Exactly one hundred years ago (beginning on September 29, 1911, to be specific), the regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan—the constituent parts of modern-day Libya—were the scene of the so-called Italo-Turkish War. At first sight, comparing the 1911 war with the current conflict in Libya may seem unwarranted. It is almost too easy to enumerate key differences between the two wars, the main actors involved and the reaction of the Libyan population to foreign military intervention being the most striking ones. And the similarities seem a bit forced at first glance. There is, of course, the obvious but not particularly unusual fact that the military dynamics of both wars turned to stalemate within the space of a few months, a characteristic they share with thousands of other wars. A closer look, however, shows us certain less evident similarities the study of which might help us to analyze the current conflict. Under current circumstances, certainly, we should wish to avoid repeating old mistakes, even as governments stay busy making new ones.
The Scramble for North Africa
At the end of the 19th century, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan were the only territories in North Africa left unclaimed by a European power at a time when the scramble to scoop up what was left of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa was still ongoing. Neither France, master of Tunisia, Algeria and most of Morocco, nor Great Britain, ensconced in Egypt and the Sudan, had colonial ambitions in these provinces. It was Italy that, after the unification of the country in 1861, sought to consolidate its identity through colonial aspirations. Italy had acquired a special position in Somalia in 1888, and in the first decade of the 20th century it sought to dominate Libya as well.
Many factors shaped Italy’s special interest in that area. In the imperialist rhetoric of the time, the goal of colonial expansion was political more than economic. Italy aimed to strengthen its position as a great power in the Mediterranean. Indeed, after the Italian defeat at Adowa, Ethiopia, in 1896, Libya became Italy’s colonial “promised land”, a prize that, once secured, could return the country to its former greatness—even, in the addled imaginations of many Italians, to the grandeur of the Roman Empire itself. A foreign war, if an easily triumphal one, also promised to divert attention from internal class and political divisions in Italy, uniting the population in a spasm of nationalist pride.
The economic incentive, on the other hand, was not negligible. Italy needed cheap raw materials and markets. It also craved land, and Libya—sparsely populated, nearby and with both a pleasant climate and attractive coastal terrain—seemed ideal for settling landless and sharecropping Italian peasants. For Italian politicians, therefore, it was hard to find a downside to this particular colonial adventure.
In reality, Libya’s agricultural potential was poor, with most of its territory being useless desert. Italians had little reliable information about the Libyan interior. Even the Italian government, aware only of Libya’s coastal area, was close to clueless about facts on the ground. Nevertheless, in the early months of 1911, a government-induced press campaign in support of an invasion began, its purpose to predispose Italian public opinion in favor of intervention. Meanwhile, the Banco di Roma started a “peaceful penetration” of the country, expanding via newly established branches along the coast its control over the territory’s commerce, light industry, agriculture, shipping and trade. These Italian commercial ventures—as well as alleged, though in fact non-existent, Ottoman hostility to Italian economic activities—would form the casus belli in October 1911.
In order to realize its colonial ambitions, since the end of the 19th century Italy had pursued a policy of rapprochement with France that promised an Italian hands-off policy in Tunisia in return for reciprocal French non-interference in Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania. Similar diplomatic initiatives with Germany, Austria, Britain and Russia further prepared Italy’s Mediterranean colonial adventure. Having put its diplomatic house in order, on September 28, 1911 Italy was in position to present an ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire, openly declaring its intention to occupy Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
The Sublime Porte had first seized these areas from a rather loose Spanish dominance in the 16th century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans established their presence along the coastal areas but left the hinterland and Fezzan untouched. They granted a certain level of autonomy to the provinces in return for an annual tribute and formal allegiance to the Sultan. In a region characterized by geographical, political, economic and cultural separateness, this approach reinforced existing tribal divides. Indeed, vast deserts form natural land barriers that resulted in the early delineation of the three Libyan regions and helped maintain their historical isolation and diversity. Tripolitania’s cultural traditions and economy were oriented toward the Maghreb, with which it shared a common Roman history. Cyrenaica, on the contrary, as a result of Greek colonization, looked east to the Mashriq. Fezzan remained a semi-nomadic and barely self-sufficient society that interacted principally with sub-Saharan Africa, with the single exception of its interactions with the caravan trade.
The administrative style of the Ottomans allowed the flourishing of separate regions with more or less independent forms of government. In Tripolitania, the Qaramanli dynasty ruled from 1711 until 1835 when the Ottomans, fearful of French and British expansion into neighboring countries, tried to assert tighter military and political control. This only aroused resentment among the population. Meanwhile, Cyrenaica witnessed the rise of the Sanussiyya, a revivalist movement that sought to return Muslim practice to a pristine and scriptural form of Islam. The order created a rudimentary form of social, political and economic organization that provided social services through tax collection. It also maintained the peace, creating a sense of identification among Cyrenaican tribes still evident today.
Between 1835 and 1911, 33 consecutive Ottoman representatives ruled these territories. This high rate of turnover demonstrates the difficulty of finding officials willing to spend time and energy to manage areas that were not only difficult to govern in light of the prideful independence of the inhabitants but also of little economic importance to the empire. Indeed, the region’s economic significance, never very great, had in recent times become more marginal than ever. The abolition of slavery and the European penetration of Africa had disturbed the age-old trans-Saharan caravan routes connecting sub-Saharan Africa and various Mediterranean ports. The Ottomans did little to halt the deterioration of the trade routes, thereby provoking resentment among the local population. That resentment raised the potential cost of any Ottoman effort to defend its titular sovereignty over the areas, thus rendering the effort less likely. By 1908, an Italian occupation already seemed inevitable.
Even as it failed to do much to stem the area’s economic stasis, the Ottoman Empire over the last quarter of the 19th century had managed to create a semblance of geographical unity among Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan through embryonic military and bureaucratic structures. Moreover, the Turks reorganized the administration, bolstered education rates and instituted reforms designed to transform agriculture and pastoral activities from subsistence into revenue-generating businesses. Taken together, these activities caused an important socio-economic transformation, but they fell short of creating the basis of a modern polity. The Porte failed to create a common national-ethnic identity beyond the mantle of Islam. Consequently, tribal and local forms of social identity dominated the political landscape at the outbreak of the 1911 military intervention. Furthermore, by allowing the Sanussiyya to act in a semi-autonomous fashion, the Ottomans created a regional focus of leadership in Cyrenaica that proved important for the country’s future during the colonial period and at independence. All these developments shaped the fight against the Italian encroachment.
The Ottoman response to the Italian ultimatum was conciliatory. Did Istanbul object to Italian commercial activities in Libya? Not at all. The Turks were willing to let the Italians take control of Libya without war on the condition that they acknowledged formal Ottoman sovereignty, along the same lines as the British position in Egypt since 1882. None of this changed the mind of the Italian government, which declared war on the Sublime Porte on September 29. On October 3, an Italian seaborne invasion occupied Tripoli, Benghazi, Darna, Homs and Tubruq. Small but determined Ottoman garrisons (around 8,000 troops in total), aided by groups of local residents who still considered the Sultan to be the “commander of the faithful”, met the Italian troops. Withal, the Italian landing was initially successful, and soon thereafter the Italian navy destroyed a significant portion of the Ottoman navy off the coast of Beirut without absorbing a single Turkish hit.
That same month, however, Arab revolts in Tripolitania signalled the beginning of the Libyan resistance against the Italian occupation, which went on without interruption until 1931, even though the war technically ended in October 1912. The Italians responded to the popular uprising with harsh repression. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti ordered the rebels who had not been executed to be deported to the Tremiti Islands and other Italian penal colonies. Between 1911 and 1912, the deportations reached between 3,000 and 5,000 people, including old women and children, who were forced to live in very poor conditions. At one point the Italian military used airplanes and dirigibles to drop bombs on Turkish troops and Libyan villages, the first instance of aerial bombardment in history.
The resistance to the Italian occupation was local, pan-Islamic and Ottoman, though not always at the same time and in the same places. In Tripolitania, the opposition reinforced cooperation between locals and the Ottoman leadership, which, acting as a unifying factor, temporarily occluded antagonisms among the different tribes. As many administrative positions held by the Ottomans were transferred to local notables, traditional elites increased their power, albeit within well-marked local and tribal limits. Despite Fezzan’s not being occupied yet, volunteers from the region joined the struggle. In Cyrenaica, the Ottomans shared command of the resistance with the Sanussiyya movement.
The Libyan opposition to the Italian invasion was arguably the first resistance movement inspired by pan-Islamism. It brought together Muslims from Tunisia and Egypt and garnered strong solidarity among Muslims in India, Afghanistan, Indonesia and beyond. In this respect, the role of the burgeoning Arab press was particularly important; it openly spoke out against the invasion and called on Muslims to aid the Libyan resistance.
At the same time, Young Turk officers, intent since 1908 on revitalizing the Ottoman Empire, saw the defense of Libyan territories as a moral obligation and a political necessity. They dispatched money, arms and supplies to Libya through Egypt and Tunisia, encouraging Ottoman officers to converge on Libya to repulse the Italian invaders. By the end of 1911, a pan-Islamic secret intelligence unit, known as the Special Organization, had arrived from Istanbul, its mission to defeat both the European encroachment and local separatist movements. In taking command of the early military resistance, the Special Organization bolstered Libyan loyalty to pan-Islamic and Ottomanist ideologies. This was why Libyan resistance forces continued to oppose Italian rule even after the war’s formal end in October 1912. In this phase of the conflict, a young officer named Captain Mustafa Kemal—the future “Father of All Turks”, Atatürk—organized a small group of Turkish soldiers and Libyan volunteers. He was later assigned to the Dernah war quarters, where he distinguished himself militarily.
Meanwhile, as resistance against the Italians intensified, Rome formally annexed Cyrenaica and Tripolitania to Italy on February 12, 1912.This was an empty gesture, however, for the Italians held little more than enclaves along the Libyan coast. By the spring of 1912 the war had reached an impasse. Although the Italian contingent in Libya constituted a fifth of all Italian forces, the difficult terrain and Italy’s military inexperience brought the campaign to a standstill.
The Treaty of Ouchy (also referred to as the first Treaty of Lausanne), ratified on October 17, 1912, between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, left the situation ambiguous. On the one hand, the Sublime Porte did not relinquish sovereignty over Tripoli, although it agreed to withdraw military and civilian personnel. At the same time, Italy agreed to turn Rhodes and 12 small Aegean islands back to the Turks. The Sultan issued a declaration that granted full and complete autonomy to his Libyan subjects but reserved the right to appoint agents charged with protecting Ottoman interests in Libya, subject to Italian review. Italy based its own claims to sovereignty over the provinces on Italian law, hoping that other European powers would be impressed, even if the Ottomans and the locals were not. As a result, the Italian annexation of Libya was recognized in international law only after the peace settlement between the Allies and Republic of Turkey in 1924. In the meantime, Italy guaranteed that it would respect Muslim practices and offered amnesty to anyone involved in the fighting. Following the treaty, all surviving deportees to Tremiti and elsewhere were repatriated to Libya.
The treaty did not stop Italian military operations in Libya, which lasted until 1915. But any further successes were Pyrrhic, for by that time the overall Italian position in Libya had deteriorated. The strong resistance of local native forces limited Italy to the coastal cities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and the outbreak of the World War in 1914 forced Italy to significantly divert troops to Europe. With the secret 1915 Pact of London (a.k.a. Sykes-Picot), Italy was promised sovereignty over Libya and so decided to wait until after the war to further invest resources there. Indeed, only under Italian fascism in the 1920s were the resources to finally conquer the country brought more or less successfully to bear.1 This was somewhat ironic in light of the fact that in 1911 Benito Mussolini, then a leftist socialist, expressed strong opposition to the Libyan invasion.
In the end, Italy needed more than two decades to subdue Libya, and the cost of doing so in terms of both men and materiel far exceeded the most pessimistic initial expectations. About 8,000 Italian soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing out of a total force of about 150,000. The population of Libya suffered even more. Italian colonial policies, which included scorched-earth tactics, concentration camps, deliberate starvation and mass executions, bordered on genocide. But it was the experience of resistance that finally created the preconditions of a modern Libyan national identity. The opposition to Italian occupation provided national rites of passage, complete with heroes and martyrs. Out of a prolonged anti-colonialist struggle waged against heavy odds came Libya as a conscious collective entity.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of the war involved neither Italy nor Libya. Most historians of this period cite the Italo-Ottoman War of 1911 as the fuse that lit the Balkans aflame. The Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans were deeply impressed by the weakness of the Turks made plain during the Italian campaign. We all know what happened next.
That War, This War
Despite the brutality of the 1911 war and occupation, Italy’s engagement with its former colony continued throughout the 20th century, even after Libya’s independence as a Sannusi kingdom in 1951 and the brutal expulsion of the Italian community after the September 1,1969 revolution. Despite the hostile rhetoric of the Qaddafi regime, the business relationship between the two countries has always been positive and intense. It peaked in 2008 with the signing of a multifaceted Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation, an agreement that entered into force in 2009. Indeed, under the Berlusconi government cooperation between the two countries achieved an unprecedented level, not least in energy-related areas, and much to the benefit of the Italian state oil company Eni. This rendered the marginal role that Italy played in the events of February and March 2011 something of a curiosity.
At the outbreak of the revolts in Libya in February, Italy, realizing that moving against Qaddafi might jeopardize its economic interests, decided not to take a side. The contracts for infrastructure development projects awarded to Italy after the signing of the 2008 Treaty, supposedly in exchange for recognition of its brutal colonial past, were a boon to Italian enterprises—not to mention the fact that Italy already imported 25 percent of its oil and 10 percent of its gas from Libya. All this and much more could be endangered by a war, a violent revolt or a civil war, as indeed happened.
Therefore, Italy mimicked the Western powers’ rhetoric and decisions only later on, after the nature of the regime’s repression of the protesters became indefensible and pressures to align policy with the European Union and the United States became unbearable. The same logic pertained to Rome’s decision to recognize the Transitional National Council of Benghazi, which it did, again, only after France, the United Kingdom and others had moved in that direction. The Berlusconi government followed the rest of the West with a heavy heart, for its choices leave Italian diplomacy and business little wiggle room and no special advantages in the post-Qaddafi era (assuming there is one). Perhaps that is also why Italy moved first to suggest a negotiated end to the war that might leave Qaddafi in place, in hopes of rescuing some of its advantages in Libya.
France and the United Kingdom would have none of that. If in the 1911 war these two countries decided to leave the field clear for Italy, in the current war France is the most active player both diplomatically and militarily, followed by Britain. Only a week after the revolts broke out in Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Qaddafi to leave the country, declaring as unacceptable the violence against the Libyan people and urging the International Criminal Court to indict Qaddafi for crimes against humanity, which it eventually did. The Franco-British entente was fundamental to gaining the support of the United States and pushing through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention. All this French diplomatic activity essentially blocked any possible Italian defense of its interests. Whatever really motivated the French—whether it was commercial considerations or the French elite’s embarrassment over the government’s underplaying the initial revolt in Tunisia—it will be interesting to see if they attempt to insert their national oil company, Total, into Libya at Eni’s expense.
As to the Libyan’s reaction, in 1911 the Libyans unanimously opposed the colonial invasion, although the resistance was divided along regional lines, with the tribes of Tripolitania fighting independently from those of Cyrenaica. In 2011, in contrast, the population of Cyrenaica coalesced around the Transitional National Council and asked the Western powers to intervene in the air, if not also on the ground, against the recognized government, thus transforming the revolt against Qaddafi into a civil war with an international dimension. While the Italian invasion of 1911 tended to unify Libyans, the Western military intervention of 2011 has tended to sharpen divisions among them.
As to similarities, there is the aforementioned fact that both wars became stalemates that made fools of many overly optimistic statesmen. It took two decades for Italy to establish firm control over the country; one can only hope that the resolution of the current stalemate will not take so long. But we don’t know that. “Days, not weeks” has already turned into months. Who can say that it will not also turn into years?
A deeper analysis reveals other important, if somewhat unpleasant, commonalities between the two wars. First, military intervention in both cases would not have been possible without the consent of the international community. In 1911, Libya was the object of the “scramble for Africa” among European powers involved in imperialist enterprises. In the 21st century, natural resources and contracts for industrial and infrastructure development projects were at stake, suggesting that the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention may in time be shown to have been a pretext for the pursuit of neo-colonial economic interests.
Additionally, it is likely that neither intervention would have been possible had the Libyan population been united. In both wars, regional and tribal divisions proved a fertile ground for Western manipulation. In 1911, Cyrenaica was already a regional focus of leadership, limiting common action against the Italian invader. Today, the leaders of Cyrenaica, along with ex-members of the regime, form the nucleus around which the rebellion against Qaddafi has coalesced.
With these two aspects in mind, one might wonder whether the 2011 war will spawn similar consequences as that of 1911. Will weakness and disarray in NATO tempt others, as Balkan peoples were tempted after 1911? In any event, the Italian occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century had a disastrous effect on the country and its people, despite its having also been the painful spark that eventually united the country. The stalemate in 2011 may cause a de facto division of Libya. In short, it may undo the sole benefit of the 1911 war from the Libyan point of view. Thus, unless the international community finds a way to mediate the conflict with the aim of re-unifying the country and hopefully also guaranteeing Libya a stable democratic future, then a common consequence of both wars will be that the Libyan people end up the biggest losers.