His full name was Sidi Muhammad Idris Al-Mahdi As-sanusi (1889-1983). The first and only king of Libya, he reigned as Idris I from 1950 to 1969. Although he led his country to independence, his conservatism finally brought about his overthrow in a military coup under the direction of the controversial leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Libya's future king was born on March 13, 1890, in Jaghbub, an oasis in the eastern province of Cyrenaica. At the time, Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire. Idris I died in exile in Cairo, Egypt, in 1983.
Leader in Exile
When his father died in 1902, Idris became head of the Sanusiyah, an Islamic mystical brotherhood. Still a minor, he did not assume active leadership until 1916. His main problem over the next few years was how to deal with the Italians, who had invaded Libya in 1922 in an effort to build a North African empire. Italy never established its rule much beyond the coast, and in 1917, Idris was able to secure a ceasefire and confirm his own authority in Cyrenaica while acknowledging Italian supremacy in the area.
Given the title of emir, Idris established a parliament and secured financial grants from Italy. But when he proved unable or unwilling to disarm his tribal supporters, Italy invaded in the spring of 1922. Idris saw little point in resisting and went into exile in Egypt.
The War Years
Idris continued to direct his followers while in exile. Through the years, the Sanusiyah brotherhood had been changing into a much more political organization. Idris's support came from conservative tribesmen who were mainly concerned with restoring his rule to the province of Cyrenaica. But a younger faction in this area wanted a union of the Libyan provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.
Libya was the scene of heavy fighting in World War II, and Idris recruited guerrillas and scouts to aid the British, who eventually occupied Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Fezzan came under control of the French.
Idris returned to his homeland in 1947, but the issue of a Libyan union was not solved until two years later. In November 1949, the United Nations resolved that representatives of the three provinces in question should meet in a national assembly to decide their future. The assembly decided on a constitutional monarchy and offered the throne to Idris.
Independence and Exile
Libya declared its independence in December 1951, with Idris I as king. Two capitals were established, one in Tripoli (Tripolitania), home of the parliament, and one in Bangasi, meeting place of the king and his cabinet.
As the reigning monarch, Idris had complete control of the army and a good deal of influence over the parliament, which was mainly composed of powerful tribal leaders. In addition Libya, an arid, impoverished country with crop production limited to the narrow coastline, could not flourish without heavy aid from Western powers. In time, younger citizens, especially the military, grew tied of the king's conservative policies and extreme dependence on the West.
Idris I had the misfortune to require medical treatment at a Turkish spa in September 1969. While he was out of the country, he was toppled from power in a military coup led by controversial Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, then an army colonel. As of 1997, al-Qaddafi remained in power.
Immediately following the 1969 coup, Idris I and his family fled to Greece. They then asked for and received political asylum in Cairo, Egypt. Idris had married his cousin in 1933 and, according to Islamic law, was allowed to take another wife. In 1955, Idris married the daughter of an Egyptian landowner. He remained in exile in Cairo until his death on May 25, 1983.
Further Reading on Idris I
Idris is discussed in studies of Libya such as Ismail R. Khalidi, Constitutional Development in Libya (1956); H. S. Willard, Libya: The New Arab Kingdom of North Africa (1956); and Majid Khadduri, Modern Libya: A Study in Political Development (1963). See also Nicola A. Ziadeh, Sanusiyah: A Study of a Revivalist Movement in Islam (1958).