The Italian occupation of Libya is an often-overlooked period of time in the history of Africa colonization by western powers. The Italians were as brutal as any other nation in their nation during their reign and justified it with orientalist rhetoric. Historically, Libya has always been a part of another empire. The Greeks were the first to conquer the trading posts of Libya, followed by the Romans, than the Islamic Empire under the Umayyad caliphate. In the mid-16th century the area we know today as Libya was taken by the Ottoman Empire who held it until 1911.
The Italian interest in Libya begins in 1878, following the Congress of Berlin. The Congress of Berlin was held following the Russo-Turkish War in the same year. At this period in history, the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating and the European powers were deciding how they were going to divide it. The Italians were late on the colonization of Africa and were looking forward to the economic opportunity. The Ottoman Empire began propaganda to try to convince their population that they should go to war with the Ottoman Empire and take Libya.
An example of the propaganda can be found in a speech by Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli. He would argue that “Libyans are creatures who sequester for themselves and leave uncultivated land that is necessary to all mankind,” implying that the Libyans were not as human as the Italians and they are wasting the land. He would also use the excuse of his Italy being the successor of the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire controlled Libya. He would mention the economic opportunity in Libya saying the land had become desert because of “inertia of the nomadic and slothful population. Emigrants would soon turn the colony into “a continuation of their native land (Segre, 21-23). ” In September of 1911 Italy invaded Libya. At the time Libya was divided in three territories, Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica. Italy began with Tripolitania and Fezzan, which were taken easily. They were met with much resistance in Cyrenaica. In Cyrenaica, Omar Mukhtar organized the revolt against the colonizers that lasted 20 years and prevented full-scale colonization of Libya. Mukhtar used the desert and mountains to his advantage, the Italians were not used to this environment (Santarelli).
With guerilla tactics, he would attack the Italian forces than disappear back into the desert. The initial Italian surge of 20,000 troops did not suffice, an additional 100,000 were sent into Libya. By this time the Ottoman Empire was able to organize 20,000 Arabs and 8,000 Turks. However, in 1912 Montenegro would declare war on the Ottoman Empire, forcing them to focus their forces elsewhere. They would sign a peace treaty with the Italians, giving them Libya in exchange for islands in the Aegean Sea.
Although the Turks were out of the fight, there was still Arab resistance in Cyrenaica. To combat this, Italians would take the population of people living in the region and send them all to concentration camps. As a result the resistors of colonization would lose their support. In 1931 Omar Mukhtar was captured and was tried and executed in three days (Santarelli). This allowed to Italians to finally begin their plans for full-scale colonization in Libya. Italy’s full control of Libya was gained largely through violence.
In one account, Libyan resistance fighters captured two companies of Italian fighters, executing 250 of them. In response to these types of events, Italians would execute any Libyan they saw with a gun or a knife that they felt was a threat. To the Italians, the Libyans were already lesser people so that sentiment justified the actions. Over the course of 30 years, at least 200,000 Libyan’s were killed. Italians would deport Libyans to concentration camps on remote Italian islands or in camps made in Libya. The poor conditions of the camps led to death of many civilians (Pappe, 26).
In 1933, the Italian Army Health Department Chairman wrote, “80,000 Libyans were forced to leave their land and live in concentration camps, they were taken 300 at a time watched by soldiers to make sure that the Libyans go directly to the concentration camps…By the end of 1930 all Libyans who live in tents were forced to go and live in the camps. Fifty-five percent of the Libyans died in the camps. ” The reason for the displacement was so Italians could take the land that would be good for farming. Italy did make strides in modernizing Libya; they built roads, highways, ports, and railways.
These improvements were mostly for the Italian settlers. Libyans were treated as second-class citizens during the Italian occupation. The best farmland was given out to the Italian settlers, who would hire Libyans to work that land. The schools that Italians built were mainly for Italian settlers, and were often much better than Libyan schools meaning there was less opportunity for the Libyans. Italy had said it wanted to integrate all of the population into the Italian society. Mussolini would refer to Muslims as “Muslim-Italians. ” He also would call himself a “protector of Islam”.
Jews initially integrated fine into the Italian society, but in the late 1930’s there began an anti-Semitic sentiment under the Fascist regime. This would force Jews from the jobs, schools, preventing them from any form of success. Italian Libya would collapse during World War II. Libya would attempt to invade Egypt and face Allied Forces there but would fail and get pushed back, losing parts of Cyrenaica. Italy would regain Cyrenaica with the help of the Germany and would try again to invade Egypt. Once again, they would fail this time they would get pushed back to Tripolitania and eventually out of Africa in February of 1943.
The rule of Italy in Libya was short but it was a brutal one, filled with warfare. In 2008, Italy acknowledged their brutal rule and became the first former colonial power to apologize for the actions of their nation. They gave the current Libyan nation $5 billion in reparations. The package involves construction projects, student grants, and pensions for Libyan soldiers who served with Italians during World War II (Italy to Pay Libya $5 Billion). Libya also underwent a Muslim political-religious order referred to as the Senussi.
This methodology of order originated in Mecca in the year 1837 by the Grand Senussi named Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi. It primarily involved and concerned the decline of Islamic thought as well as spirituality and the weakening of Muslim political integrity. The Senussi played an integral role in the fight against Italian colonization of Libya that began in 1911. The Senussi of Cyrenaica specifically labeled the Senussi brotherhood or Sanusiyya was primarily established as a direct response to the dominance of European nations over the once Islamic lands of traditional significance (Rogerson, 283).
The Senuusis also often resorted to the vast desert lands of North Africa as both a return the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the 7th century lifestyle as well as primarily seeking a corporeal refuge from increasing European colonial authority. The involvement of the Senussi in Libyan international affairs with Italy was not regarded as the most pleasing of descriptions. Ralph Bagnold, who was the first commander of one of the British Army groups during World War II coined the term “the Senussi menace,” in Karen Lynnea Piper’s book “Cartographic fictions: maps, race, and identity”.
The Senussi provided a vital hand in Libya’s battle with Italian colonization and to the point where Italy regarded the Senussi as a viable threat and proclaimed “the tribes must either obey Italian government or be destroyed as rebels” (Piper, 100). The Armed bands of Senussis in the Northern African Libyan region were often mercilessly targeted with vicious forms of artillery. Often the discovery and subsequent fascination of the desert oases, where these apparent attackers used as hideouts, led to an overlie the militaristic ambition of discovering insurgents (Piper, 101).
The Senussi were even vigorously supported by Great Britain during World War II and the Senussi rebellion against Italy, which provided a guarantee that Libya would be liberated if they did indeed succeed in their revolt. Mohammed Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanussi and Colonel C. O. Bromilow together issued a statement to Libya regarding the agreement and mutual sentiment towards the country.