By Souad Sbai
Relations with Qatar are becoming ever more dangerous for Italy. Not only on a domestic level, where insecurity is growing due to the advance of the extremist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed financially and shielded politically by Doha’s emirs.
Also in relation to foreign affairs, the choice of Qatar as privileged partner in the Mediterranean and the Middle East is proving to be increasingly counterproductive to the Italian national and strategic interests. The case of Libya is emblematic.
Facing jihadist terrorism, the migrant emergency, and the energy supply issue, the stabilization of the country is of vital importance to Italy. However, the political factions and armed militias tied to the Muslim Brotherhood – on which all governments in Rome have been relying since the fall of Gaddafi – have demonstrated to be as “rogue” as the states sponsoring them: Qatar and its great ally, Erdogan’s Islamist Turkey.
So far the Muslim Brotherhood has derailed the process that under the UN aegis should have led to the Libyan national reconciliation, starting from the refusal to accept the defeat in the elections of June 2014. The militias of “Fajr Libya”, the Libyan Dawn of the Muslim Brotherhood, forced the victors to flee Tripoli and relocate the parliament to the south-east, in the city of Tobruk, which later became the stronghold of General Khalifa Haftar, the Head of the regular Army and a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The members of the Muslim Brotherhood are gathered in the High Council of State, an illegitimate body that claims to have legislative power, and they managed to prevent the organization of new elections in December 2018, as agreed in Paris by Haftar and Fayez Al Sarraj, President of the Presidential Council (the executive body blessed by the UN), with the mediation of the French President Macron. The Muslim Brotherhood holds the keys of Tripoli’s insecurity, and did not allow new elections because they fear another defeat. A defeat that would damage also Italy, because it would amount to a success for its rival France, which aims to become Libya’s privileged partner in Europe.
The Conference that took place in Palermo on November 12 was an attempt to assume a major role in the negotiations between Haftar and Sarraj, taking the lead in the Libyan dossier to the damage of Paris. But Haftar did not make life easy for the Italian government due to the proximity of the latter to the Muslim Brotherhood, and kept it in suspense about his participation in the summit. The general made it clear that he would have never sat at the same table with the representatives of the Islamist factions, and showed up in Palermo only when the proceedings were already started.
Haftar’s arrival, however, allowed the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to save his face, and the general made him understand to be willing to cooperate provided one condition: Rome has to say stop to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Palermo, Haftar carefully avoided any contact with the members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s delegation, while his presence upset the Islamist camp, pushing the Turkish delegation to abandon the Conference. Nevertheless, the general’s outstretched hand was accepted by Conte only on the occasion of the photo opportunity with Sarraj, given the warm welcome reserved subsequently to the emirs of Qatar visiting Rome.
From Tobruk’s standpoint, watching the entire Italian establishment throwing itself into Doha’s arms during the reception hosted by the President of the Republic, must not have been a pleasant show. The interview by Ali Al Saidi, a Member of Tobruk’s Parliament, with the Italian daily newspaper Il Giornale, leaves no doubts about it. Al Saidi, who was part of Tobruk’s delegation in the Palermo Conference, launched an unequivocal warning to Italy: “If you want to play a role in the future of Libya… move away from Qatar”. “The relationship with Doha is inconvenient”, he said, and it would be better for “the Italian government to stay away from that of Qatar”.
Al Saidi also warned against considering Sarraj as a neutral leader capable of achieving the much-awaited national reconciliation, as “he is very close to the Muslim Brotherhood”.
It is a fact that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are sitting in the Presidential Council, and Sarraj certainly has to struggle to follow an independent course. In Palermo, when a member of Tobruk’s delegation close to Haftar was about to give his talk, Sarraj’s delegation left the hall together with the delegation of the President of the High Council of State, Khaled Al Meshri, as reported always by Il Giornale.
Therefore, it seems that Sarraj accepted to meet Haftar in Paris and Palermo only to justify the role as official interlocutor assigned to him by the international community. In reality, Sarraj has no real mandate: neither on the part of the Libyan people, nor on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which keeps holding him hostage in Tripoli. The last assault against the Presidential Council on December 2 by hundreds of demonstrators led by “Fajr Libya” militia-men, is an example of the modalities adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood to prevent Sarraj from acting independently and in the interests of Libya. Regardless of the personal ambitions, Haftar does not want to pass the leadership of the Army onto Sarraj also to avoid to hand it over to the Muslim Brotherhood.
If the balance of forces does not change, the attempt to hold new elections by the end of 2019, according to the path indicated by the UN special envoy Ghassan Salamé as agreed in Palermo, is destined to be another failure. Therefore, Italy must disengage from the Islamist pole formed by Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and put its weight behind the moderate factions. This is the only way for the Italian government to play a decisive role in Libya’s stabilization and pursue the national interests. Better too late than never.