With the war in Libya showing no sign of abating, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that, as Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorial hold weakens, two exiled Libyans are claiming to be the crown prince of that former European creation: the short-lived monarchy once called the Kingdom of Libya.
Libya was a monarchy from 1951 to 1969, when then-Captain Gadhafi took power in a military coup. King Idris, the first and only king of Libya, had sided with the Allies during their campaign against the Italians in Libya during the Second World War. The Allies then gave him and his relatives the country after a short protectorate run by the British, declaring him “King of Libya.” But the origins of this monarchy are substantially different in form and style from those in Europe, because the Senussi royal family allows polygamy – a factor that complicates all claims of royal legitimacy through descent.
Under the Italians, Idris was thought of as the exiled religious leader of a Sufi sect called the Senussi and, as such, later became the de facto leader of Cyrenaica against the Fascists. He was a descendant of the Grand Senussi, a religious preacher of Algerian origin who settled among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica during the 19th century.
His goal was to bring the Bedouin back to the austere Islam of Mohammed’s time. He succeeded by establishing his schools and “lodges” in neutral oases and on the tribal borderlands where disputes over pasture and water raged. He and his disciples would mediate these disputes and be given money, food and land; this slowly emerged into a kind of tithing system.
Within 80 years, the Bedouin of Cyrenaica had been united by lineages of the followers of the Grand Senussi whose movement and descendants provided the tribes of Cyrenaica with their first national symbol. Then came Moammar Gadhafi, and the numerous relatives of the Senussi king fled to Europe.
Two relatives of the late Idris are now slugging it out in public in the hope they’ll be recognized as the legitimate heir to the throne. In the early 1990s, Idris el-Senussi, a Libyan expatriate in Britain, spent as much as £100,000 to lobby the British government to recognize him as the legitimate heir to the King of Libya. He managed to persuade 41 MPs to sign a motion that described him as “a great nephew of the late King Idris of Libya and heir presumptive of the Libyan throne.”
Actually, he’s the “second son of the sixth son of the younger brother of King Idris’s father,” according to Debrett’s Peerage, the authoritative British guide that decides who’s in and who’s out of royalty, anywhere. Once this was made public, Idris el-Senussi’s campaign to get the British government to endorse his royal pretensions fizzled, to the embarrassment of his supporters in the House of Commons. The fact that he’s a multimillionaire and a shadowy presence in world of Middle Eastern finance suggests we haven’t heard the last of him.
Most influential Libyan exiles support Mohammed el-Senussi as the “legitimate” king in exile. He’s the great nephew of King Idris and has publicly supported the rebellion in Libya. “The return of monarchy to Libya is not a priority,” he has said, “but the United Nations – which endorsed the Libyan constitution upon independence – must interfere and restore the constitution, to hold free elections and let the people decide what system they prefer.”
Mohammed el-Senussi will no doubt use this fact to further his claim to the throne. If not, he can still argue that he and his family deserve reparations. Either way, we can be sure that, whatever new Libya emerges, various members of the “Libyan royal family” will play their hand.
Clearly, this princely rivalry is not about Islam, constitutional monarchy or democracy. It’s about money – and there are billions of dollars at stake.
Originally published in the Globe and Mail