Italy and Libya move to re-establish old friendship

The events of the Arab Spring disrupted Italy's centuries-old relationship with Libya, its neighbour across the Mediterranean, but - now the dust has settled - both sides are keen to restore a spirit of co-operation.

The links between Italy and its former North African territory go back not only to the brief 36 years of colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th Century, but to a much remoter past - nearly two millennia ago, to be exact.

In the Italian capital Rome, the triumphal arch erected by Septimius Severus - the first African-born Roman emperor (he was born in Libya and died in York in England during a military expedition to Britain) - still dominates the ruins of the Roman Forum.

Libya, which in antiquity was a much more fertile, less desertic land than today, used to be Rome's bread basket.

When Mario Monti, Italy's new technocrat prime minister, spent a day in Tripoli last month attempting to sort out future relations with Libya's new transitional government, he presented the Libyans with an ancient marble bust of Domitilla, the wife of yet another Roman emperor, Vespasian.

The bust was dug up somewhere along the North African coast by Italian archaeologists and stolen from a Libyan museum in 1990.

The sculpture turned up recently at an art auction in London, was recognised by a vigilant policeman specialising in art theft, and has now been returned to its rightful owners as a kind of pledge that the Italians want good relations with the new Libya.

Classical archaeology was used as a propaganda weapon by the Italians when they first occupied Cyrenaica and Tripolitania at the beginning of the 20th Century, and this continued after Libya became their colony during fascist rule.

Mussolini wanted to reoccupy the North African lands which for centuries had formed the southern boundary of the Roman Empire.

The first systematic excavations at the site of Septimius Severus' birthplace, Leptis Magna, took place during those years.

The vast honey-coloured-stone remains of Leptis on the Mediterranean shore - visited only by handfuls of official guests during the Gaddafi years - are one of the wonders of the Mediterranean.

Coloured marble columns from Leptis were stolen by a French consul to the Ottoman rulers of Tripoli during the reign of Louis XIV and reused in the construction of his palace at Versailles.

But of course Italy's main interest today is not in helping the Libyans protect their archaeological heritage and treasures. It is about trade, and about oil and natural gas.

Before the Benghazi uprising last year, Italy had a cosy commercial relationship with Colonel Gaddafi.

ENI, Italy's state owned oil company, enjoyed valuable long-term oil concessions, both in the Sahara desert and - for the future - offshore, and 25% of Italy's oil and gas needs were supplied by the former colony.

A treaty of "eternal friendship" had been signed between Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi in 2008.

The Italians publicly apologised for their misdeeds of an earlier era when tens of thousands of Libyans (no-one knows exactly how many) died in concentration camps or were massacred by Italian troops during land grabs in North Africa.

The core of the treaty was an Italian promise to build and pay for a new highway across the Libyan desert, all the way from Tunisia to Egypt.

All this fell apart during Libya's Arab Spring.

The friendship treaty became a dead letter after Nato's bombing raids flew out of Italian military airfields. Italy's embassy in Tripoli was burned and trashed by Gaddafi mobs.

Now, very slowly and tentatively, relations are being restored.

"Paternalism is not the order of the day," a senior Italian diplomat told me. The Monti government has held out a hand of friendship offering assistance in many fields including the training of Libya's future security and police forces.

A hundred Italian military trainers will leave shortly for Tripoli and, in addition, 250 Libyan soldiers will be trained in Italy in border-control duties.

During Mr Monti's recent brief stay in Tripoli, the transitional government made it clear they had many needs.

They lack helicopter pilots, and Italy's civil aviation department is already training Libyan air traffic controllers. There is no proper fire-fighting service, and the coastguard search-and-rescue service needs reorganising.

The Libyans have also asked the Italians for help in reforming their legal system. Over 1,000 war-wounded are to be treated in Italian hospitals.

Fifteen vehicles have been shipped to Tripoli to patrol the pipelines bringing Libyan oil from the desert wells to the coast for shipment. A big Italian trade delegation is to visit Tripoli soon.

But the watchword is "slowly, slowly".

The bombastic public diplomacy led by Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi - when the Libyan leader pitched his tent in a Rome park and Gaddafi brought over some prize Arab steeds for an equestrian display and asked a local escort service to arrange for him to meet groups of young Italian women - is over.

Italian diplomats realise they have to act tactfully and avoid pressuring the new leadership in Tripoli.

The interesting thing is that they tend to communicate in English, not in Italian.

Although many Libyans have a knowledge of the language that they have picked up from watching Italian television or listening to Italian radio, English is the foreign language of the future in the new Libya.

(Source: BBC News)

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