Italy in the Middle East

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The Italian presence in North Africa loomed large in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Modern Italian dreams of an empire along the southern rim of the Mediterranean long predated the achievement of Italian reunification. As early as 1838, Giuseppe Mazzini, the great theoretician of the Risorgimento, had argued that Tunisia, the key to the central Mediterranean, would have to belong to Italy. By 1861, with the first achievement of the Risorgimento of an independent Italian kingdom, some were already looking toward the recovery of former territory from the Roman Empire and for a Mediterranean role for the new nation. By the mid-1860s,
there were public expressions of concern over the danger of Italy being excluded from the region altogether by powers such as France and Great Britain.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the recovery of Papal Rome the following year spurred Italian mercantilist and classical dreams. On the one hand, they wished to benefit from the commercial advantages offered by empire, on the other, many Italians wished to re-create the greatness of classical Rome. The latter sentiment was particularly acute as far as Tunisia was concerned, where there were already 25,000 Italians in the Regency by 1881. Furthermore, Italian aspirations had been lulled into a false sense of security by a twenty-year-long treaty with the Beylik after 1868. The French annexation of Tunisia as a protectorate in 1881 came, therefore, as a very unpleasant surprise.

As a result, Italy rushed to join other European powers in trying to carve out a colonial empire in Africa during 1882, as part of the scramble for Africa. Italian troops landed at Assab, on the Red Sea coast, and in 1882 began the process of creating a colony in Eritreaan attempt that was to last fourteen yearsand of establishing its presence in Somalia. Italian attempts to occupy Ethiopia, however, were to be unsuccessful, culminating in the catastrophic Italian defeat at Adwa in 1896.

By the start of the twentieth century, however, Italian self-confidence had been restored and attention was being directed toward North Africa once again. The new wave of Italian colonial interest was signaled by the ItalianFrench agreement of December 1902, which recognized Italian interests in Libya. Peaceful penetration began thereafter, as Italian commercial houses and banks began to appear along the Libyan coast. In 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire in Libya and invaded the coastal regions.

A concerted intellectual and journalistic effort conducted in Italy persuaded public opinion that a colony in Libya would be a worthwhile endeavor: Not only would it re-create the dream of imperial Rome (frustrated by France's annexation of Tunisia in 1881) but it was believed that Libya was potentially very fertile. It was argued as well that Tripoli was still the crucial endpoint of trans-Saharan trade and, thus, a source of immense wealth. Such arguments were opposed by the socialists, who saw the national crusade for Libya as a diversion from the essential task of revivifying Italy itself.

In reality, however, there were immense pressures building up inside Italy for the development of settler colonies as demographic growth threw into stark relief the problems faced by poverty-stricken regions. Only Libya was left as a potential destination for Italy's excess population, apart from migration to the Americas. As a result, the illusory claims of journalists over the potential offered by Libya were reinforced by the hard realities of domestic economic crises.

The difficulties of establishing a firm grasp on Libya, after the 1911 invasion, were revealed by the two ItaloSanusi wars, and it was only in 1932 that the new colony was declared pacified. Italy soon discovered that Libya's agricultural potential was a myth, and the new colony turned out to be a constant drain on the metropole's resources. By 1942, 110,000 Italians resided in Libya, of whom 40,000 were involved directly in agriculture; the development of an infrastructure and of colonial settlement had cost the vast sum of 1.8 billion Italian lire, and Italy had little to show for its colonial experiment.

Nonetheless, Libya had been molded into the Fascist vision, which, during the 1930s, had in addition sought to avenge the defeat of Aduwa in Ethiopia. The definitive military pacification of Libya had occurred directly after the Fascists had come to power in Rome, in October 1922. Libya was also seen by the Fascist Party as an ideal testing ground for their ideas of racial development, where Libyans were to become Italian Muslims and Italy, under Mussolini, would become the protector of the Muslim world. All these ambitions were to be destroyed by Allied victory in Libya in 1943.

The one other major Fascist experience in Africa was to be the Italian attempt, once again, to conquer Ethiopia. Despite Italian military superiority, the conquest was never completed. It also led to Italy's ostracism by the League of Nations. Finally, the Italian presence there was ended during World War II by British troops, who restored the emperor, Haile Selassie Miriam, to his throne.

Italy's African experiences have, however, left some traces on the modern scene. In 1935, France offered concessions over Libya's southern international border as part of a complex attempt to satisfy Italian claims in Tunisia and in Niceas well as trying to prevent Italy from joining Nazi Germany as an ally. Although the proposal was never realized, it still remains to bedevil modern international relations, as a result of the competing claims between Libya and Chad to the Aozou Strip.

see also fourth shore, the; libya; turkishitalian war (19111912).


Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 18301932. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Nyrop, Richard F., et al., eds. Libya: A Country Study, 3d edition. Washington, DC: American University, 1979.

Wright, John. Libya. London: Benn; New York: Praeger, 1969.

Wright, John. Libya: A Modern History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Wright, John. "Libya: Italy's 'Promised Land.' " In Social and Economic Development of Libya, edited by E. G. H. Joffe and K. S. McLachlan. Wisbech, U.K.: Middle East and North African Studies Press, 1982.

george joffe