Libyan protesters are facing one of the most violent repressions that the wave of Arab revolts have witnessed to date. Yesterday reports of Libyan aircraft and Apache helicopters bombing and shooting the protesters started to circulate. This was just after Gaddafi’s son proclaimed to the world that Libya was not witnessing a revolt against one of the most oppressive and inhuman regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, but rather a civil war. In reality this is a regime that has declared, as many other times before, war on its own population. The question that we may ask, however, is why Gaddafi has preferred the bloodbath to an easy, and wealthy, exit. Many were the options open to him before he started the massacre. Now, of course, few are left. Is Gaddafi just defending his own interests? Is there something more than just a struggle to maintain power?
To understand this we have to move our attention from Libya to a European country: Italy, the gate to Europe for thousands of illegal migrants from Africa and in particular Libya. The Italian coasts have in recent years seen an increasing number of desperate people risking their life to cross the Mediterranean, often with the help of Mafia. Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses – and one of the most cruel. If Italy is the usual arrival gate, Libya is often the gate of departure and the main hub of the exploitation of millions of young African hopes. Most of the previous Italian governments avoided any agreements and treaties with Gaddafi’s regime because of human rights concerns and the mistreatment of refugees and migrants.
The Berlusconi government, and in particular its main ally, the xenophobic Lega Nord, have changed approach and decided to create a partnership with the dictator, whom now appears to be a good friend of the ‘Cavaliere’. In spring 2008, Berlusconi visited Gaddafi in Benghazi where they signed a “treaty of friendship, partnership and cooperation” in which Italy agreed to pay 5 billion Euro in compensation for damage caused during Italy’s colonial rule in Libya. The treaty was then ratified in Rome in an extravagant state visit, which many Italians found repugnant because of Gaddafi’s lack of respect for Italian institutions and the dictator’s behavior. Berlusconi seemed ready to accept anything as long as Libya was ready to collaborate to stop the flux of immigrants, many of whom were (and are) real refugees.
Italy soon ended at the center of polemics, reports and criticism for how the refugees and immigrants, used and exploited by the Italian Mafia working on both sides of the Mediterranean, were handled and brought back to Libya where they face inhuman treatment, including having their boats shot at with new weapons provided by Italy, being left to drown in the sea without help, and being interred in detention camps in the middle of the desert. Many of these people disappeared, died in the desert, or were tortured in one way or another, and all of this occurred with the green light of Berlusconi’s government.
Yet while Gaddafi on the one hand promised to Berlusconi to stop the migrants, on the other he facilitated the departure of immigrants towards Italy. He used the immigrants and refugees and European as well as Italian fears as the most powerful blackmail for his businesses within Europe and in particular Italy. He literally sold the lives of the poorest for his and Berlusconi’s interests.
Which interests? Mutual financial interests with his friend Berlusconi and the Italian financial world, including the giant ENI, the Italian oil and gas company-with a history of mysteries and intrigues. It may be interesting to list the main financial and business agreements:
ENI has extensive operations in Libya, including long-term take-or-pay contracts. The company intended to invest $25 billion in Libya. Gaddafi has also expressed its interest in buying a stake in ENI, but has not specified how much it holds. Impreglio, the biggest builder in Italy has pre-qualified for a Libyan motorway project financed by Rome that is worth as much as 5 billion Euro. Also this company may have been targeted by Gaddafi for his investments.
Finmeccanica, the Italian aerospace and defense company has also won Libyan contracts, including a 247 million Euro rail contract last year, and has said it is eyeing more orders from the North African state. Unsurprisingly, this time the Libyan Investment Authority also holds a 2.01 percent stake in the company.
But perhaps the most important is Unicredit, a bank increasingly under the control of Lega Nord. Libya’s stake in banking group UniCredit stands at a total 7.5 percent after the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) acquired a 2.59 percent stake in Italy’s biggest lender.
Do I need to provide more evidence of the strong link between Berlusconi’s government and Gaddafi’s interests? Italy is the main gate for Gaddafi’s family to reach even more markets in Europe. The potential result of the revolt is clear: economic damage and the risk of a great increase in migrants, first for Italy and then for all Europe. For Italy (the former colonizer and still very much a consumer of Libyan resources) and the rest of Europe, the revolt for regime change and a possible democracy is in many respects a nightmare. Hence Gaddafi can expect all the needed support – not only material and moral, but also possibly strategic. More will be known about this if the protesters succeed.
It is clear that the Libyans are not just facing the brutality of Gaddafi’s regime but also the mega interests of Italian (and other European) corporations which need the revolt to fail. Hence the attempt to show that Gaddafi is open to ‘reforms’ or the downplay of the human cost and tragedy of this revolt. It is also likely that the “Islamist threat” card will be played very soon to try to discredit the revolt, or otherwise we may perhaps see a direct ‘humanitarian’ intervention by Italy. The struggle for freedom for the Libyans will be more difficult than it was for the Egyptians, and more blood will be spilled, but the risk of failure is great. Italy and much of Europe, indeed, have not given the green light to change that the US did in Egypt. The reason: the US controls the high ranking Egyptian military officers, while Europe can only ever hope to control the old bloodthirsty Colonel and his family.