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.
Data as of 1987