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LIBYA: Birth of a Nation

6 minute read

A new nation was born this week.

In Tripoli and Benghazi, where proconsuls of the Phoenicians, the Caesars and the Ottomans once reigned, and the shards of Mussolini’s latter-day empire molder mockingly in the African sun, bright new flags proclaimed the birth of the United Kingdom of Libya. A sage old Moslem spiritual leader became the world’s newest King, Idris I of Libya. Three territories, separated by wide deserts and mutual distrust—Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan —were united under a Western-style parliament and a constitution scissored and pasted together from the laws of twelve other countries.

A Word for It. The birth is a unique attempt at planned parenthood. Libya, a country of a few backward cities and oasis-speckled sand wilderness about three times the size of Texas, is the first nation brought into being solely by the United Nations. But it is a typical newborn of the sickly Arab world—born into poverty, cursed with ignorance, endowed with only a fighting chance to grow to maturity. The 1,050,000 Arabs of Libya have a word for independence—istiqlal—but little of the heritage to make it work.

The country has no colleges, and only 16 college graduates. It has only three lawyers. There is not a single Libyan physician, engineer, surveyor or pharmacist in the land. No more than 250,000 Libyans can write their own names; the rest use thumbprints as signatures. Eye diseases, especially trachoma, are so widespread that 10% of the population is blind.

The national per capita income is $35 a year—lowest of all Arab countries, with the possible exception of Yemen. Italians. of whom there are still 47,000 out of the thousands who immigrated to Libya when it was to become Mussolini’s model col ony, still hold many of the best jobs, own the best farms, run the best businesses. Eight-tenths of the people are farmers or nomadic herdsmen, yet a U.N. survey team reports discouragedly that the country “is hardly able to afford an adequate diet for its own people.”

200 Miles of Track. Importing twice what it exports, the country must write its budget in red. The kingdom’s rail transport consists of one steam engine, two diesels, a few ramshackle freight cars, and only 200 miles of track to run them on. Between Tripoli, which is the country’s largest city, and Fezzan, its largest province, there are no telephone, telegraph or radio connections. Nor is there much homogeneity between the three provinces. Except for the late years of Italian rule (1935 until World War II), Tripolitania (pop. 800,000), Cyrenaica (pop. 300,000) and Fezzan (pop. 40,000) have never been jointly administered.

Even the U.N. is not sure that such an anemic child can survive. Because the big powers could not agree among themselves on the future of the former Italian colony, the U.N.’s little nations, led by impatient Arabs and the Latin Americans, in 1949 slipped through a resolution which decreed independence no later than Jan. 1, 1952.

A roly-poly Dutchman named Adrian Pelt left his job as Assistant Secretary General of the U.N. to become U.N. Commissioner in Libya, took a staff of experts to work with him. A provisional assembly of 60 Libyans—20 from each province—meeting under the U.N.’s wing, decided that the country should be a federal monarchy, drafted its constitution, and planned elections. Without argument, the assembly settled on a King—Sayid Mohammed Idris el Mahdi el Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica, spiritual and political leader of the devout and powerful Moslem Order of the Senussiya, and in his own right the strongest personality in Libya.

A scholarly, fine-boned Arab of 62, who wears the blue robes of a Bedouin monarch and speaks in a high, thin voice, King Idris I led his Senussi tribesmen in two wars against the Italians, now uses a converted Italian barracks near Benghazi as his palace. He trusts the West, and privately refers to the seven-nation Arab League as “an alliance of weaknesses.” But recognizing Libya’s kinship with the rest of the Moslem world, he plans to join the Arab League. “If anybody ever succeeds in cementing this country together,” says an English veteran of Libya, “it will be the King. The cement is Islam—these people really believe and live Islam.” (The first daub of cement: a royal decree establishing two capitals, the main one in Tripoli, and the second in Benghazi to allay Cyrenaican fears of Tripoli.)

Full of Beans. After a year of working with the King and his contagiously optimistic ministers, even some of the pessimistic foreigners in Libya have become more hopeful. “There’s a chance for real democracy here,” says Pelt. “I think they can make a go of it—the Libyans are full of beans and ready to try.” Actually, in independence the Libyans will be getting more outside help and guidance than they got as a colony. The British, who hope to be Libya’s big brother, have provided scores of civil servants to staff the government, are putting up some $6,000,000 to get things going (as opposed to $1,000,000 from the U.S.) and to underwrite Libya’s annual budget deficit. The French left experts behind in Fezzan, and are giving the province $500,000 a year.

Libya’s attraction for the U.S., Britain and France is chiefly strategic. Britain and France will be allowed to keep garrisons in Libya, and the U.S. its big Wheelus Field bomber base near Tripoli. But Libya’s new leaders have shown that they do not want to be bottle-fed forever. “So far, they have made encouraging progress because they’ve asked for advice as well as aid,” says a Western diplomat.

As the day of istiqlal approached last week, the government prepared for it with a sort of dazed reverence. The ministers scuttled between the two capitals in a borrowed U.N. plane, to arrange a three-day celebration. Someone got the loan of a U.S. howitzer for a 101-shot salute, then found an old Turk who thought he knew how to fire it. A team of G.I. technicians visited the King in his dagger-hung study, to record his independence proclamation for broadcast. The King patiently reread the speech four times and then, when it was played back on a wire recorder, widened his eyes and giggled.

The common Arab in the bazaars of Tripoli or among the Fezzan sand dunes seemed not quite sure of what was happening. But just as he has always had a word for independence, he has one for things not quite understandable. The word is inshalla, and it means: “As God wills it.”

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