Payback: The price of colonialism by Gaither Stewart

by Gaither Stewart
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
26 February, 2011

Of all the uprisings in the Maghreb, the case of Libya is perhaps the most opaque.  Is the country a locus of true spontaneous insurrection or simply the target of an opportunistic maneuver by the West?

(Rome) Does colonialism pay off for anyone? In the long run, definitely not. There is always a payback. The events today in the North Africa reflect this story. The situation today is the living and the dying proof of the payback. An atrocious, insufferable payback. The English in Egypt, the French in Algeria, the Italians in Libya. But especially the occupied Arab peoples of Egypt, Algeria and Libya, have all paid and continue to pay the price of colonialism.

The history of Libya as an Italian colony started near 1910 and lasted until 1947 when Italy waged war on the wrong side and lost all its colonies. After initial failure, the then Kingdom of Italy and soon afterwards, Fascist Italy, took control of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. After uniting the two areas as one colonial province, Italy revived the classical name of “Libya” as the official name of the colony.

Like the other European colonialist powers, Italy “occupied” Libya, erecting concentration camps dedicated to killing Libyans, lagers-gulags, setting an example for those in Germany and Russia, killing and destroying at will. More than 100,00 people ended in the primal concentration camps where many thousands died in squalid condition, chiefly through starvation or disease, perhaps one third of the Cyrenaican population.

Great waves of Italian colonizers followed then the military occupation, making new lives and forming what Rome called Italy’s Fourth Shore, ultimately part of Italy itself. “In 1938, Governor Italo Balbo brought 20,000 Italian farmers to colonize Libya, and 26 new villages were founded for them, mainly in Cyrenaica.”[4] Italians in Libya came to number 108,000, over 12% of the population according to the 1939 census. Plans called for eventually 500,000 Italians in Libya. They were concentrated in the city of Tripoli (37% of population, and Bengazi, (32%).

Looking beyond race and culture to bolster the imperial objective, Rome favored the integration with the Arab population of Italian emigrants to Libya, thus making Libya a full-fledged Italian colony. Still today some older Libyan Arabs speak Italian. And my deceased Italian mother-in-law used to sing Arabic songs to my wife, distorted, jumbled words which my wife sings today but does not understand: “Tirilliri canin sucrana tirilliri jammena …”

Italy built huge public works—roads, buildings, ports, etc.—and the Libyan economy flourished as during the Roman empire, which in antiquity had controlled Libya for five centuries. Farmers cultivated lands that had been lost to the desert. Libya was considered the new “America” for the Italian emigrants in the thirties.

By 1934, Libya was pacified. As mentioned, official policy encouraged integration of Italian colonizers. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, declared himself Protector of Islam because the Arabic nationalist movement suited his policies in opposition to Great Britain and France.  His policy was further colonization of Libya, giving Italians there land confiscated from indigenous inhabitants. By January 9, 1939, the colony of Libya was incorporated into metropolitan Italy and thereafter considered an integral part of the Italian state (Libya was to be part of the Greater Italia, dreamed by the Italian irredentists).  Libyans, the officially called “Muslim Italians”, were admitted to the National Fascist Party and Libyan military units were born within the Italian army. Two divisions of Libyan Infantry participated in the desert war against Great Britain.

Toward the end of World War II Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, the last German and Italian soldiers were driven from Libya. In the early post-war period. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica remained under British administration. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty after World War II, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya. And Libya remained united as one country under King Idris, an ally of Great Britain. Idris, in  typical colonial puppet fashion wasted no time in signing off the country’s natural resources to the new European masters.

Colonel Gheddafi—probably inspired by the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt— took power in a coup d’état in 1969 and has reigned with an iron hand since, making him one of the longest-serving dictators in the world. Though Gheddafi has become fabulously rich on Libya’s petroleum, the country remains underdeveloped and unemployment figures astronomical. In 1970 he expelled the Italian colonizers while he impoverished Libya, killing his own people and engaging in international terrorism: payback. Since then Gheddafi has demanded more and more payback, demanding indemnization for damages to Libyan lands by decades of colonialism.

In 1998 Italy offered a formal apology to Libya. The two nations signed a treaty of friendship in which US$5 billion in goods and services, including the Libyan portion of the Cairo-Tunis highway, would be given to Libya to end any remaining animosity. A highway! A highway to end a half century of colonialist plunder and confirmed genocide is as laughable as it is tragic. Today, cornered by his own greed, he continues blackmailing Italy and Europe with the threat of unleashing the emigration of up to 1.5 million emigrants. Europe is terrified. Once Europe occupied North Africa. Today North Africa demands payback. Was it worth it?

In recent days the flag of King Idris has replaced the green flag of Gheddafi in the Cyrenaica, in Tobruk and Bengazi.

According to al-Jazeera the dictator has hired hundreds of possibly African mercenaries and is again killing thousands of his own people. He reportedly suffers from psychological illnesses: self-inflated ego, megalomania (which he displays several times a year in Rome), schizophrenia, existential anxiety, and sadism, the will to murder half the population if necessary in order to maintain power.  But then again, is that a real disease or merely that people susceptible to sociopathic behavior are usually successful in climbing the ladder of power?

Though there is general agreement that Libya has been a victim of colonialism and Gheddafi a bloody dictator, one still wonders what stands behind the anomalous “uprising” against him. One week after the outbreak of the revolt Russia’s PRAVDA has speculated on some explanations. Though presented to the world as another of the North African “revolutions” against corrupt regimes, the uprising in Libya is strange. In Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutions began in the capital cities; in Libya instead in Bengazi, the east part of the nation, the capital city of Cyrenaica. Why there, in this complex tribal area with a history of ethnic tensions and separatism, and not in the capital city of Tripoli?

Pravda lists a sheaf of such perplexing questions: why has there been an absence of reporting on Gheddafi’s social welfare program, much greater than in neighboring countries, that Libyans might be lazy but not destitute, on the universal education with literacy rising from 10% to today’s 90%, on the rise of twenty years in life expectancy and decrease in infant mortality, and a standard of living 100 times greater than under King Idris…?

Gheddafi’s Libya is a different ball game from Tunisia and Egypt. Where do the Enough Gheddafi posters come from and why the webmaster of this “organization” is listed on What is the role of the U.S. State Department in, which a Pravda article claims helped launch the movement in 2008.

What are the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) and the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO) doing behind the scenes? And where are these organizations based? They are based respectively in Washington and London and they coordinate teams of “information providers” operating inside Libya: are they saboteurs, terrorists and/or agents provocateurs? Meanwhile what is NATO up to? Are NATO personnel engaged in sabotage within Libya? Are there mercenaries also working against Gheddafi within the country to destabilize his regime? Do they have a hand in sabotage and murder in order to blame the Gheddafi administration and provide grist for the Western press mill?

Why is the Libyan news agency site,, offline? Who or what stands behind this act of cyber terrorism?  Why did the mainstream media announce loud and clear that Gheddafi had fled the country while he was apparently in his capital of Tripoli? And what happened to block the Libyan Ambassador in Washington from attending a UN session? PRAVDA concludes that the lines are being drawn in Libya, some areas only temporarily held by rebels. The pendulum can still swing either way. Most certainly dark forces are involved in events inside and outside Libya today. Is this “spontaneous revolution” in Libya in reality a U.S. State Department-CIA  maneuver?  Most certainly it would not the first time. Friendly dictators are supported; disobedient ones are doomed. And the playbook of false flag operations is now worth a small library. Since American intelligence agencies in cahoots with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere have contributed so richly to this canon, the suspicions are certainly amply justified.

Gaither Stewart, Featured Writer on Dandelion Salad, Senior Editor of Cyrano’s Journal Online and The Greanville Post and Special European Correspondent for both, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He’s based in Rome. Stewart’s latest novel is The Trojan Spy, a thriller and morality tale in the tradition of John LeCarré.


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Imperialism and the historical context of the developing 2011 Egyptian Bourgeois Democratic Revolution by Fazal Rahman, Ph.D.

Massacre in Libya + Khaled Mattawa: Libya is Forever Changed

5 thoughts on “Payback: The price of colonialism by Gaither Stewart

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  4. Excellent analysis, insights, and questions that must be asked to clarify a very murky situation. Brief history of colonialism in Libya is also very useful for understanding the current situation. Gadhafi seems to have been brought down by his waltz with imperialism, after the betrayal of socialism in the former socialist countries, and their betrayal of their Third World allies, as well as by some of his westernized sons, who have been living high on the hog, like princes in other oil rich kingdoms and sheikhdoms.

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