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THE HISTORY OF THE ITALIAN COLONIES OF LIBYA

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any are not aware of the role that Italy was involved in with what is known today as Lybia? The Italian colonization of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was initially not successful and only in the 1930s did the Kingdom of Italy take full control of the area. On October 1911, the Italians attacked Tripoli, claiming to be liberating the Ottoman Wilayats from Constantinopole’s rule. Despite a major revolt by the Arabs, the Ottoman sultan ceded Libya to the Italians by signing the 1912 Treaty of Lausanne (not to be confused with a more famous treaty of the same name made in 1923). Tripoli was largely under Italian control by 1914, but both Cyrenaica and the Fezzan were home to rebellions led by the Senussi. On 25 October 1920, the Italian government recognized Sheikh Sidi Idris as the head of the nomadic Senussi, with wide authority in Kufra and other oases, as Emir of Cyrenaica, a new title extended by the British at the close of World War I. The emir would eventually become King of the free Libyan state. Several reorganizations of the colonial authority were made necessary, in the face of the armed Arab opposition, mainly in Cyrenaica, from 1919 to 1929; the Italian government maintained the two traditional provinces, with separate colonial administrations. A system of controlled local assemblies with limited local authority was set up, but it was revoked in March of 1927. In 1929, Tripoli and Cyrenaica were united as one colonial province, then in 1934, as Italy wanted to reach imperial power, the classical name “Libya” was revived as the official name of the colony. The newly created “Libya” was then split administratively into four provinces, Tripoli, Misurata, Bengasi, and Derna. The Italian governor Italo Balbo promoted the birth of the modern state of “Libya”, and until 1940 favored the integration of Italian emigrants to Libya with the Arab population. Italo Balbo  is considered by Italian historians as the “father” of modern Libya. Fighting intensified after the accession to power in Italy of the dictator Benito Mussolini. King 20 / Summer 2011

By Andrew Guzaldo

Idris fled to Egypt in 1922. From 1922 to 1928, Italian forces under General Badoglio waged a punitive pacification campaign. Badoglio’s successor in the field, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, accepted the commission from Mussolini on the condition that he was allowed to crush Libyan resistance unencumbered by the restraints of either Italian or international law. Mussolini reportedly agreed immediately and Graziani intensified the oppression. The Libyans continued to defend themselves, with the strongest voices of dissent coming from the Cyrenaica. Omar Mukhtar, a Senussi sheikh, became the leader of the uprising. After a much-disputed truce on 3 January 1928, the Italian policy in Libya reached the level of full-scale war. A barbed wire fence was built from the Mediterranean to the oasis of AlJaghbub to sever lines critical to the resistance. Soon afterwards, the colonial administration began the wholesale deportation of the people of the Jebel Akhdar to deny the rebels the support of the local population. The forced migration of more than 100,000 people ended in concentration camps in Suluq and Al-Agheila where tens of thousands died in squalid conditions. It is estimated (by Arab historians) that the number of Libyans who died - killed either through combat or mainly through starvation and disease - is at a minimum of 80,000 or even up to one third of the Cyrenaican population. Italian historian Gentile wrote that this amount is excessive, and only a few thousands died, mainly of disease and starvation. After Al-Mukhtar’s capture September 15, 1931 and his execution in Benghazi, the resistance petered out. Limited resistance to the Italian occupation crystallized round the person of Sheik Idris, the Emir of Cyrenaica. By 1934, Libya was fully pacified and the new Italian governor Italo Balbo started a policy of integration between the Arabs and the Italians, that proved fully successful. In March 1937 Mussolini made a state visit to Libya, where he opened a new military highway running the entire length of the colony (the Via Balbia). For propaganda reasons he had himself declared protector of Islam and was presented with a symbolic sword. Mussolini’s publicized encouragement of the Arabic nationalist movement suited his wider policies of confronting Britain and France. He also sought to fully colonise Libya, introducing 30,000 Italian settlers, which brought their numbers to more than 100,000. These settlers were shipped primarily to Sahel al-Jefara in Tripolitania and the Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica, and given land from which


the indigenous inhabitants had been forcibly removed during the colonial war in the 1920s. The 13th of September 1940, Mussolini’s highway was used for the invasion of Egypt by Italian forces stationed in Libya. Counterattacks of British Allied forces from Egypt, commanded by Wavell and their successful two-month campaign in (Tobruk, Bengasi, El Agheila), and the counteroffensives under Rommel in 1940-43, all took place during World War II. In November 1942, the Allied forces retook Cyrenaica; by February 1943, the last German and Italian soldiers were driven from Libya. In the early post-war period, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica remained under British administration, while theFrench controlled Fezzan. In 1944, Idris returned from exile in Cairo but declined to resume permanent residence in Cyrenaica until the removal in 1947 of some aspects of foreign control. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy, which hoped to maintain the colony of Tripolitania, (and France, which wanted the Fezzan), relinquished all claims to Libya. Libya so remained united. In July 1998, the Italian government offered a formal apology to Libya. In August 2008 the two nations signed a treaty of friendship in which US$5 billion in goods and services, including the construction of the Libyan portion of the Cairo-Tunis highway, would be given to Libya to end any remaining animosity. In Libya, the Italians in less than thirty years (1911-1940) built huge public works (roads, buildings, ports, etc..) and the Libyan economy flourished again at a level similar to the one enjoyed during the Roman empire. Italian farmers cultivated lands that had been lost to the desert for centuries. Even archaeology flourished (Leptis Magna was rediscovered as a symbol of the Italian rights to colonize the region). Libya was considered the new “America” for the Italian emigrants in the thirties. The Italians in Libya numbered 108,419 (12.37% of the total population) at the time of the 1939 census. They were concentrated in the coast around the city of Tripoli (they constituted 37% of the city’s population) and Bengasi (31%). In 1938, the governor Italo Balbo brought 20,000 Italian farmers to colonize Libya, and 26 new villages were founded for them, mainly in Cyrenaica. The 22,000 Libyan Jews were allowed to integrate without problems in the society of the Fourth Shore (but after summer 1941, with the arrival of the German Afrika Korps, they started to be moved to temporary internment camps in Libya under Nazi SS control). Mussolini wanted to assimilate even the Arabs of Libya (whom he called “Muslim Italians”) and so in 1939 were created 10 villages for Arabs and Berbers: “El Fager” , “Nahima” , “Azizia” “Nahiba” “Mansura” “Chadra” “Zahara” “Gedina” “Mamhura” , “El Beida” All those new villages had their mosque, school, social center (with sport installations and cinema) and little hospital. On January 9, 1939, the colony of Libya was incorporated into metropolitan Italy and thereafter considered an integral part of the Italian state. By 1939, the Italians had built 400 km of new railroads and 4,000 km of new roads (the most important and large was the one from Tripoli to Tobruk, on the coast) in Libya. The economy of the Libyan colony improved at the level that there were even internationally re-

nowned racecars (Tripoli Grand Prix). Most of these achievements were completed between 1934 and 1940 when Italo Balbo was governor of Libya. The next year started the war between Italy and Great Britain, until the North African campaigns of World War II left Libya in British and French hands. All the Italian projects disappeared after the Italian defeat: Libya in the late forties experienced the beginning of the worldwide process of decolonizing , that characterized the colonies of Europe in the fifties and sixties. Once pacification had been accomplished, fascist Italy endeavored to convert Libya into an Italian province to be referred to popularly as Italy’s Fourth Shore. In 1934 Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were divided into four provinces-Tripoli, Misratah, Benghazi, and Darnah--which were formally linked as a single colony known as Libya, thus officially resurrecting the name that Diocletian had applied nearly 1,500 years earlier. Fezzan, designated as South Tripolitania, remained a military territory. A governor general, called the first consul after 1937, was in overall direction of the colony, assisted by the General Consultative Council, on which Arabs were represented. Traditional tribal councils, formerly sanctioned by the Italian administration, were abolished, and the governor general thereafter appointed all local officials. Italians held administrative posts at all levels. An accord with Britain and Egypt obtained the transfer of a corner of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, known as the Sarra Triangle, to Italian control in 1934. The next year, a French-Italian agreement was negotiated that relocated the 1,000-kilometer border between Libya and Chad southward about 100 kilometers across the Aouzou Strip, but this territorial concession to Italy was never ratified by the French legislature. In 1939 Libya was incorporated into metropolitan Italy. During the 1930s, impressive strides were

made in improving the country’s economic and transportation infrastructure. Italy invested capital and technology in public works projects, extension and modernization of cities, highway and railroad construction, expanded port facilities, and irrigation, but these measures were introduced to benefit the Italian-controlled modern sector of the economy. Italian development policy after World War I had called for capital-intensive “economic colonization” intended to promote the maximum exploitation of the resources available. One of the initial Italian objectives in Libya, however, had been the relief of overpopulation and unemployment in Italy through emigration to the undeveloped colony. With security established, Mussolini’s government encouraged systematic “demographic colonization”. A project initiated by Libya’s governor, Italo Balbo, brought the first 20,000 settlers to Libya in a single convoy in October 1938. More settlers followed in 1939, and by 1940 there were approximately 110,000 Italians in Libya, constituting about 12 percent of the total population. Plans envisioned an Italian colony of 500,000 settlers by the 1960s. Libya’s best land was allocated to the settlers to be brought under productive cultivation, primarily in olive groves. Settlement was directed by a state corporation, the Libyan Colonization Society, which undertook land reclamation and the building of model villages and offered a grubstake and credit facilities to the settlers it had sponsored. The Italians made modern medical care available for the first time in Libya, improved sanitary conditions in the towns, and undertook to replenish the herds and flocks that had been depleted during the war. But, although Mussolini liked to refer to the Libyans as “Muslim Italians,” little more was accomplished that directly improved the living standards of the Arab population. Summer 2011 / 21


The Histroy of Italian Colonies in Libya