Libya In The Great Game: The Road To A New Partition Of Africa

Manlio Dinucci

Benghazi captured, the rebels have lowered the green flag of the Republic of Libya, hoisting in its place the red, black and green banner with crescent and star: the flag of the monarchy of King Idris. The same flag was hoisted by protesters (including those of the Partito democratico and the Rifondazione comunista) on the gate of the Libyan embassy in Rome, raising the cry: “Here’s the flag of democratic Libya, that of King Idris”. It was a symbolic act, rich in history and burning current events.

The Emir of Cyrenaica

Already the emir of Cyrenaica and Tripoli, Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Senussi was put on the throne of Libya by the British when the country gained independence in 1951. It had been an Italian colony since 1911. Libya became a federal monarchy, in which King Idris was head of state, with the right to pass it on to his heirs. It was always the king who would appoint the prime minister, the Council of Ministers and half the members of the Senate, which had the right to dissolve the House of Representatives.

A young Benghazian carrying King Idris’s photo during the 2011 revolution. According to a twenty-year treaty of “friendship and alliance” with Britain, in 1953, King Idris granted to the British, in exchange for financial and military assistance, the use of air, naval and land bases in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. A similar agreement was concluded in 1954 with the United States, which obtained the use of the Wheelus Air Base just outside Tripoli. It became the main U.S. air base in the Mediterranean. In addition, the United States and Britain were able to use firing ranges in Libya for their military aviation. With Italy, King Idris in 1956 concluded an agreement which not only wiped Italy clear of all damages to Libya, but allowed the Italian community in Tripoli to maintain its assets practically intact.

Libya became even more important for the U.S. and Britain when, in the late 1950s, the U.S.-based company Esso (ExxonMobil) confirmed the existence of large oil fields and others were discovered soon after. The major companies, such as the U.S.’s Esso and Britain’s British Petroleum, got advantageous concessions that ensured their control and the bulk of the profit from Libya’s oil. The Italian company Eni also obtained two concessions, through Agip. To better control the deposits, the government’s federal form was abolished in 1963, eliminating the historical regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The protests of Libyan nationalists, who accused King Idris of selling out the country, were stifled by police repression. The rebellion grew, however, especially in the armed forces. It resulted in a coup – whose chief architect was Captain Muammar Gaddafi – carried out without bloodshed in 1969 by just 50 officers, calling themselves “Free Officers” on the Nasser model.

The monarchy abolished, the Libyan Arab Republic in 1970 forced the U.S. and British forces to evacuate their military bases and, the following year, nationalized the properties held by British Petroleum and forced other companies to pay the Libyan state a much higher share of the profits.

The propaganda of 1911

The flag of King Idris, which is flying again now in the civil war in Libya, is the banner of those who, by manipulating the struggle of those genuinely fighting for democracy against the regime of Gaddafi, plan to bring Libya back under control of the powers that once dominated it. Those forces, headed by the United States, are preparing to land in Libya under the cover of “peacekeeping.” Meanwhile, in concert with the Pentagon, the Italian Defense Minister Ignacio La Russa announced that from Sigonella military base [Sicily] military airplanes will fly directly to Libya for “purely humanitarian purposes.” The same “humanitarian intervention” that the pacifists and those who waved the flag of King Idris are demanding in an “urgent appeal,” but they forget history. They should remember that a century ago, in 1911, the Italian occupation of Libya, prepared by incessant propaganda, was supported by majority public opinion, while in the cabarets they sang, “Tripoli, sing land of love come sweetly where the syrup runs.” Times change and language, but the rhyme remains, “to the roar of guns.”

Fleeing Libya are not only families who fear for their lives and poor immigrants from other North African countries. There are tens of thousands of “refugees” who are being repatriated by their governments with ships and aircraft: they are mainly engineers and executives of major oil companies. Not only Eni, which realizes about 15 percent of its sales from Libya, but also other European multinationals — in particular: BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, BASF, Statoil, Rapsol. Hundreds of Gazprom employees were also forced to leave Libya and over 30 thousand Chinese oil company and construction workers. A symbolic image of how the Libyan economy is interconnected with global economy, dominated by multinationals.

Thanks to its rich reserves of oil and natural gas, Libya has a positive trade balance of $27 billion a year and a medium-high per capita income of $12,000, six times greater than that of Egypt. Despite strong differences in low and high incomes, the average standard of living of the population of Libya (just 6.5 million inhabitants in comparison to the nearly 85 million in Egypt) is therefore higher than that of Egypt and other North African countries. Witness the fact that nearly one million and a half immigrants, mostly from North Africa, work in Libya. Some 85 percent of Libyan energy exports go to Europe: Italy takes first place with 37 percent, followed by Germany, France and China. Italy is also in first place in imports to Libya, followed by China, Turkey and Germany.

This framework is now blown into the air as a result of what can be characterized not as a revolt of the impoverished masses, such as the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, but as a real civil war, due to a split in the ruling group. Whoever made the first move has exploited the discontent against Gadhafi’s clan, especially prevalent among the populations of Cyrenaica and young people in the cities, in a moment when entire North Africa has taken the road of rebellion. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, however, the Libyan uprising was preplanned and organized.

The reactions in the international arena are also symbolic. Beijing has said it is extremely concerned about developments in Libya and called for “a quick return to stability and normality.” The reason is clear: the Sino-Libyan trade has undergone strong growth (around 30 percent in 2010 alone), but now China can see that the whole structure of economic relations with Libya, from which it imports increasing quantities of oil, has been put in play. Moscow is in a similar position.

Diametrically opposite is the signal from Washington: President Barack Obama, who when confronted with the Egyptian crisis minimized the repression unleashed by Mubarak and called for a “orderly and peaceful transition,” has condemned in no uncertain terms the Libyan government and announced that the U.S. is preparing “the full range of options that we have available to respond to this crisis,
including “actions that we can undertake on our own and those that we can coordinate with our allies through multilateral institutions.” The message is clear: there is the possibility of a U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya, formally to stop the bloodshed. The real reasons are also clear: if Gadhafi is overthrown, the U.S. would be able to topple the entire framework of economic relations with Libya, opening the way to U.S.-based multinationals, so far almost entirely excluded from exploitation of energy reserves in Libya. The United States could thus control the tap for energy sources upon which Europe largely depends and which also supplies China.

These are the events in the great game of the division of African resources, for which a growing confrontation, especially between China and the United States, is taking place. The rising Asian power – with a presence in Africa of about 5 million managers, technicians and workers – building industries and infrastructure, in exchange for oil and other raw materials. The United States, which can not compete on this level, can use its leverage over the armed forces of the major African countries, who they train through the Africa Command (AFRICOM), their main instrument for penetration of the continent. NATO is now also entering in the game, as it is about to conclude a partnership military treaty with the African Union, which includes 53 countries.

The headquarters of the African Union-NATO partnership is already under construction in Addis Ababa: a modern structure, funded with 27 million Euros from Germany, baptized, “Building peace and security.”