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The Italians had conquered Libya with great difficulty. The British however, defeated the Italian army with ease in 1940 and 1941. The British then lost all the territory they had gained to the German army. The campaign reached its climax in October 1942 when allied forces stopped German General Rommel’s army at El Alamein on the Egyptian frontier. One result was the deadly legacy of landmines left behind in Libya. In 1985, forty years after the war ended, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that one-third of Libya’s rangeland area was contaminated by landmines and unexploded munitions.
Among the Libyans, Mohammed Idris al-Sanusi, who was living in exile in Egypt to escape Italian control, worked with the British. In 1940 he agreed to support the British war effort with a small army-in-exile, the Libyan Arab Force, under British command but carrying the Sanusi flag. It engaged in sabotage, and communications work. On the other hand, exiles who originated in Tripolitania formed their own organisation that objected to Mohammed Idris as Amir of a united Libya.
Consequently, when the British imposed a military administration on Cyrenaica in 1943, which lasted until 1951, the new authorities turned to Amir Muhammad Idris. After expelling the Italians, he forced the population of Tripoli to cooperate with him. The French took control of Fezzan, and stayed there until 1951. That laid the basis for the post-war political evolution of Libya.
Independence and King Idris (1951)
After British troops entered Tripoli in January 1943, they set up a British military administration in Tripolitania, relying heavily on Mohammed Idris for support. Tripolitanian political groups that favoured the creation of a united state were ignored – and the British government seems to have considered establishing the two provinces as separate countries in the long run. The French relied on the Sayf al-Nasr clan in Fezzan as their chief agents there.
With Libya split between the British and the French, the United Nations had to decide what to do with the country. The Soviets vetoed the idea of splitting Libya permanently between the British and French, because of the strategic advantage it would give the Western powers in the central Mediterranean. In 1949, the UN General Assembly compromised with resolution 289 that began the transition to independence for Libya as an independent federal kingdom under Muhammad Idris. The British and US governments were allowed to maintain military bases on the coast.
On 24 December 1951, Libya became independent, as a kingdom under Mohammed Idris. But the new state had no resources, only a tiny local middle class, no developed economy, no trade, no jobs, 94 per cent illiteracy, and a per capita annual income of USD35. Libya was the poorest independent country on earth.
The new kingdom was supposedly a constitutional monarchy. This was an entirely new concept for Libya and the great powers of the United Nations appointed its first king. No Libyan was involved in the creation of the new state.
Taking into account the enormous difference in the political experiences of Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, each of the provinces had a great deal of autonomy and its own provincial council. Although there was a national Parliament and a national government, there was no overall structure for managing the economy.
In 1959 the central government employed only 1,200 people, but the provincial government in Tripoli had 6,000 civil servants and the one in Cyrenaica had 4,000. Not even the Armed Forces were integrated: local defence forces in Cyrenaica and Tripoli side-lined the national army.
Eventually, there were two capitals: Tripoli and the Sanusi hometown of al-Bayda in the highlands of Cyrenaica. As a result, the monarchy directed the economy, with little control on how money was spent, causing rampant corruption. This was a dysfunctional political structure, with a heavy administrative structure that was too expensive for such a poor country to support.
At the time of independence in 1951, Libya was very poor indeed. Only 14 Libyans had a university degree. Agriculture was uncertain with irregular rainfall restricting the cultivation to olives and wheat. Libya’s two biggest exports were esparto grass and scrap metal from the battlefields of the Second World War. In the years after 1945, scrap metal contributed to 13 per cent of exports by value. The only industry was limited food processing and artisan work. Gross National Product (GNP) per capita was around $35.
After independence, there was virtually no growth in the manufacturing base. By the end of the 1950s merchandise exports only covered about a fifth of exports.
To raise money, the Libyan government’s most valuable resource was its strategic location. During the Second World War the British and Americans had developed excellent military bases, the US Wheelus airfield outside Tripoli and a British army port complex and airfield at El Adem, outside Tobruk in eastern Cyrenaica. The Libyan government made 20-year agreements with the Americans and British, leasing these bases, and some smaller ones around Benghazi to them. The conservative, pro-Western government depended on it for its survival. The government also received huge amounts of foreign aid, covering more than half of the estimated national income.