Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



The seizure of Morocco coincided with the conquest of Libya. The modern use of the term “Libya” was coined by the Italians, who borrowed it from ancient geography. The ancient Greeks had called the entire territory of North Africa “Libya”; the Italians used it in reference to the regions situated between Tunisia and Egypt, i.e., Tripolitania (Tarablus El-Charb), Cyrenaica (Barca) and Fezzan. In the Middle Ages each of these regions had its own historical connections. Cyrenaica gravitated towards Egypt; Tripolitania was closely linked with Tunisia. It was only after the Turkish conquest, in the 16th century, that these areas were united into a single administrative unit-the pashalik of Tripoli.

In 1835, the Turkish Sultan Mahmud II, who had pursued a policy of centralising the Ottoman Empire, despatched Turkish troops to Tripoli, removed the janissary dynasty of the Karmanlians from power and completely subjugated the pashalik of Tripoli. The pashalik was made into a Turkish elayet and then into a vilayet, which was administered by governors appointed by the central government.

The Turkish penetration into the hinterland of the country and the Turks’ attempts to station their garrisons there and gather taxes encountered fierce resistance on the part of the local tribes, who repeatedly provoked uprisings against the Turkish authorities. The struggle was led by the religious Senussite Brotherhood named after its founder-Mohammed es-Senussi. An Algerian of Berber origin, Mohammed es-Senussi was educated in Mostaganem and Fez and, after a long sojourn in Mecca and Cairo, went to Cyrenaica, where he founded several zawias (monasteries), including one in the Jiarabub oasis (1855), which be-came his residence and the centre of the Senussi movement. After es-Senussi’s death in 1859, the brotherhood was led by his son Mohammed el-Mahdi (1859-1901). In 1895, Mohammed el-Mahdi transferred his scat to El-Jewf in the oasis of Kufra. Leaning on the numerous zawias (100 in 1884) for support, he formed a strong military and religious organisation which secured the power of the Senussi nobility over the Libyan tribes and the oases. The Senussi chiefs settled the land adjacent to the zawias with nomads and forced them to till the land in their interest. The Senussites encouraged trade, spreading their influence to the interior of the African continent.

El-Mahdi’s successors (especially Mohammed Idris) had to fight a new enemy-imperialist Italy. At the end of the 19th century, when Africa was being partitioned, two Powers claimed Tripoli. One of these was France, who, using her Tunisian springboard, gradually annexed Tripolitania’s frontier oases to Tunisia. The other was Italy, who felt she had been cheated of her share in the partition and sought compensation in Tripoli.

It is unlikely that Italy made her claims out of economic considerations. No valuable raw materials of any kind had yet been discovered in Tripolitania. All that country had to offer was dates, camel hair, fish and sponge. On the other hand, Tripolitania was a convenient base for further con-quests in Africa, a wedge and springboard from where Italy could thrust forward in all directions. By gaining possession of Tripolitania it would be possible to threaten French Tunisia, the area around Lake Chad, British Egypt and the East Sudan.

Italy began preparations for the seizure of Tripolitania in 1880. First came a series of diplomatic manoeuvres. In 1887, Italy concluded an agreement with Britain and Austria-Hungary on the status quo in the Mediterranean. It was directed against France and French claims on Tripoli and Morocco. According to this agreement, Britain, Austria and Italy pledged to observe the status quo in the Mediterranean, but stressed that should the status quo change they would not allow any other Power to gain a foothold on the North African coast. In other words, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Italy brushed aside France’s claims to Libya and Morocco. Moreover, Italy promised to support Britain’s cause in Egypt and demanded that Britain should back Italy on any other part of the North African coast, especially in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

In the special German-Italian agreement of 1887, which was added to the treaty on the renewal of the Triple Alliance, the following reservation was made. Germany and Italy would not permit France’s consolidation in Morocco and Tripoli and should France undertake any actions in that region, Germany would back Italy in her war against France. Simultaneously, a secret Italian-Austrian treaty was concluded to the effect that in event of violation of the status quo in the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean countries should not be partitioned other than by mutual agreement on the basis of mutual compensation. An analogous secret agreement between Italy and Spain was concluded in 1887. Thus, in 1887, Italy had gained the sanction of Britain, Germany, Austria and Spain for the seizure of Tripoli.

In 1900, Italy concluded an agreement with France on delimitation of spheres of influence in the Mediterranean. Under this agreement, France renounced all claims on Tripoli in Italy’s favour, in return for which Italy granted her freedom of action in Morocco. The agreement was ratified in 1902 and renewed in October 1912, when France and Italy recognised each other’s claims to the annexed territories.

There was one more European Power from whom Italy received diplomatic sanction for Tripoli’s seizure-Russia. In accordance with the agreement of October 24, 1909, which was concluded in Racconiji (near Turin) in the form of notes, Italy recognised Russia’s claims to the Dardanelles zone and Russia recognised Italy’s claims to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

Public opinion and the press in Russia, France, Britain and Germany opposed Italy’s expansionist moves in Tripoli. The papers wrote of her piratical actions and brazen violation of international law. The governments of the above countries, however, adopted an attitude of non-interference in the Turco-Italian conflict. When the conflict finally came out into the open and the Turkish ambassadors in St. Petersburg, London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna appealed for mediation by the European governments, all the foreign ministers coldly stated that this affair was no concern of theirs. “This is your personal conflict with Italy,” they said, in effect. “Settle it as you wish.”

Italy safeguarded her invasion in Tripoli by secret agreements and deals at the expense of the weaker peoples. Britain supported Italy because she preferred to have this feeble country next to Egypt, reasoning that Italian expansion would be a counterpoise to French and German expansion in Tripoli (in 1911, the Germans proposed a plan for setting up a naval base in Tobruk). Germany and Austria-Hungary were rewarding Italy for her participation in the Triple Alliance, France was rewarding Italy for her virtual renunciation of the Triple Alliance and for her non-interference in Moroccan affairs, and Russia was rewarding Italy for promising to support her actions in the Straits.

Apart from diplomatic preliminaries, Italy also made adequate preparations inside Tripolitania. In 1901, an Italian parliamentary delegation visited Tripolitania. Italian naval officers dressed themselves up as fishermen, caught sponge off the shores of Tripoli and at the same time photo-graphed the Tripolitanian coast.

In 1900, the Italian press had begun calling on the government to take over Tripolitania on the grounds that this region “naturally belonged” to the Italians. It was at this stage that an Italian geographer took the word “Libya” from ancient history and began using it in reference to the vilayet of Tripoli. One of the biggest Italian banks opened branches in Tripoli. Italians bought lands there through non-existent persons and set up agricultural establishments. Italian steamship lines monopolised the traffic between Tripolitania and Europe. Italian engineers planned the construction of a railway from Tobruk to Alexandria.

In Tobruk, the most convenient natural harbour on the Libyan coast, Italy intended to set up her own naval base. Italian catholic missions and Italian schools were opened in Tripolitania. Extensive literature appeared in Italy on Tripolitania; Italian geographers began calling it “our Promised Land.”


In 1911, Italy decided to take advantage of the international crisis which had arisen in connection with the “pouncing of the Panther” to assume direct possession of Tripolitania. Her excuse for the invasion was ridiculous. On September 28, 1911, Italy presented Turkey with an ultimatum in which she declared that she was interested in providing Tripolitania with the blessings of progress, but that her “legitimate” actions had encountered the Porte’s opposition and that she, Italy, would not waste time on useless talks with the Porte. To protect her dignity and her interests she had decided to go ahead with the military occupation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Turkey should, therefore, order her officials not to offer resistance to the Italian occupation. Turkey was given 24 hours in which to concede this demand.

Turkey immediately placed the question of mediation before the European Powers, but encountered no support. Faced with the Powers’ tacit consent to Italy’s action, Turkey replied in extremely peaceful terms. She declared that the new Young Turk government could not be held responsible for the situation brought about by the former government and that it bore no hostility towards Italy’s plans for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The Turkish Government would be prepared to take action to meet Italy’s demands that was consistent with Turkey’s dignity and interests, but categorically objected to Italian occupation.

Italy received Turkey’s reply and declared war on Turkey on the very same day (September 29, 1911).

The war took Turkey unawares. Neither the Turkish governor nor the commander-in-chief were in Tripolitania at the outbreak of the war and Turkey’s armed forces in the vilayet of Tripoli consisted of one division (7,000 men). The country was soon in a state of famine. The Italian fleet blockaded Tripoli by sea, preventing Turkey from sending reinforcements and foodstuffs. The blockade was, in effect, completed on land by Britain, who refused to let Turkish troops pass through Egypt. The ltalian expeditionary corps consisted of 34,000 men and was brought up to 5.5,000 men in 1912. It was equipped with mountain, field and siege artillery, wireless and also with aircraft, which was being used for the first time in the battle. While the Italian fleet shelled the Turkish coast and landed troops on the Dodecanese Islands, the vilayet of Tripoli was occupied. On October 5, 1911, the Italian landing party seized the city of Tripoli, on October 18, Derna, on October 19, Benghazi and on October 20, Horns.

On November 5, 1911, though still in possession of only these four coastal towns, the Italian Government announced the annexation of Tripoli, which henceforward was to be called “Libya” and to remain under Italy’s complete and absolute sovereignty.

In view of the all-round superiority of their forces, the Italians counted on speedy conquest. Matters, however, took a different turn. The Libyan tribes put up a stout resistance. By October 23, 1911, the Arabs had destroyed most of the landing party that had disembarked in Tripoli and begun the long and difficult struggle for independence. The Italians passed the winter of 1911-12 in the four above-mentioned towns. In the summer of 1912, they occupied several more coastal posts (Misurata, July 8, Zuara, August 6, and Zenzur, September 20). Even when Turkey surrendered in October 1912 and made peace with Italy, the Italians had not yet captured the whole coastal area and had not made a single move to penetrate the country’s internal regions.

“Italy has ‘won’ the war, which she launched a year ago to seize Turkish possessions in Africa,” Lenin wrote at the end of the Italo-Turkish war. “From now on, Tripoli will belong to Italy.... What caused the war? The greed of the Italian moneybags and capitalists.... What kind of war was it? A perfected, civilised bloodbath, the massacre of Arabs with the help of the ‘latest’ weapons.” [Ibid., pp. 337-38.] In his article Lenin described the atrocities of the Italian imperialists who massacred whole families, women and children included. A total of 14,800 Arabs were slaughtered, 1,000 being hanged. Lenin concluded: “Despite the ‘peace’, the war will actually go on, for the Arab tribes in the heart of Africa, in areas far away from the coast, will refuse to submit. And for a long time to come they will be ‘civilised’ by bayonet, bullet, noose, lire and rape.” [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 18, p. 337.]

Lenin’s prediction proved to be absolutely correct. The Arab tribes in the heart of Africa did not surrender. For twenty years after Turkey’s defeat, they continued to wage war against Italy.


Turkey was prevented from continuing the war with Italy by the outbreak of war in the Balkans. On October 15, 1912, she concluded a preliminary (secret) treaty and on October 18, a final peace treaty in Lausanne. Formally, Turkey never recognised Italian sovereignty over Libya. She merely undertook to withdraw her troops from Libya and recall her officials.

According to the secret Italo-Turkish treaty of October 15, 1912, Italy deemed it impossible to abrogate the law proclaiming her sovereignty over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Turkey, in turn, declared it was impossible for her to formally recognise this sovereignty. Consequently, Turkey undertook to issue a firman of the Sultan granting the population of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica full and complete autonomy which would bring them under the “new laws.” Italy undertook to decree an amnesty, to grant freedom to the Moslem religion and to preserve the waqfs. She also undertook to receive a Turkish representative and to appoint a commission with the participation of the local notables to work out the civil and administrative organisation of these regions. Turkey promised not to despatch her troops to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. It was decided that the Sultan’s representative in Libya and the religious leaders of the Moslems who were subordinate to the Turkish Sultan as their caliph would in future have to be approved by the Italian Government.

These provisions of the preliminary peace treaty of October 15, 1912, which established a kind of Italo-Turkish condominium over Libya, were actually ignored and Italy merely regarded Libya as her colony. Turkey did not fully agree to this and it was only after World War I, by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, that she completely renounced her rights and sovereignty over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The European Powers recognised the Italian sovereignty over these regions soon after the Italo-Turkish war and the Lausanne treaty of 1912.


Peace had been concluded but the fighting in Libya continued. On December 18, 19l 2, the Italians captured Tarhuna and by the end of 1912, they had occupied the western coast of the Gulf of Sirte. In April 1913, Italian troops entered the coastal mountains and held the region for three months. Simultaneously, they invaded Jebel El-Akhdar (mountains in Cyrenaica), but were seriously defeated on several occasions by the guerilla detachments organised by the Senussites.

The Senussites declared a holy war on Italy and the Italian forces were compelled to retreat from the Cyrenaican interior and to restrict themselves to the occupation of the coastal towns. On April 29, 1913, they occupied Tokra and, in August 1913, the coast of Sirte south of Benghazi.

In 1914, the Italians were about to conquer Fezzan and occupied Murzuk, the Fezzan capital. With the outbreak of World War I, however, they were forced to withdraw and, by the beginning of 1916, held only the towns of Tripoli and Horns, the entire eastern part of Libya having passed under the Senussites’ control.

The Senussites’ struggle against Italy was backed by the German-Turkish command. In December 1915, German-Turkish forces used the Senussites to attack the British bridgehead in Egypt from the direction of Salum. By February 1916, the British had thrown back the attackers and in July of the same year, Britain concluded an agreement with Italy for a joint struggle against the Senussites, to which France adhered in March 1917. In April 1917, Britain and Italy concluded an agreement with one of the Senussite leaders-Mohammed Idris es-Senussi-whom they recognised as Emir (prince). He was promised food and arms in return for an undertaking to withdraw from the struggle against Britain and Italy and to counteract German-Turkish plans. But most of the East Libyan Senussites under the leading chief of the brotherhood-Ahmed Sherif es-Senussi (1901-25), and also the Senussi tribes of West Libya under Mohammed Abd el-Abid, continued the struggle against Britain, Italy and France. The Italian contribution was feeble. Eventually, in January 1917, they recaptured Zuara and by the end of the year, had gained possession of the entire coast between Tripoli and Zuara, but this was the sum total of their success.

In November 1918, after the cessation of military operations in Europe, Italy landed an 80,000-strong army in Tripoli and initiated talks with the West Libyan Bedouin leaders, pressing for their surrender. The talks, however, were a failure and in February 1919, Italy renewed hostilities.

It took the Italians another thirteen years before they were able to break down the resistance of the tribes. The Libyan people’s persistence and heroism were the outstanding feature of the fighting that went on all over the country. Only in 1932, at the cost of mass killings and savage reprisals against the freedom-loving tribes, were the Italian militarists able to subdue the country and complete the colonial conquest of Libya.