ONLINE ONLY: Banking on Britain

Benghazi is bust. The UK government is needlessly witholding funds from the Libyan rebels as they battle Gaddafi's forces. It must free the money now

Last week there was one flag missing from the front desk of the Al Noran Hotel in Benghazi. In pride of place was the red, black and green with white star and crescent of Free Libya. Then there were the stripes of Italy and France standing alongside the white and burgundy zigzags of Qatar. Of the Union Jack there was no sign — until, after some gentle encouragement from Standpoint‘s correspondent in Libya, the charming manager popped into the market and returned with one.

If the omission was surprising, given the great affection Libyans in the liberated east routinely express for Britain, there are nevertheless good reasons for Benghazi to feel disappointed in its old friend. One item in particular should be at the top of David Cameron’s in-tray. Four months after overthrowing the despised Gaddafi regime, Benghazis are mystified by Britain’s failure to release the 1.4bn dinars printed by De La Rue. Originally bound for Tripoli before the revolution, the cash was impounded by London. And then the lawyers got involved.

While the Gaddafi regime implodes in Tripoli, a financial crisis is looming in Benghazi, the potential consequences of which are incalculable: instability, unrest, popular dissatisfaction with the authorities, terrorism, collapse. The solution to this crisis lies in London, not in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Rome or Doha. At the time of writing, the National Transitional Council has less than a week’s supply of ready money. Funds pledged by Italy, Qatar, Kuwait and France, they say, have yet to materialise. Even when they do, the Council needs printed cash to keep the economy afloat. The monthly salary bill is in the region of 340m dinars.

Although the UK is rightly committed to removing one of the world’s most odious tyrants, it seems to have forgotten it is fighting a war. Should we not be using every means at our disposal to hasten the end of the Tripoli regime and bolster our friends in Benghazi? Legal and bureaucratic foot-dragging is simply not good enough. One suspects that were the US to be faced with the same situation, it would load the cash on to a Hercules and fly it into Benghazi. Downing Street should realise that not releasing the De La Rue dinars is good for Gaddafi, bad for Libya and bad for Britain.

“The British government has a simple solution for our liquidity problem,” says Mazin Ramadan, senior advisor to Ali Tarhuni, the minister for finance and oil in Benghazi. “I urge them to make a real attempt to solve it. The consequences of inaction on this critical issue are really dire.”

The stakes could hardly be higher in Libya. This corner of North Africa, first written about by Herodotus 2,500 years ago, could rise from the ashes of the Gaddafi inferno and become a model for other Arab nations. It could also go wrong. As a trusted partner, Britain, which has already got so many things right here, needs to act swiftly and do the right thing. In the words of the cover story in WatchwaChat, a new monthly magazine among the hundreds of flourishing new media outlets, says, “We deserve better”.

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