Cairo: A growing wrangle between Italy and France over proposed elections in conflict-torn Libya is underlined by the two European powers’ pursuit of their own interests in the oil-rich country, Libyan analysts have said.
In recent months, Paris and Rome have sparred over the possibility of holding parliamentary and presidential elections in Libya proposed for December. Earlier this month, Italian Ambassador to Tripoli, Giuseppe Beroni, triggered angry street protests in several Libyan towns after he was quoted in a press interview as saying that his country does not want elections in Libya at any cost.
Critics have accused the Italian diplomat of interfering in Libya’s affairs and of attempting to revive Italy’s colonial past in the North African country.
“The ambassador sought to provoke the Libyan people by stirring Italy’s colonial legacy in Libya,” said Amer Abu Dawya, a professor at the Tripoli University’s political science school.
He termed the Italian-French competitiveness as a “struggle over the Libyan cake”.
“This rivalry negatively affects the situation in Libya by deepening political polarisation in the country,” he told Gulf News.
Libya has slid into anarchy since the 2011 uprising, supported by the Nato, against Muammar Gaddafi.
The country is riveted between two competitive governments — one based in east Libya and the other in Tripoli. In recent months, troops loyal to chief of the Libyan army Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the government in the east, have expanded their territorial foothold in the country. The ongoing anarchy is blamed for mounting economic woes including a liquidity crunch and frequent electricity outages in the country of around six million people.
In May, Libyan rivals agreed at a meeting hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron to hold nationwide polls on December 10.
Last month, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Libya to push the Paris-backed deal.
However, doubts abound the vote will be held as scheduled due to political disagreements and logistical problems.
“It would be a catastrophe for Libya if the elections are conducted so quickly as Libyans are in no mood [to vote in an election] that perpetuates the whirlpool of chaos,” Abu Dawya said.
“Circumstances are not favourable for elections. Moreover, the Libyans’ experiences with elections since the Gaddafi’s ouster have been unpleasant as they have given rise to a class of politicians seeking to serve their own interests,” he added.
“Amid all this, the Western countries promote their agendas, with conflicting interests, while the US waits until the right moment in order to gain the upper hand in Libya.”
Over the past seven years, Libya has emerged as a hub for people smugglers and migrants seeking to illegally enter Europe, mainly Italy. Hundreds of undocumented people, mainly from Africa, have perished in perilous ship journeys across the Mediterranean.
Marzouq Al Saeed, a Libyan political researcher living in Cairo, argued that the Rome-Paris standoff over Libya can be traced to earlier years.
“In 2011, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy sent his forces to Libya immediately after the [UN] Security Council approved the use of force against loyalists of Gaddafi, who wanted to crush the uprising against his regime,” Al Saeed said. “Later, Nato unleashed its military campaign in support of the anti-Gaddafi revolt.”
Gaddafi was deposed and in October 2011 was killed in his hometown of Sirte.
“Italy did not feel pleased about Gaddafi’s fall because his absence harmed its political and economic interests in its former colony,” Al Saeed told Gulf News.
In his view, Italy’s bitterness deepened with France’s high-profile and unilateral moves on the Libyan conflict.
A day after the top French diplomat’s visit to Libya last month, Italy’s Defence Minister Elisbetta Trenta visited Tripoli and later said that an “acceleration of the electoral process” will not bring stability to the country.
“Rome struggles to preserve its interests in Libya, which is geographically closer to Italy.
Meanwhile, France under Macron’s leadership, regards Libya as a strategic tool in its Africa policy,” Al Saeed said.
The Libyan analyst said France projects itself as Europe’s most dynamic power and is keen to forge new political, economic and security partnerships in the world, including Africa.
“With their contradicting interests, rivalry between Italy and France is by no means a positive factor that would lead to any progress in the slow-paced political process in Libya. On the contrary, it feeds inter-Libyan divisions.”