Now that the curtain on the final act of Muammar Gaddafi’s days as Libya’s absolute ruler has fallen, it is opportune to examine his impact on the relations between Malta and Libya. The instinct in our island to score political mileage at any cost has led to distortions that cannot be allowed to remain unchallenged.
As a very young boy, I remember a shop in Prince of Wales Road, Sliema, run by Libyan artesans hammering out beautiful brass items as well as itinerant hawkers in Birkirkara selling ħabbażiż (earth almond).
While there was also a long-established Maltese community in Libya, prejudice based on old historical and religious rivalry still prevailed.
When Benito Mussolini, Libya’s colonial ruler, crossed swords with Malta’s colonial rulers over the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and, later, by declaring war against it in World War II, this link was broken, only to re-emerge stronger in post-war years because Britain played a major role in Libya’s liberation from its fascist rulers and on its road to recovery and independence. The English language had replaced Italian and this led to Maltese persons becoming involved in Libya’s educational, banking and commercial development without encountering the resentment faced by other foreigners, including neighbouring Arabs. British and US military presence in Libya also provided another link with Malta.
Malta became independent in 1964, 13 years after Libya, and both countries lost no time to establish diplomatic relations and reciprocated in opening embassies. The Libya I found when I was posted there in 1967 was quite different from the one of my childhood impressions. Oil had started to lubricate impressive economic developement. University-educated Libyans, who had numbered fewer than the fingers on a person’s hand under Italian occupation, had multiplied and were slowly taking over from foreigners in business, security and administrative jobs. Shops displayed luxury goods apart from brass items but I did not come across any ħabbażiż. However, there was still a mixture of the old and the new, mainly evident in the barakan-shrouded women and the shanty towns on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Politically, a veneer of democracy under a benign monarchy prevailed but when I was asked by my superiors whether we should take up a Libyan offer to conclude a defence agreement, my answer was an emphatic “no” because, in my view, Libya’s political future was far from clear and we could find ourselves committed to a very different regime in no time. In fact, such a change did take place about a year later when an unknown Lt Gaddafi, then unknown, deposed King Idris who was having his annual long summer holiday in Greece.
Malta’s government, at that time led by Prime Minister George Borg Olivier, maintained the then existing normal and friendly relations that one expects between neighbours who respect each other. In the light of loose talk on what such a relationship entailed, it may be necessary to state that this meant that Malta, like the rest of the world, did not stand in judgement of the new political development in Libya. At the same time, it did not adjust its internal and external policies to humour or accomodate a neighbour while normal economic and social cooperation was cultivated.
Relations between Malta and Libya changed fundamentally when Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister in June 1971. Mr Mintoff’s priority was to renegotiate the agreement, covering a number of years, reached between the UK and Dr Borg Olivier’s government that gave Britain the right to maintain a military base in Malta while the UK committed itself to make available an annual financial grant to support our economy.
In his accustomed way, Mr Mintoff was tough, some would say also rough, kicking out the Nato regional office based in Malta. More effective was the restraint he imposed on the use of Britain’s military facilities, to the extent of forcing service families to return to the UK half-way through the school year, thus exerting more pressure on the UK to meet his demands for more money than it was ready to give. Britain answered by witholding the related financial subvention.
This would have brought Mr Mintoff to his knees had not the admiring Col Gaddafi, who had closed down the US and UK military bases in Libya, stepped in and provided funds to make up for the stopped funds from the UK. There was also a revolutionary spirit common to both leaders. Eventually, the UK and its allies agreed to pay more but less than what Mr Mintoff had demanded.
Mr Mintoff survived stronger than before, while the presence of the UK military base in Malta was extended to 1979.
A new relationship was born between Malta and Libya. It could accurately be described as one of indebtedness on the part of Malta and expectations on Libya’s. In spite of all the window dressing, it was an uneasy relationship. Mr Mintoff was not the person to accept playing second fiddle to anyone, especially a foreigner, but he still needed Col Gadadfi’s money until he could build an economy that could thrive, unaided, when the British subvention would come to an end. Col Gaddafi played along, waiting for the closure of the British military base.
Mr Mintoff made changes to Malta’s internal and external policies to impress Col Gaddafi and persuade him to hand out monies from time to time. Internally, he made Arabic a compulsory subject in schools; he gave permission for a prominent mosque to be built and run by an Islamic society to which he gave diplomatic status; he passed on the Main Guard, occupying a prominent place in Valletta, to the Libyans, who were allowed to cover up a national monument by the Libyan emblem; a garden in Paola was named after Col Gaddafi; ministers started calling the Mediterranean Sea Il-Baħar l-Abjad (The White Sea), as the Arabs do; agreements were signed to set up Libyan broadcasting stations in Malta; an unused teachers’ training college was sold to Libya to provide higher education for students from Libya; any number of bilateral cooperation agreements were signed; quite significantly, Mr Mintoff declared that the Maltese and the Libyans were blood brothers.
Of less significance was the membership of Xirka Gieħ ir-Repubblika given to Col Gaddafi during a visit to Malta in May 1976. Exchange of honours is a routine exercise during state visits.
Tomorrow: The start of a new chapter
The author headed Malta’s Embassy in Tripoli twice, in the time of King Idris and Muammar Gaddafi, and dealt with Malta’s relations with Libya as secretary and adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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