As France-Italy Scramble Goes On, Bad Relations With Haftar Threaten To Blow Up Italy’s Conference On Libya

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini added fuel to a growing rivalry between France and Italy over Libya and lashed out again at French President Emmanuel Macron who has earlier called himself as Salvini’s sworn enemy.

“The enemy of French President is his country’s people,” Salvini shot back on Wednesday at a joint press conference with the Hungarian Prime Minister in Rome. He urged Macron not to give lessons to other governments, and stop destabilizing Libya for economic interests.

Italian minister has recently blamed France for the latest negative developments in Libya since former French President Nikolas Sarkozy played a crucial role in NATO intervention aimed at ousting Qaddafi’s regime in 2011.

“France under Macron is going to pursue the same course imposing the date for the elections in Libya without involvement of anyone else,” Salvini told the Italian newspaper “il Giornale”, adding that fixing December 10th as the voting date is dangerous and divided.

“However, French ministers can’t realize it as they still retain the arrogance of colonialists,” concluded the Italian minister.

Salvini’s sharp statement fits into Italy’s revanchist policy toward Libya. In July, Rome has explicitly defied the monopoly of France, which alone has been dominating the Libyan stabilization process, by declaring its intention to convene an international conference to stabilize Libya. The initiative seeks to bring together all Libyan stakeholders this fall in Rome after having gained US approval during Trump-Conte negotiations.

To make the anticipated conference happen, Italy needs to persuade the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar, who doesn’t intend to join the initiative. Much of Haftar’s rejection stems from his extremely firm stance in favor of Paris agreement that has been reached this May between the UN-backed GNA President Fayez Sarraj, High Council Of State chairman Khaled Al-Mishri, Tobruq-based Parliament’s chairman Aguila Saleh as well as Haftar himself.

Italy’s action plan for Libyan crisis is fundamentally different from Paris agreement which has the presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya by the end of the year as one of its key desirable outcomes. Italy believes that it would not be possible to hold the Libyan polls without reconciling of all warring parties.

For Italians, elections not only will not produce desired results, but will also exacerbate frictions within the Libyan heterogeneous society.

Seeking to promote his country’s counterpunch, Giuseppe Perrone, Italian ambassador to Libya, confirmed that “Italy does not want elections in Libya by any cost and price”, and stands ready even to resort to its international allies to prevent elections from happening. The ambassador’s interview that aired on a local TV channel resulted in an increase of tensions and criticism against Italy.

In turn, the Libyan people and authorities have accused Rome of interference in internal affairs and demanded Perrone to leave his seat. LNA Command and personally commander Khalifa Haftar, who had never had good relations with Italy, also considered Perrone’s statement as violation of Libya’s sovereignty.

Amid strong resistance in Libya, Italy has predictably stepped up contacts with Egypt, number one ally of Haftar and the eastern government. Italy fully expects Cairo, which also has no interest in the rise of France in Libya, to endorse the conference in Rome and help in rapprochement with Haftar by exploiting its strong impact on him.

On August 28th, Italian Vice Minister Luigi Di Maio hold a meeting  with the Egyptian President El-Sisi in Cairo, where he boosted the role of Egypt in the stabilization of Libya. “Italy will take Egypt into account while facing the Libyan deal, and now we prepare for the conference on Libya in Rome, attempting to reassemble all actors,” he said .

Italy, who has been so far dealing exclusively with the relatively loyal GNA, is finally beginning to realize how hard it is to find an equilibrium between the Libyans.

Nevertheless, Italians admitted that it is crucial to convince Khalifa Haftar “at all costs” to get involved in the conference. The legitimizing presence of the strongman Haftar, whose forces and affiliated locally-raised factions took over 80% of territory, may uphold their efforts in retaking the lead with the Libyan dossier.

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