x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Qadafi conquered Rome

The Libyan leader Qadafi spent much of his visit lecturing Italians on everything from women's rights and democracy to the evils of colonialism.

RABAT // In AD 193, wracked by instability, Rome handed control of its empire to Septimius Severus, a Libyan-born general evoked last week in the Italian capital by another Libyan leader, Muammar Qadafi. "Septimius Severus, emperor of Libya and Italy, was a Libyan," Mr Qadafi reminded Italians last Thursday during a controversial four-day visit that showcased Libya's growing influence abroad.

While Septimius Severus was backed by the Roman army, Mr Qadafi is armed with oil wealth that Italy hopes will help strengthen its battered economy. For Mr Qadafi, last week's trip to Rome was a chance to promote Libya's place - and his own - in the world from the pulpit of the eternal city. "It was the kind of stage that Qadafi doesn't get that much, and he wanted to make maximum impact - which he did," said Jon Marks, a North Africa expert and chairman of Cross-border Information, a British risk assessment firm.

The Rome visit comes in a bumper year for Mr Qadafi, who in January was elected to head the African Union and plans to return to Italy next month in that role for the G8 summit. In September, he will mark 40 years in power and will visit the United Nations, where a Libyan diplomat, Ali Abdessalam Treki, will take over presidency of the UN general assembly. Meanwhile, Libya's foreign investment fund of more than US$60 billion (Dh220bn) and a growing natural gas industry are giving it unprecedented leverage over European neighbours such as Italy, a former coloniser who last year agreed to pay Libya US$5 billion over 20 years in reparations.

"There's a real role-reversal here in terms of who is driving the agenda," said Ronald Bruce St John, an expert on Libya with Foreign Policy in Focus, a think-tank that is part of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. The Libyan leader pitched his customary Bedouin tent in the gardens of the 17th century Villa Pamphili, where Italian business leaders came to pay court. He also met the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and other officials.

However, Mr Qadafi spent much of his visit lecturing Italians on everything from women's rights and democracy to the evils of colonialism. "His visit to Italy is symbolically very important to Libyan nationalism," said Dr St John. "It buttresses his position in Libya and in other African states that suffered colonialism." In the land that the Roman poet Horace called "the arid nurse of lions", modern Italians saw commercial possibilities. Merchants arrived in the 19th century, and in 1911 warships steamed across the Mediterranean to seize Libya from a decrepit Ottoman Empire.

Under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Italian troops poisoned wells and bombed nomad encampments to make room for settlers. The Italians were driven out during the Second World War and the pro-western King Idris was installed by the UN in 1951. In 1969, Mr Qadafi, then a 27-year-old army captain, overthrew Idris and set up an authoritarian state with himself as "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution".

For three decades he backed assorted militant groups and liberation movements. Some, like the Palestinian group Black September, carried out terrorist attacks, while others, such as Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor, spread murder and mayhem in their corners of the Third World. Such antics made Libya an international pariah and brought economic sanctions. However, Italy maintained informal contact and has capitalised on Libya's recent rapprochement with the west. In 2002 Libya paid US$2.7 billion to families of victims in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, blamed on Libyan agents, and in 2003 renounced attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Now Italy wants Libyan cash to support companies struck by global economic turmoil. Libya's state investment company has already snapped up shares of Italian flagships such as the car manufacturer Fiat and the Juventus football club. "The Italians also feel extremely vulnerable to long-term dependence on Russian gas," said Mr Marks, from Cross-border Information. Italy wants more energy from Libya, which currently supplies around 25 per cent of the country's oil.

In return Mr Qadafi requested speaking appearances in Rome, turning a business trip into a whirlwind of sometimes provocative public outreach. Addressing Italian parliamentarians last Thursday, Mr Qadafi likened US air strikes against Libya in 1986 to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. Later that day, he faced crowds of angry students protesting against Libya's human rights record. That evening, he shocked Italians gathered outside Rome's town hall, urging them to abolish political parties as he had done in Libya.

On Friday, Mr Qadafi drew mixed applause and jeers from some 700 businesswomen and female politicians, lamenting women's oppression in some Muslim countries while maintaining that male relatives should decide whether they drive cars. Hundreds of female intellectuals and activists signed an open letter condemning Libya's alleged mistreatment of migrants crossing its territory. That afternoon, Mr Qadafi missed an event at the Italian parliament owing to Friday prayers, according to the Libyan embassy in Rome. However, he met earlier with business leaders, promising special treatment and tax breaks for Italian firms.

As the Libyan leader jetted home on Saturday, Prime Minister Berlusconi told a conference of industrialists that Mr Qadafi had "been treated as a special case because we know that he is a bit unique". jthorne@thenational.ae