraft guns who misidentified his plane.
In December 1934, individual freedom, inviolability of home and property, the right to join the military or civil administrations, and the right to freely pursue a career or employment were guaranteed to the Libyans. In 1939 laws were passed allowing Muslims to join the Fascist Party and in particular the Muslim Association of the Lictor; the 1939 reforms also allowed the formation of Libyan units in the Italian Army.
Many Italians moved to Libya during the fascist era and colonized the coastal areas. In 1940 the Libyan Italians were nearly 110,000, or 12% of the total population of Libya. They were concentrated on the Mediterranean coast around the cities of Tripoli (constituting 37% of the city’s population) and Bengazhi (31% of the city’s population). In 1938, Governor Italo Balbo brought 20,000 Italian farmers to colonize Libya, and 26 new villages were founded for them, mainly in Cyrenaica.
After Italy’s surrender, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were under British control with Fazzan controlled by the French. In December 1951 Libya declared its independence as The United Kingdom of Libya, a sovereign state in accordance with a U. N. Resolution.
It was set up as a Constitutional Monarchy, with its first and only King, Idris, the leader of the Senussi order of Sunni Muslims and Emir of Cyrenaica.
Following independence Libya faced a monumental problems. There were no colleges in the country. Also the country had just three lawyers with not a single Libyan physician, engineer or pharmacist in the kingdom. It was also estimated that only 250,000 Libyans were literate and that up to 5% of the population was blind, with eye diseases such as trachoma widespread. In light of these Britain provided a host of the of civil servants to staff the government.
In April 1955, oil exploration started in the kingdom with its first oil fields being discovered in 1959, transforming the Libyan economy. Although oil drastically improved Libya’s finances, popular resentment grew as wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. What’s new?
Idris ruled until 1969 when he was overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi while he was in Turkey receiving medical treatment. Idris went into exile in Cairo and died at 70 years of age. Idris had been a close ally of Britain and the United States and the rise of Nasserism in Egypt, Pan-Arabism and the British attack on Egypt after the Suez Canal crisis greatly weakened his position.
Most Italians left Libya after it declared its independence and the remaining 20,000 were ordered to leave Libya as one of Khadafi’s first acts on taking power.
A young Benghazian carrying a photo of the King after the death of Gadaffi.
While the Italians left Libya, not so Eritrea. Eritrea was not independent; it was under the U.N. mandate given to Ethiopia. It would take a vicious war for an independent Eritrea.
Eritrea had been an Italian colony since the late 19th century; many Eritreans spoke Italian. During this past decade they fled in droves from a vile oppression seeking a better life in Europe.
Caserma Mussolini – the Fascist party headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea. Now a bank.
I spent several years in Eritrea in my early 20s, traveling to Ethiopia as well. In the ’60s some 30,000 Italians still lived in Asmara running shops, cafes, movie theaters, gas stations, clubs, growing coffee while sending their children to Rome for an education.
Here as in Italy you could eat all the pizza, pasta and ice cream you could possibly desire, along with goat stew . Pavement cafes offer cappuccino and espresso from vintage Italian coffee machines along with sweet Arabic mint tea and refreshing Asmara beer.
The Cathedral Snack Bar where I sat an drank many a coffee watching passsegiata.
At sunset, the city would set out on a passegiatta, old men in double-breasted suits doffing their borsolinos as they strolled along wide pavements under royal palms along with young men and women, seeing and being seen. Everyone spoke some Italian in twhat was then an utterly convincing Italian city. Few Italians are left there now though the city remains a monument to fascist modernistic architecture.
Tens of thousands of Libyans and Eritreans have fled across the sea to Italy. Members of the Northern League want to turn them away. The Italian Navy rescues them at sea. Italy has asked for help from the rest of Europe. Fat chance
Once it was the Italians leaving for a better life in the colonies.
Now it is those we colonized who are coming home to roost.