The United Nations and Libya
Disposition of Italian colonial holdings was a question that had to be considered before the peace treaty officially ending the war with Italy could be completed. Technically, Libya remained an Italian possession administered by Britain and France, but at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 the Allies--Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States--agreed that the Italian colonies seized during the war should not be returned to Italy. Further consideration of the question was delegated to the Allied Council of Foreign Ministers, which included a French representative; although all council members initially favored some form of trusteeship, no formula could be devised for disposing of Libya. The United States suggested a trusteeship for the whole country under control of the United Nations (UN), whose charter had become effective in October 1945, to prepare it for self-government. The Soviet Union proposed separate provincial trusteeships, claiming Tripolitania for itself and assigning Fezzan to France and Cyrenaica to Britain. France, seeing no end to the discussions, advocated the return of the territory to Italy. To break the impasse, Britain finally recommended immediate independence for Libya.
The peace treaty, in which Italy renounced all claims to its African possessions, was signed in February 1947 and became effective in September. The language of the treaty was vague on the subject of colonies, adding only that these territories should "remain in their present state until their future is decided." This indefinite proviso disappointed Libyan leaders, who had earlier been alarmed at Italian diplomatic agitation for return of the colonies. Libyans were apprehensive that Italian hegemony might return in some ostensibly nonpolitical guise if Italy were given responsibility for preparing the country for independence.
By mutual agreement the settlement of the Italian colonies was postponed for a year after the treaty became effective, during which time the Big Four (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) were to search for a solution. If none could be found, the question was to be put before the UN General Assembly. A four-power commission of investigation was appointed to ascertain what the Libyan people desired. Although the various regional parties split over the question of the future status of their respective provinces, the majority of Libyans favored independence. The commission, however, decided that the country was not ready for self-government. Other governments interested in the settlement of the problem, notably Italy and Egypt, were consulted. In all cases, conflicting interests prevented any solution, and in due course the Libyan question was placed on the agenda of the General Assembly.
Idris had returned to Libya to a tumultuous welcome in 1944, but he declined to take up residence there until satisfied that all constraints of foreign control not subject to his agreement had been removed. At British urging, he resumed permanent residence in Cyrenaica in 1947; in 1949, with British backing, he unilaterally proclaimed Cyrenaica an independent amirate.
In the meantime, Britain and Italy had placed the Bevin-Sforza plan (after Ernest Bevin and Carlo Sforza, foreign ministers of its respective sponsors) before the UN for its consideration. Under this plan, Libya would come under UN trusteeship, and responsibility for administration in Tripolitania would be delegated to Italy, in Cyrenaica to Britain, and in Fezzan to France. At the end of ten years, Libya would become independent. Over Libyan protests, the plan was adopted by the UN Political Committee in May 1949, only to fall short by one vote of the twothirds majority required for adoption by the General Assembly. No further proposals were submitted, but protracted negotiations led to a compromise solution that was embodied in a UN resolution in November 1949. This resolution called for the establishment of a sovereign state including all three historic regions of Libya by January 1952. A UN commissioner and the so-called Council of Ten-- composed of a representative from each of the three provinces, one for the Libyan minorities, and one each for Egypt, France, Italy, Pakistan, Britain, and the United States--were to guide Libya through the period of transition to independence and to assist a Libyan national assembly in drawing up a constitution. In the final analysis, indecision on the part of the major powers had precipitated the creation of an independent state and forced the union of provinces hitherto divided by geography and history.
The General Assembly named Adrian Pelt of the Netherlands as commissioner for Libya. Severe problems confronted him and his staff in preparing for independence an economically backward and politically inexperienced country, almost totally lacking in trained managerial and technical personnel, physicians, and teachers. Of Libya's approximately 1 million inhabitants, at least 90 percent were illiterate. Libya's biggest source of income was from scrap metal salvaged from the World War II battlefields. There were no known natural resources--even Libya's sand was inadequate for glassmaking--and it was obvious that the country would be dependent on foreign economic aid for an indefinite period. Pelt argued forcefully that Italian settlers should be encouraged to remain in Libya, first, because the land they worked was private property that could not be expropriated legally, and, second, because their presence represented a long-term investment that was essential to any further economic development in the country.
Historically, the administration of Libya had been united for only a few years--and those under Italian rule. Many groups vied for influence over the people but, although all parties desired independence, there was no consensus as to what form of government was to be established. The social basis of political organization varied from region to region. In Cyrenaica and Fezzan, the tribe was the chief focus of social identification, even in an urban context. Idris had wide appeal in the former as head of the Sanusi order, while in the latter the Sayf an Nasr clan commanded a following as paramount tribal chieftains. In Tripolitania, by contrast, loyalty that in a social context was reserved largely to the family and kinship group could be transferred more easily to a political party and its leader. Tripolitanians, following the lead of Bashir as Sadawi's National Congress Party, pressed for a republican form of government in a unitary state. Inasmuch as their region had a significantly larger population and a relatively more advanced economy that the other two, they expected that under a unitary political system political power would gravitate automatically to Tripoli. Cyrenaicans, who had achieved a larger degree of cohesion under Sanusi leadership, feared the chaos they saw in Tripolitania and the threat of being swamped politically by the Tripolitanians in a unitary state. Guided by the National Front, endorsed by Idris initially to advocate unilateral independence for Cyrenaica, they backed formation of a federation with a weak central government that would permit local autonomy under Idris as amir. But even in Cyrenaica a cleavage existed between an older generation that thought instinctively in provincial terms and a younger generation--many of whom were influenced by their membership in the Umar al Mukhtar Club, a political action group first formed in 1942 with Idris' blessing but by 1947 tending toward republican and nationalist views--whose outlook reflected the rise of pan-Arab political nationalism, already a strong force in the Middle East and growing in Libya.
To implement the General Assembly's directive, Pelt approved the appointment of the Preparatory Committee of Twenty-One to determine the composition of a national constitutional convention. The committee included seven members from each province, nominated in Cyrenaica by Idris, in Fezzan by the Sayf an Nasr chieftains, and in Tripolitania by the grand mufti (chief religious judge) of Tripoli, who also acted as its chairman. Nationalists objected that the committee represented traditional regional interests and could not reflect the will of the Libyan people as the General Assembly had intended.
The product of the committee's deliberations was the creation of the National Constituent Assembly, in which each of the three provinces was equally represented. Meeting for the first time in November 1950, the assembly approved a federal system of government with a monarchy, despite dissent from Tripolitanian delegates, and offered the throne to Idris. Committees of the assembly drafted a constitution, which was duly adopted in October 1951. Meanwhile, internal administrative authority had already been transferred by British and French administrations to the regional governments--and in Cyrenaica to the independent Sanusi amirate. On December 24, 1951, King Idris I proclaimed the independence of the United Kingdom of Libya as a sovereign state.
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