As Libya is in search of a future, we look back into its past, one which saw it put up a revolutionary fight against Italian occupation — the end of which paved the way for Idris to become the country's first ruler.
Think of leadership in Libya and the first, and perhaps, only name that comes to mind is Muammar Gaddafi. The country remains locked in the civil war which erupted after his removal and subsequent killing in 2011.
Gaddafi, however, was not Libya’s only leader after it achieved independence from the Italians in 1951. Another name deeply etched in national memory is Muhammed Idris as-Senussi, the first and last king of Libya. He ruled between 1951 and 1969 and was deposed by Gaddafi, then a 27-year-old military officer, in a military coup.
As the ongoing civil war has destroyed much of Libya's public infrastructure, inflicting irrevocable damage on its citizens, it has become crucial to recall a time when Libyans were fighting for their independence - a time that fell between World War I and World War II.
With the help of Turkey and Britain, defiant Libyans prevailed and successfully removed the occupying Italian forces, battering the dictatorial reputation of the likes of Benito Mussolini. It is also important to remember that without the Senussi tribe, which was famous for following an Islamic sufi order, the path to Libyan independence would have been unfathomable.
For Idris, inheriting the anti-Italian resistance was inevitable. He was the grandson of Sheikh Muhammed Ibn Ali as-Senussi, the founder of the Senussi sufi order. At 11, Idris lost his father, and consequently, his father's cousin Ahmad Sharif became the new sheikh of the Senussi order.
Sharif put up a brave fight against the Italian occupation of Tripoli during World War I. At that time, Libya was a part of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1912, the Senussi order attacked Benghazi, pinning down Italian troops for several weeks. At the same time, the forces under renowned Ottoman military general Enver Pasha organised a major attack in Derna. But the Balkan War broke out on the western flank of the empire, distracting Ottoman troops from their plight in Libya.
As a result, the battle being fought by Senussi fighters were dealt a major blow. The situation tapered off the Ottoman-Senussi resistance toward the Italians and the Ottomans eventually came to the negotiation table with Italy in September 1912.
This was not the end of the Senussi’s fight. They continued battling and at one point simultaneously took on three major colonial powers — Italy, France and Britain, with the support of a limited number of rearguard troops left behind by the Ottoman state.
As the Ottoman Empire officially withdrew from Tripoli in 1914, handing the city to Italian forces, the Ottoman state stayed in touch with Sharif.
The Senussi forces led by Sharif eventually weakened the Italian occupation, forcing them to pull back between September 1914 and April 1915. The same year they simultaneously clashed with the British army, which was advancing towards Egypt, and also recaptured Canet Town from French forces who were advancing towards the northern Sahara.
While the Senussis made important advancements against the Italians during the Tripoli War, in 1917, Ahmad Sharif went to Istanbul for help. Idris became the caretaker leader during that period and following Ahmad Sharif’s decision to stay in Turkey and support its national struggle, Idris took over the role permanently.
Initially, Idris tried to overcome the situation in Libya by making treaties rather than waging wars. Initially, he tried to negotiate with Britain, but things came to a head when they asked Idris to hand over Ottoman military officers in exchange. Idris declined, and the deal faltered.
Undaunted, he then decided to negotiate with the Italians under the condition of ending armed struggle. The two sides made progress, signing treaties in 1921. The Italians agreed to see him as the legitimate leader in Al Jaghbub.
However, when the high-ranking Senussi member, Omar al-Mukhtar, refused to cooperate, the treaty between Idris and Italians fell through.
This period coincided with Mussolini's rise to power in 1922. Idris fled to Egypt and from there, he directed the Libyan guerilla war against Italy.
In 1931, Italy captured and executed Omar al Mukhtar, an event many saw as the end of Senussi resistance. Following their years of struggle to take control of Libya, the Italians closed all Zawiyahs, Islamic schools belonging to the Senussi Sufi order. Although the armed struggle against Italy had ended, Idris was still groping in the dark, looking to take back control of Libyan soil through his political skill.
Come World War II, the political equation began to favour Idris. Britain was looking for an ally against Italy and they found one in Idris. In 1943, Britain helped him declare Libya's independence in 1943 in Cyrenaica. Uniting other regions, Idris formally established the Kingdom of Libya in 1949. A year later, he declared himself the king of Libya.
King Idris I continued to follow the Senussi tradition and maintained its warm relations with Turkey. In return, Turkey sent its experienced bureaucrats to help him build the organisational structure of Libya.
King Idris I named Turkey's Sadullah Kologlu as Libya's Interior Minister, Minister of Education and Minister of Health. Sadullah Kologlu subsequently became the first prime minister of Libya until 1952. Abdullah Busayri, who was working for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, was assigned as the foreign minister of Libya by King Idris I as well.
The King made his first official visit to Turkey in 1956, and Turkey’s President Celal Bayar returned the favour.
Following the discovery of huge oil reserves in Libya, it became prosperous. Opposing voices had begun to threaten his rule, and, during his official visit to Turkey in 1969, Gaddafi led a coup and dethroned him.
He died in May 1983 in a Cairo hospital. He was 93 years old.