With hope and belief, the Libyan government organised a disarmament conference on Christmas Day 2011 at the Radisson hotel in Tripoli. The British Ambassador was in England, so I represented the UK Government and was greatly honoured to meet the last living member of the original 1951 Senate, who was one of 24 Libyans from the three provinces chosen to sit in the upper house of government.
I spoke to the receptive audience about our long friendship and recent partnership to liberate Libya from the brutal shackles of the previous regime and was followed on the stand by the renowned revolutionary leader, Abdelhakim Bel Haj. He was very grateful for Britain’s support and looked forward to working with the United Nations on the disarmament project, but unfortunately, this cordial relationship was paused when London issued instructions to forbid any further dialogue with him.
See chapter 16 of Liberating Libya for the story of Bel Haj’s subsequent legal challenge and the embarrassing admission of the UK government.
News is coming through that the Libyan parliament has postponed Friday’s presidential election in Libya as the ballot papers for nearly 90 candidates have not been circulated in time for voting.
This has been the most likely outcome for the past three weeks ever since Libya’s Higher National Elections Commission realised it could not deliver the complete technical and logistic support needed for a transparent, free and fair election.
It does not help that the judiciary has allowed high-profile candidates, who have broken eligibility rules to stand for president, or that the government cannot guarantee the safety of international monitors as local militia deny the voters full access to the candidates.
This was the main topic of discussion at The Oriental Club where I recently joined a panel of speakers about the future prospects for Libya. We concluded that the government is in between the rocks of “Scylla” and whirlpool of “Charybdis” over the issue of holding the elections on the 70th anniversary of independence. If they hold them on Christmas Eve, the losers will refuse to recognise the results because the legal framework is flawed. However, postponing them risks deepening the divide between the three main regions Cyrenaica (East), Tripolitania (West) and Fezzan (South); and strengthening the position of those who wish to maintain the status quo.
At least the UN Secretary General has now appointed a competent Special Adviser in Stephanie Williams to mediate between the opposing parties. Having been Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, she knows the challenges and understands how important the economic and military tracks are to political progress in 2022.
The news that some European leaders have vetoed a US proposal for NATO to provide direct military support to Ukraine in their border dispute with Russia reminds me of another important connection with Libya.
In Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, I wrote that Ukraine’s geography made “the establishment of defence in depth almost impossible”. With its open countryside lending itself to “outflanking and turning movements”, I went on to explain how the new Polish army discovered this after it captured Kiev in May 1920. The Red Army was already very adept at the tactics which would defeat Hitler’s army and nearly surrounded the Poles by counter-attacking on the northern route from the Dvina to the Dnieper. The effect was recorded by the British Prime Minister’s envoy, Sir Maurice Hankey, who commented that: “The ill-advised advance to Kiev and the inevitable retreat have reacted disastrously on this young and inexperienced [Polish] army”.
The connection with Libya is that the desert area that witnessed the toing and froing of the Allied and Axis tank formations in World War II proved to be a similar battle ground to the vast steppe-like open plains in Ukraine. Some towns and cities in Cyrenaica exchanged hands five times between January 1941 and December 1942 because Eastern Libya needed either to be fully occupied or totally abandoned since it offered few natural defensive barriers.
NATO had to relearn this military realityduring the Libyan revolution in 2011 and one hopes that it will not make the same mistake in Ukraine in 2022.
For the past five years there has been talk about a United Nations Peacekeeping operation in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s vision of this mission is very different to the view from Kiev. Their historical animosity was explained to me by the Ukrainian attaché in Tripoli, who remained in Libya throughout the 2011 revolution, together with their doctors and medics working for the Libyan people.
Libya has some of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world. If European countries had not pulled out in 2012, they could have established a gas pipeline that would have been much cheaper than the one laid from Russia that is increasing European dependency on Russia. The Kremlin knows this and it is one of the reasons why they are helping Khalifa Haftar to disrupt the West’s efforts at establishing a democratic country and reintegrating Libya into the international community.
The G7’s threats of economic sanctions on Moscow over their build-up of their armed forces on the Ukrainian border sounds pretty hollow because there is little evidence that they are willing to deploy capable military boots on the ground (not a shop window force) to back up their rhetoric. Unfortunately, their record in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya provides little confidence that the West’s strategy and commitment is capable of outmatching Putin. A change in foreign affairs is needed now.
This week has seen progress with the US$1.5 Billion project to develop a deep water container port at Marsa Susah. Known in ancient times as Apollonia, this was one of five cities in Cyrenaica established in the seventh century BC by King Battus that made up Pentapolis. It was the port used by the British archaeologists, Smith and Porcher, during their excavations at Cyrene one hundred and sixty years ago and it was where Geoffrey Keyes was landed by submarine on his way to being awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, leading the failed Special Forces attempt to capture Erwin Rommel in November 1941.
This project has been on the table for a long time and is critical to re-booting the Libyan economy. It is envisaged that Susah will serve as the main port of entry for goods into Libya by sea. The natural self-dredging harbour with a sea depth of 18 meters will be constructed in four-phases and will primarily focus on container processing, grain handling and other bulk cargoes. With the signing of the master agreement this week, the beginning of construction is in sight, although probably not until 2023.
See Liberating Libya for Smith and Porcher’s life among the Bedouin and the controversy surrounding the death of Geoffrey Keyes.