Al Jazeera World

Libya’s Forgotten King

The story of King Idris I, who unified Libya and became its first king in 1951 before being toppled by Gaddafi in 1969.

Film-maker: Ashraf Mashharawi

The map of modern Libya was not fully drawn until the mid-20th century. The land was fought over by the Ottomans, Italians and the British.

It had comprised three ancient provinces – Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the south. The desert Ottoman province of Cyrenaica was where the Algerian Muhammad ibn Ali Senussi founded his Sufi Muslim religious order in the late 18thcentury. He established the Senussi movement as a response to what he saw as the decline of Islamic thought and spirituality at the time.

When the UN delegate came to Libya, he visited all its regions, north, east and south. They said the country was suffering poverty, disease and illiteracy. It needed a miracle to stand on its own feet because it had no resources

by Idris Al-Harir, historian and former political activist

According to Idris Al-Harir, the historian and former political activist, Senussi established the order in Cyrenaica “first as a religious ‘good deed’ but later to make it the centre of his political power”. He built 330 zawiya, religious study centres, and Jaghbub, on the border with Egypt, became the focus of this new order in eastern Libya.

Cyrenaica was also where Senussi’s grandson, Idris, would one day become the ruler of the United Libyan Kingdom.

This two-part film tells the fascinating story of Idris, the country’s first and, so far, only monarch – Libya’s now forgotten king.

King Idris ruled from 1951 until Muammar Gaddafi seized power in a coup in 1969. Given events in Libya in the past five decades, his life and reign seem now to have faded from public consciousness. The history of modern Libya is often thought of as synonymous with Gaddafi, but the man who preceded him was a nationalist and an astute politician at a time when his homeland was fought over by colonial powers.

We look at the rise of Idris, who succeeded his father as leader of the Senussi people, and explore his early years. His journey to Mecca to perform Hajj at the time of World War I helped shaped his understanding of the political world around him. On his pilgrimage, he met the Khedive of Egypt, the Ottoman Wali in the Levant; and Sharif Hussein in the Hijaz. On his way home to Cyrenaica, he also met British military leaders in Egypt.

The Senussis supported Germany and the Ottomans in World War I but fought the post-war Italian colonisation of their region. When Cyrenaica and Tripolitania became Italian colonies in 1917, Benito Mussolini did, however, recognised Idris as the Emir of Italian Cyrenaica.

In World War II, King Idris and the Senussis formed an alliance with the British in their North African campaign to try and end Italian occupation. This helped the British defeat Italy and Germany in Africa in 1943.

In 1949, the British were instrumental in enabling Idris to announce the independent Emirate of Cyrenaica and when he was also elected Emir of Tripolitania, he had begun the process of Libyan unification. In December 1951, he proclaimed the United Libya Kingdom, naming himself as King.

At a speech at al Manar Palace in Benghazi, King Idris came up with his famous phrase: “Keeping independence is harder than gaining it.”

Both before and during his reign, he was accused of being a puppet in the hands of Western powers. In the early 1950s, his country desperately needed investment and Idris did deals with Britain and the US, allowing them to build military bases in Libya in return for funding development in Libya. Arab nationalists were upset that he maintained such strong ties with the West.

Libya began to prosper economically once oil was discovered in 1959 and the profits began to be generated in the early 1960s. Idris’ health deteriorated and while in Turkey in August 1969 he abdicated in favour of his nephew. During his absence, however, he had already been deposed in a coup by a group of army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi. The monarchy was abolished, a republic proclaimed and Idris sentenced to death in absentia. He went into exile in Egypt and died in Cairo in 1983, aged 93.

Libya’s Forgotten King – part 1