- - Wednesday, February 1, 2017

CAIRO — With a population of 6 million and historically the most prosperous of the seven majority-Muslim nations on President Trump’s contentious executive order curbing travel and refugee flows, oil-rich Libya stands out as the smallest and the wealthiest country in the group.

But after three years of civil war that left an opening for penetration by Islamic State terrorists and with rival governments in its eastern and western sectors — neither with full control of state agencies or the country’s borders — some Libyan leaders say they can readily understand what drove the new U.S. president to hit the pause button.

“It’s hard to demand that the USA or any other country not take precautionary measures,” said Abd Elhadi Ma’touk, a spokesman for the government in the eastern sector based in the city of Tobruk, 90 miles from the Egyptian border.

“Especially with the current chaos and division in Libya, there is an argument to restrict the entrance of certain people to America,” Mr. Ma’touk added.

Mr. Trump’s executive order has been roundly condemned in much of Europe and by the African Union, the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and — just Wednesday — by the Vatican. But there also have been some surprising expressions of support, or at least understanding, for what critics insist is a “Muslim ban.”

The White House on Wednesday was trumpeting comments from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, that the U.S. was within its rights to take what he said was a “sovereign decision” concerning immigration, that much of the Islamic world was not affected by the order and that he did not see the move as targeting Muslims.

“This is a temporary ban, and it will be revised in three months, so it is important that we put into consideration this point,” Sheikh Abdullah said after talks with his Russian counterpart in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, according to The Associated Press. “Some of these countries that were on this list are countries that face structural problems. These countries should try to solve these issues and these circumstances before trying to solve this issue with the United States.”

In Libya, supporters of the Tobruk government see political Islam as enemy No. 1 and back the forces led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who they believe is the only figure capable of restoring their failed state to functionality.

Pro-Hafter columnist Saleh Alzoubik said Mr. Trump’s order makes sense in Libya’s case, given that terrorist groups got access to passport offices during the anarchy of the country’s war.

“There are more than 2,000 Libyan passports issued since the overthrow of [dictator Moammar] Gadhafi that have fallen into the hands of terrorist elements,” said Mr. Alzoubik, writing in the Tobruk daily Ewan Libya. “Many of these people are not even Libyan and have no right to political asylum or refugee status in America.”

Embassy shuttered

The U.S. Embassy suspended all operations in Libya in July 2014 and relocated staff outside of the country because of the continuing violence involving Libyan militias. After the executive order was issued Friday, the State Department warned U.S. citizens against all travel to Libya and recommended that any Americans in Libya depart immediately.

Predictably in so divided a country, officials in the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, have taken the opposite stance of their rivals in the east, joining other affected countries such as Iran and Iraq in condemning Mr. Trump’s plan.

“These actions represent racial discrimination on the basis of religion and are incompatible with human rights,” Mohamed Sayala, foreign minister for the Government of National Accord, told local TV station Libya’s Channel.

He called Mr. Trump’s order “inconsistent with international laws and treaties.” He cited the Arab League’s strong statements in protest.

The Reuters news service reported Wednesday that the travel and visa curbs have put into doubt a major conference on U.S.-Libyan relations scheduled in Washington. The Feb. 16-17 conference was to feature two former Libyan prime ministers, the head of the national oil company and top financial officials from Tripoli.

The executive order has particularly hit Libyan students hard.

“I left Tripoli for Istanbul Friday night,” said Najwa Yazji an international relations student at Northern Virginia’s George Mason University, “but when I got to the gate [in Istanbul], I was told I could not board the flight.

“This is my last semester before graduation. I’ve done this trip seven times without any problems,” said Ms. Yazji, who has joined several hundred other Muslim travelers stranded by the travel ban and facing unanticipated stays at hotels in Istanbul. “I’m so frustrated.”

The order has dashed hopes to complete a prestigious American physician’s certification process for Farag El-Hassi a, 25-year-old Benghazi medical student.

“The advancement of science in America is light years ahead of Libya,” said Mr. El-Hassi. “I already passed the first two parts of the [U.S. licensing exam], but the remaining three sections can’t be done online and I had planned on finishing it up in New York next month.

“International medical students sacrifice three or four years of their lives to achieve this and now they’re banned,” he said.

Libyan businessmen say the executive order could backfire on the United States economically because the country’s oil production has increased from 300,000 barrels per day to nearly 700,000.

“I thought I would visit the U.S. soon to learn about new drilling techniques,” said Abu Salam, a 52-year-old petroleum engineer in Benghazi. “But similar training is available in Italy and Russia, and I am tired of the Americans paying lip service to freedom and then taking this action to limit mine.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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