On 24 December, the United Kingdom embassy in Tripoli, Libya, issued a statement on its Twitter and Facebook accounts that, at first, looked like a routine statement on developments in the country—something major countries' embassies, including the United States, used to do. Not this time. A few moments later, Libyans in their thousands, were flocking to social media platforms to call for the ambassador to be expelled.
The statement reiterated the UK's support for elections but what enraged people is a sentence that says that the UK will continue to recognise the current Government of National Unity (GNU) as "the authority tasked with leading Libya to elections and does not endorse the establishment of parallel" authority. The current caretaker GNU government and its Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, have been accused of corruption, waste of resources and, above all, Mr. Dbeibah is accused of using public finances for his own presidential bid. There has been a debate among politicians if GNU should stay or not.
On 27 December, Libya's parliament responded by announcing that the UK ambassador, Caroline Hurndall, is "persona non grata"— a diplomatic term meaning that she should leave the country. Since this is not the job of the parliament but the Foreign Ministry, the spokesman, Abdullah Blihaq, said that the Foreign Ministry has been notified of the decision.
It remains to be seen what action, if any, Libya's Foreign Minister, Najla Mangoush, will take.
Is ambassador Hurndall going to leave Libya? MEMO asked the former British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, in an interview on 28 December. He said ambassador Hurndall "should not leave Libya", describing the parliament's statement as an "over reaction."
By 29 December, a further 1000 Facebook users have commented on the statement on the UK embassy's Facebook account with the overwhelming majority expressing anger while calling for the ambassador to leave the country. One user, named Sami Ashour, wrote "you [UK] never wanted stability for Libya." Another comment by Ismail Aboujila read "you [UK] take your hands of Libya."
On Twitter, a hashtag, in Arabic, accompanied by ambassador Hurndall's picture, saying "British ambassador should be expelled from Libya" was widely trending.
Two days later, attempting to control the damage, the British embassy put out a more carefully worded announcement, but it was too late and the damage has already been done.
The controversial statement came just one hour after the UK, France, Italy, USA, Germany and France issued a joint statement that, effectively, said the same thing—continue to recognize the interim GNU.
This made the British newspaper, The Guardian, wonder why only the UK was singled out? What the newspaper missed is that in the joint statement did not, explicitly, say that the mentioned countries will reject the establishment of a new administration in Libya. Implying something is not the same as "saying it openly" says a European Union based Libyan ambassador who does not want to be identified. The ambassador also said "British diplomats including Mr. Millett" never spared a moment without interfering in Libya's internal affairs.
Foreign interference in Libya has been at the heart of the country's decade-long troubles. The ambassador continued "let's not forget that what happened in 2011 was incited and encouraged by foreigners." Indeed, Western countries played a crucial role in toppling the former Gaddafi regime in a civil war that raged for seven months. NATO, supported by few Arab countries, spearheaded a destructive air campaign that ended in the former leader himself being killed and helping the rebels take over Libya.
A retired Libyan diplomat told MEMO that foreign diplomats in Libya, after 2011, "became part of the political domestic scene." In many instances, the Libyan people learn of certain "decisions in their country through foreign embassies' social media accounts" he added.
Indeed with the internet widely and cheaply available in Libya, almost all Tripoli based Western diplomats keep "bragging" about their activities in Libya. For example, ambassador Hurndall, to the dismay of many Libyans, has been publicising "almost everything" she does in the country. To political commentator, Abdalla Yahia, this is "too much" for the Libyans to "swallow."
Ambassador Hurndall, the subject of current public condemnation, in a Facebook post dated 7 December while visiting Misrata, east of Tripoli, published pictures of her meeting with field military commanders, including the commander of Sirte-Aljufra Operations Room, Major General Muhammad Bait Al-Mal. To Mr. Yahiha, this is "easily interpreted as supporting one side against the other" in the country's conflict. The post has been recently deleted.
The EU-based ambassador said "foreign diplomats moving around Libya" is something Libyans were not used to in the past. He added, "before 2011 it was almost unthinkable" for any Western diplomat to freely move around Libya without the government knowing in advance.
Mr. Millett, however, disagrees. He said that "there is no international law" that requires foreign based diplomats to seek approval of movement from authorities in hosting countries. He explained "if the Libyan ambassador in London wants to visit" any place or meet anyone in the UK he is free to do so because that is "part of the job."
On 5 December, Ambassador Hurndall ran a Facebook Q&A session with a selected local audience in which she answered question about the presidential elections and if the UK supports any particular candidate. She commented by denying that the UK is supporting any candidate but then said "… Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi should be prepared to face" the International Criminal Court which is seeking his handover. To Tripoli lawyer, Mohamed Lahwal, this "statement came out of context" and it is direct interference in "Libya's judiciary" insulting to all Libyans, he said. It also added to the controversy.
Mr. Gaddafi is contesting the presidential election which has been delayed. But he is also wanted by the international court. However, Mr. Lahwal said that handing him over or not is "domestic Libyan matter" that should not be openly discussed by foreign diplomats.
It is unlikely that UK ambassador will be expelled but the controversy will remind her to be careful with what she says in a country where people are hypersensitive to foreign interferences.
The UK embassy was asked for a comment but did not respond.
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