Over the last few years, the myth of a Russian “return” to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has captured increasing attention from policy-makers all over the area and beyond, as well as the academic community. This widespread narrative originated, in particular, in the Syrian crisis and the Russian military intervention in the country. After a prolonged period of disengagement from the MENA region, the Syrian crisis provided the Kremlin with a front door to return to a region that has always been of geostrategic relevance to its foreign projection.
The war in Yemen has enhanced transnational insecurity between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, with the Gulf of Aden as the epicentre of this insecurity: nevertheless, Yemen and Somalia still maintain distinct features.
Algeria is one of the most important African producers and exporters of oil and natural gas. Discovered during the final part of the colonial era (1956), hydrocarbon resources were soon exploited by French energy companies (1958) and subsequently by the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach (1963), providing the necessary economic resources fora development strategy based on import substitution.
Since 2011 the Libyan crisis has moved from being a domestic dispute to assuming increasing importance at the international level. Today it represents a crucial issue affecting global security. The intervention of external actors in the Libyan crisis was mainly driven by a desire to direct the transition towards outcomes that would best meet their own political and economic interests.
Accordingly, each external player tried to support one specific faction, favoring either the Parliament in Tobruk, upheld by Khalifa Haftar, or the Presidential Council headed by Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli, the latter being legitimized by the UN as well as by local militias in both Misrata and Tripoli.
This report analyzes the troublesome re-building of Libya with a focus on the specific role played by international actors (neighboring and Gulf countries, European nations, Russia and the US) which make it more of an international rather than a domestic issue.
After the 1969 revolution, Libya’s previously close links to the United States quickly deteriorated. At the same time Muammar al-Gaddafi sought closer links to the Soviet Union. The clear majority of the equipment of the “Armed Forces of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” originated from the Soviets or the Eastern Bloc. Many of the officers of all services were educated at military training facilities of the Soviet Armed Forces. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia remained as one of Libya’s key allies.
Six years on from its February 2011 revolution, Libya’s political scene is characterized by fragmentation and polarization. The constantly shifting political and military allegiances and contested legitimacy since 2014 have today resulted in three Libyan ‘‘governments’’ claiming legitimacy.
North Africa is a geographically strategic region for Italy. Currently, however, the region navigates troubled waters. The Libyan crisis, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), migration flows and economic and energy relations in the Mediterranean basin are key priorities for Italian foreign and security policy. On Libya, the country’s internal chaos has paved the way for the expansion of IS and further increased migration flows from the region. Turning to Egypt, until recently Italy used to be its first European economic partner. However, relations with the al-Sisi regime worsened in the aftermath of the Regeni diplomatic rift. At the same time, Tunisia is facing a difficult transition and the future of the Algerian leadership seems to be still uncertain. How is the Italian government coping with current challenges? The Vienna conference (May 16), co-chaired by Italy and the United States, aimed at finding viable options to the Libyan impasse. Over the last two years, Matteo Renzi’s government tried hard to follow a wider multilateral approach, mainly hinging upon the UN and the EU. In order to foster the Italian role in the wider Mediterranean region, Renzi sponsored Federica Mogherini’s appointment as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR). Despite all these efforts, Italy is still struggling to cope with the many challenges in its southern neighborhood. Although the Italian government is working to escape the fate of a stalemate in the region, a way out from the crisis is still there to be found.
Geography makes Northern Africa a strategic region for Italy. Nowhere is this more evident than in energy relations, as large natural gas pipelines today run from Algeria (via Tunisia) and Libya over the Mediterranean seabed to reach Italy’s southern shores. These pipelines are the outcome of negotiations that lasted years and, at the same time, a testament to long-term relationships, almost unbroken by political ups and downs.
In June 2014 the then President of the European Council, Belgian Hermann van Rompuy, arrived in Rome on a secret mission. He was to deliver an important message to Matteo Renzi – who had replaced Enrico Letta as Italian Prime Minister just a few months before. The message was on behalf of Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Jean-Claude Juncker, winner of the recent European elections as EPP leader and incoming European Commission President.
Tunisia is one of the key partners for Italian and European politics in the southern Mediterranean. At least, it should be so. The perception, on the other hand, is that most European partners have forgotten Tunisia. The reason is simple: the country had a relatively peaceful “revolution” if compared with other North African countries and five years after taking its path towards democracy this seems to be successfully launched. Unlike Libya or Syria, Tunisia is at peace.