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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Italy’s ‘fourth coast’ at the End of the 19th Century

At the end of the 19th century, Italian commercial penetration had grown in Tripoli – banks and trading houses had opened. Less pragmatically, some Italian nationalist politicians with a lust for an imperial identity identified Libya as a suitable colony. Apart from its strategic value, it had little to recommend it, compared with Tunisia or Egypt. A socialist deputy aptly described Libya as a ‘barrel of sand.’ In any case, the real benefit was symbolic.

Libya Italy
ِChurch of Massah, the 1940s

It provided the promise of a ‘fourth coast’ (cuarta sponda) for Italy, and Italian governments insisted on protecting their supposed national interests. The other European states agreed to recognize an Italian hegemony in Libya in 1902. In return, the Italian government recognized an agreement made in 1899 by the French and British governments that defined the northern limit of French colonial expansion. This would become the southern boundary of the Italian colony in Libya.

What was drawn on paper for European treaties was more difficult to make real. When the Italians invaded in 1911 and attempted to occupy their Fourth Coast, the coastal towns fell quickly, but the hinterland was more difficult to conquer. The huge battle at al-Hani, outside Tripoli, in October 1911, became an important historical symbol for the Gaddafi regime.

The Italian suppression of resistance was brutal. When the Ottomans signed a peace treaty in 1913 and promised to withdraw, local forces continued the struggle. The resistance was largely spontaneous, channeled by local, pan-Islamic, and pro-Ottoman leaders, especially during World War I, when the Ottoman sultan declared a jihad.

In April 1915, the Italian army was virtually destroyed at the battle of Ghardabia. In the same month, Britain, France, and Russia agreed to the secret Treaty of London, which promised Italy favorable treatment in gaining land for its colonies if it joined the war on the Allied side. This resembled similar agreements made between the same three great powers to divide the Ottoman Empire between them, culminating in the Sykes-Picot Agreement on Syria in 1916. There was another similarity, too: in Syria, the British also indicated they would support the creation of an Arab state to satisfy their ally, King Husayn of the Hejaz. In Libya, in 1917, Muhammad Idris, who had become the new head of the Senussi order, was persuaded to negotiate a political settlement with the Italians, mediated by the British in Egypt, who arranged for him to be appointed in 1917 as emir (prince) of Cyrenaica.

However, after World War I, the Italian fascist government embarked on a final ‘pacification’ of Libya. Agreements with local groups were broken, and resistance was crushed. In 1922 Muhammad Idris went into exile in Egypt, but Senussi resistance continued under Omar Mukhtar’s leadership.