World War Ii and Independence
As Europe prepared for war, Libyan nationalists at home and in exile perceived that the best chance for liberation from colonial domination lay in Italy's defeat in a larger conflict. Such an opportunity seemed to arise when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, but Mussolini's defiance of the League of Nations and the feeble reaction of Britain and France dashed Libyan hopes for the time being. Planning for liberation resumed, however, with the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939. Libyan political leaders met in Alexandria, Egypt, in October to resolve past differences in the interest of future unity. Idris was accepted as leader of the nationalist cause by Tripolitanians as well as Cyrenaicans, with the proviso that he designate an advisory committee with representatives from both regions to assist him. Differences between the two groups were too deep and long held, however, for the committee to work well.
When Italy entered the war on the side of Germany on June 10, 1940, the Cyrenaican leaders, who for some months had been in contact with British military officers in Egypt, immediately declared their support for the Allies. In Tripolitania, where Italian control was strongest, some opinion initially opposed cooperation with Britain on the ground that if the Allies lost-- which seemed highly possible in 1940--retribution would be severe. But the Cyrenaicans, with their long history of resistance to the Italians, were anxious to resume the conflict and reminded the timid Tripolitanians that conditions in the country could be no worse than they already were. Idris pointed out that it would be of little use to expect the British to support Libyan independence after the war if Libyans had not cooperated actively with them during the war.
Idris presided over a meeting of Libyan leaders hastily summoned to Cairo in August 1940, at which formal arrangements for cooperation with British military authorities were initiated. Delegates to the conference expressed full confidence in Idris in a resolution and granted him extensive powers to negotiate with the British for Libya's independence. The resolution stated further that Libyan participation with British forces should be "under the banner of the Sanusi Amirate" and that a "provisional Sanusi government" should be established.
Although a number of Tripolitanian representatives agreed to participate, the resolution was essentially a Cyrenaican measure adopted over the objections of the Tripolitanian nationalists. The Tripolitanians, suspicious of the ties between Idris and the British, held that a definite statement endorsing Libyan independence should have been obtained from Britain before Idris committed Libya to full-scale military cooperation. Also, although the Tripolitanians were reluctantly willing to accept Idris as their political chief, they rejected any religious connection with the Sanusi order. Hence they objected to the use of the term Sanusi throughout the resolution in place of Libya or even Cyrenaica. These two areas of objection--the extent of the commitment to Britain and the role of the Sanusi order in an independent, united Libya--constituted the main elements of internal political dissension during the war and early postwar years.
British officials maintained that major postwar agreements or guarantees could not be undertaken while the war was still in progress. Although he endeavored from time to time to secure a more favorable British commitment, Idris generally accepted this position and counseled his followers to have patience. Clearly, many of them were not enthusiastic about Libyan unity and would have been satisfied with the promise of a Sanusi government in Cyrenaica. After the August 1940 resolution, five Libyan battalions were organized by the British, recruited largely from Cyrenaican veterans of the Italo-Sanusi wars. The Libyan Arab Force, better known as the Sanusi Army, served with distinction under British command through the campaigns of the desert war that ended in the liberation of Cyrenaica.
In a speech in the House of Commons in January 1942, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden acknowledged and welcomed "the contribution which Sayid Idris as Sanusi and his followers have made and are making" to the Allied war effort. He added that the British government was determined that the Sanusis in Cyrenaica should "in no circumstances again fall under Italian domination." No further commitment was made, and this statement, which made no mention of an independent Libya, remained the official British position during the war.
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