By Michel Cousins.
Tripoli, 30 September:
A one-day event to commemorate Libya’s first prime minister, Mahmoud Muntasser, is being organised this evening, Sunday, . . .[restrict]by the Libyan Centre for Archives and Historical Studies. The day marks the 42nd anniversary of his death in 1970 while in one of Qaddafi’s prisons. The cause of his death has never been disclosed.
The present Prime Minister, Abdurrahim Al-Kib, as well as his predecessor, Mahmoud Jibril, and the Prime Minister-elect, Mustafa Abushagur, are all expected to attend, according to Belgassem Muntasser, the late prime minister’s son. So is the President of the General National Congress, Mohamed Magarief, who like Jibril is due to arrive back in Tripoli during the day.
The late prime minister was born in Ajelat near Sabrata in 1903. His father Mahmoud Ahmed Muntasser, served as the local governor in the Ottoman administration although the family was from Misrata. Mahmoud’s mother was a member of the Kaabar family from Gharian; her brother Hadi was later hanged by the Italians.
The future prime minister originally studied Arabic and Koranic classes under Sheikh Mohamed Misrati and Sheikh Mahmoud Msalati whom he was later to work with as governors of the Islamic High School in Dahra. He so excelled in his studies that he was given a place at Rome University to study politics and economics, a rare distinction at the time for a native Tripolitanian. However, he left in 1925 to take care of his family following the death of his brother, Maadi.
Religiously very observant, he succeeded Ismail Kamali in 1936 as head of the main Islamic institution during the colonial period, the Waqf administration. That was when he also became head of the board of governors of the Islamic High School. Another post at the time was deputy head of the Arabization Institute, an organisation that was in charge of translating all official documents. It was a post he continued to hold until 1951.
In 1943, the British defeated the Italians during the Second World War and took over the administration of Tripolitania three years later, Muntasser was appointed as a member of the Independence Commission, looking into how an indepdent country would work.
In 1950, he was appointed Deputy Director of Tripolitania Provincial Council by Adriaan Pelt, the Dutchman who was appointed High Commissioner for Libya by the UN at the end of 1949 to prepare the country for independence. He was also appointed by Pelt as a member of the national association preparing the new constitution, under the leadership of Mohammed Bulassaad Al-Alim, the Grand Mufti of Libya. Known as the Committee of Sixty, it had 20 members from Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, and it the model for the 60-member committee that will devise Libya’s constitution next year.
On 29 March the same year he was appointed Prime Minister of Tripolitania in preparation for independence. It was a post that also included being minister of Interior, Education ands Justice. Then on 24 December came independence, and Muntasser was appointed by the new king, Idris, as prime minister of the United Kingdom of Libya.
It was anything but an easy responsibility. Oil had not yet been found and Libya was one of the poorest states in the world. It was Muntasser’s task to find the finance to fund the government and its plans. He did so by leasing army and air bases to the British. There were airbases at Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk as well as a number of army bases. It was the income from these, and later from the American Wheelus airbase (now Metiga Airport; negotiated by his successor) that funded Libya until oil was found at the end of the 1950s and the petrodollars started to flow in.
On 18 February 1954, King Idris appointed a new prime minister, Mohamed Asakazli. Muntasser became the first Libyan ambassador to the UK, a post he retained until 1957. Given Libya’s close relations with the UK, it was the most important Libyan ambassadorship at the time. His deputy there was Omar Baruni,who later served as minister in several cabinets.
One of Muntasser’s first tasks was to acquire premises. A house was bought in Kensington’s Phillimore Gardens backing onto Holland Park for £5,000. It was to serve as the ambassador’s residence until 1997 when it was sold on Qaddafi’s order for £1.75 million. There are voices in Libya who now claim that it was sold too cheaply.
In 1958, he became ambassador to the former colonial power, Italy. A fluent Italian speaker, he fast developed close political ties with the country’s political leaders. These were to come in useful when again he needed to find premises for the embassy in Rome. A property was found in the Via Nomentana, but it was owned by the Vatican which did not want to sell to the Libyan government. Munstasser’s close relationship with Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani who was also close to the Vatican changed that; the house was bought and is still today the Libyan embassy in Rome.
In 1960 he became an advisor to the king and would have remained so but for a political crisis which made him prime minister for a second time. There was a growing Arab nationalism in Libya, particularly among students. In January 1964 there was an Arab Summit in Cairo. King Idris did not attend although the prime minister, Moheiddine Fekini, did. There was nothing particularly unusual about this; the king saw himself above politics. Students in Benghazi, however, thought otherwise and protested at the king’s absence. The police responded with violence, shooting at the demonstrators, and killing several. Fekini vowed that those responsible should be punished and demanded the dismissal of the head of police, Mahmud Buguaitin, who had been a member of the Senussi forces fighting with the British against the Italians in the Second World War. When King Idris refused, Fekini resigned. Muntasser was brought back to end what had become Libya’s first serious political crisis. He resigned just over a year later, on 20 March 1965, for health reasons. He was then appointed head of the Royal Court office, a post he held until Qaddafi seized power on 1 September 1969.
The day after that, he was arrested on Qaddafi’s orders. He died in prison a year later, around 28 September. The exact date is unknown as are the causes. The family were never told and there was no death certificate. All they were told was that he had been buried in Tripoli’s Sidi Munedir cemetery in Sharia Al-Wadi. The mystery regarding the timing of his death may have been due to the fact that Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser died on 28 September and Qaddafi and the entire Libyan leadership were in Cairo for the funeral. However, there was no mistaking Qaddafi’s continued hostility to Muntasser. When a Libyan journalist, Juma Al-Nasser, wrote an obituary in the newspaper Al-Hadaf, Qaddafi had it closed down.
His achievements were not small. At the time of his first term, Libya was exceptionally poor. He managed to find an income from the British and negotiated funding from the Americans and the French as well. Under him, Libya also joined the Arab League, the United Nations and all their various agencies; Libya became an active member of the international community.
Apart from the speeches at tomorrow’s event, which takes place between 5.30 pm and 10.00 pm at Tripoli’s Jihad Centre in Shara Mizran, a recording of the speech Muntasser made to parliament in March 1952 will be played and a film of a visit he made to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia shown. [/restrict]