Idris of Libya

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King of Libya
King Idris I of Libya.png
Reign 24 December 1951 – 1 September 1969
Born 12 March 1889
Al-Jaghbub, Ottoman Cyrenaica
Died 25 May 1983(1983-05-25) (aged 94)
Cairo, Egypt
Burial Al-Baqi' Cemetery, Medina, Saudi Arabia
Spouse Fatimah el-Sharif
Full name
Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi
House Senussi
Father Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi
Mother Aisha bint Muqarrib al-Barasa
Religion Sunni Islam

Idris, GBE (Arabic: إدريس الأول‎‎), also known as "King Idris I of Libya" (born El Sayyid Prince Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi; 12 March 1889 – 25 May 1983),[1] was the first and only King of Libya, reigning from 1951 to 1969, and the chief of the Senussi Muslim order.

Idris was born into the Senussi Order. When his cousin, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, abdicated as leader of the Order, Idris took his place. Cyrenaica was facing invasion from the Italians. Idris formed an alliance with the British, through whom he entered into negotiations with the Italians, resulting in two treaties; these resulted in the Italian recognition of Senussi control over most of Cyrenaica. Idris then led his Order in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the eastern part of the Tripolitanian Republic.

While in Turkey for medical treatment, Idris was deposed in a 1969 coup d'etat by army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi.

Early life: 1889–1913[edit]

Born at Al-Jaghbub, the headquarters of the Senussi movement, on 12 March 1889, the son of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi bin Sayyid Muhammad al-Senussi and his third wife Aisha bint Muqarrib al-Barasa,[2] Idris was a grandson of Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, the founder of the Senussi Muslim Sufi order and the Senussi tribe in North Africa. He became chief of the Senussi order in 1916 following the abdication of his cousin Sayyid Ahmed Sharif es Senussi. He was recognized by the British under the new title "emir" of the territory of Cyrenaica, a position also confirmed by the Italians in 1920. He was also installed as Emir of Tripolitania on 28 July 1922.[citation needed] Idris' family claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatimah.[3] The Senusi were a revivalist Sunni Islamic sect who were based largely in Cyrenaica, a region in modern eastern Libya.[4] By the end of the nineteenth century the Senusi Order had established a form of government in Cyrenaica, unifying its tribes, controlling its pilgrimage and trade routes, and collecting taxes.[5]

Head of the Senussi Order: 1913–22[edit]

After the Italian army invaded Cyrenaica in 1913 as part of their wider invasion of Libya, the Senussi Order fought back against them.[6] When the Order's leader, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, abdicated his position, he was replaced by Idris, who was his cousin.[7] Pressured to do so by the Ottoman Empire, Admed had pursued armed attacks against the British army that was then stationed in neighbouring Egypt. On taking power, Idris put a stop to these attacks.[7] Instead he established a tacit alliance with the British, which would last for half a century and accord his Order de facto diplomatic status.[7] Using the British as intermediaries, Idris led the Order into negotiations with the Italians in July 1916.[8] These resulted in two agreements, Al-Zuwaytina in April 1916 and Akrama in April 1917.[9] The latter of these treaties left most of Cyrenaica under the control of the Senussi Order.[7] Relations between the Senussi Order and the newly established Tripolitanian Republic were acrimonious.[7] The Senusi attempted to militarily extend their power into eastern Tripolitania, resulting in a pitched battle at Bani Walid in which the Senussi were forced to withdraw back into Cyrenaica.[7]

At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice agreement in which they ceded their claims over Libya to Italy.[10] Italy however was facing serious economic, social, and political problems domestically, and was not prepared to re-launch its military activities in Libya.[10] It issued statutes known as the Legge Fondamentale with both the Tripolitian Republic in June 1919 and Cyrenaica in October 1919. These brought about a compromise by which all Libyans were accorded the right to a joint Libyan-Italian citizenship while each province was to have its own parliament and governing council.[10] The Senussi were largely happy with this arrangement and Idris visited Rome as part of the celebrations to mark the promulgation of the settlement.[10] In October 1920, further negotiations between Italy and Cyrenaica resulted in the Accord of al-Rajma, in which Idris was given the title of the Emir of Cyrenaica and permitted to autonomously administer the oases around Kufra, Jalu, Jaghbub, Awjila, and Ajdabiya. As part of the Accord he was given a monthly stipend by the Italian government, who agreed to take responsibility for policing and administration of areas under Senussi control.[10] The Accord also stipulated that Idris must fulfil the requirements of the Legge Fondamentale by disbanding the Cyrenaican military units, however he did not comply with this.[10] By the end of 1921, relations between the Senussi Order and the Italian government had again deteriorated.[10]

Following the death of Tripolitanian leader Ramadan Asswehly in August 1920, the Republic descended into civil war. Many tribal leaders in the region recognised that this discord was weakening the region's chances of attaining full autonomy from Italy, and in November 1920 they met in Gharyan to bring an end to the violence.[11] In January 1922 they agreed to request that Idris extend the Sanui Emirate of Cyrenaica into Tripolitania in order to bring stability; they presented a formal document with this request on 28 July 1922.[11] Idris' advisers were divided on whether he should accept the offer or not. Doing so would contravene the al-Rajma Agreement and would damage relations with the Italian government, who opposed the political unification of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania as being against their interests.[11] Nevertheless, in November 1922 Idris agreed to the proposal.[11]

Exile: 1922–1950[edit]

Following the agreement, Idris feared that Italy—under its new Fascist leader Benito Mussolini—would militarily retaliate against the Senussi Order, and so he went into exile in Egypt in December 1922.[11] Soon, the Italian reconquest of Libya began, and by the end of 1922 the only effective anti-colonial resistance to the occupation was concentrated in the Cyrenaican hinterlands.[12] The Italians subjugated the Libyan people; Cyrenaica's livestock was decimated, a large portion of its population was interned in concentration camps, and between 1930 and 1931 an estimated 12,000 Cyrenaicans were executed by the Italian Army.[13] The Italian government implemented a policy of "demographic colonization", by which tens of thousands of Italians were relocated to Libya, largely to establish farms.[14]

The Cyrenaican flag used between 1949 and 1951

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Idris supported the United Kingdom—which was now at war with Italy—in the hope of ridding his country of Italian occupation.[15] He argued that even if the Italians were victorious, the situation for the Libyan people would be no different than it had been before the war.[15] Delegates from both the Cyrenaican and Tripolitanians agrees that Idris should conclude agreements with the British that they would gain independence in return for support during the war.[15] A Libyan Arab Force, consisting of five infantry battalions made up of volunteers, was established to aid the British war effort. With the exception of one military engagement near to Benghazi, this force's role did not extend beyond support and gendarmerie duties.[15]

After the defeat of the Italian armies, Libya was left under the military control of British and French forces.[16] They governed the area until 1949 according to the Hague Convention of 1907.[16] In 1946, a National Congress was established to lay the groundwork for independence; it was dominated by the Senussi Order.[16]

King of Libya[edit]

King Idris with then-U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon (March 1957)
King Idris meeting President Nasser of Egypt
King Idris on the cover of the Libyan Al Iza'a magazine, 15 August 1965

With the help of the British Military Administration of Cyrenaica, Idris proclaimed an independent Emirate of Cyrenaica in 1949. He was also invited to become Emir of Tripolitania, another of the three traditional regions that now constitute modern Libya (the third being Fezzan).[17] By accepting he began the process of uniting Libya under a single monarchy. A constitution was enacted in 1949 and adopted in October 1951. A national congress elected Idris as King of Libya, and as Idris I he proclaimed the independence of the United Kingdom of Libya as a sovereign state on 24 December 1951.

From Benghazi, Idris led the team negotiating over independence with the United Kingdom and the United Nations under UN special adviser to Libya, Dutch born Adrian Pelt, which was achieved on 24 December 1951 with the proclamation of the federal United Libyan Kingdom with Idris as king. In 1963 the constitution was revised to become a unitary state as the Kingdom of Libya. Earl Mountbatten was a close friend of Idris and used to visit him in Libya often and stay at the palace. Both Idris and Earl Mountbatten used to enjoy going together on excursion trips into the Sahara Desert.

In 1955, failing to have produced a male heir, he convinced Fatima, his wife of 20 years, to let him marry a second wife, Aliya Abdel Lamloun, daughter of a wealthy Bedouin chief. The second marriage took place on 5 June 1955. Both wives then became pregnant, and each bore him a son.[18]

To the chagrin of Arab nationalists at home and supporters of Pan-Arabism in neighbouring states, Idris maintained close ties with the United Kingdom and the United States, even after the former intervened against Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis.[citation needed] Another threat to his kingdom was his failure to produce a surviving male heir to succeed to the throne. In 1956, Idris designated his brother's son, Prince Hasan as-Senussi, as the "black prince" or "crown prince".

The economy prospered from its oil fields and the presence of the United States Air Force's Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli, but the King's health began to falter and the crown prince assumed a greater role in the government and from time to time acted as regent. On 4 August 1969, Idris signed an instrument of abdication in favour of Crown Prince Hasan as-Senussi, to take effect on 2 September that year.[citation needed]

Overthrow and exile[edit]

Idris used the oil money to strengthen family and tribal alliances that would support the monarchy, rather than using it to build up the economic or political apparatus of the state.[19] According to Vandewalle, Idris "showed no real interest in ruling the three provinces as a unified political community".[20] Idris' regime had little support outside Cyrenaica.[21] It had been weakened by endemic corruption and cronyism in the country, and growing Arab nationalist sentiment following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.[22]

On 1 September 1969, while Idris was in Turkey for medical treatment, he was deposed in a coup d'état by a group of Libyan Army officers under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi. The monarchy was abolished and a republic proclaimed.[23] The coup pre-empted Idris's abdication and the succession of his heir the following day. From Turkey, he and the Queen traveled to Kamena Vourla, Greece, by ship and went into exile in Egypt. After the 1969 coup, Idris was put on trial in absentia in the Libyan People's Court and sentenced to death in November 1971.

In 1983, at age 94, Idris died at the Sultan Palace in the district of Dokki in Cairo. He was buried at Al-Baqi' Cemetery, Medina, Saudi Arabia.


According to Vandewalle, Idris' monarchy "started Libya on the road of political exclusion of its citizens, and of a profound de-politicization" that still characterised the country in the first years of the twenty-first century.[24]

Although the King died in exile and most Libyans were born after his reign, during the Libyan Civil War, many demonstrators opposing Gaddafi carried portraits of the King, especially in the traditional Sanussi stronghold of Cyrenaica. The tricolour flag used during the era of the monarchy was frequently used as a symbol of the revolution and was re-adopted by the National Transitional Council as the official flag of Libya.[25]

Personal life[edit]

Vandewalle characterised Idris as "a scholarly individual whose entire life would be marked by a reluctance to engage in politics".[7]

Idris married five times:

  1. At Kufra, 1896/1897, his cousin, Sayyida Aisha binti Sayyid Muhammad as-Sharif al-Sanussi (1873 Jaghbub – 1905 or 1907 Kufra), eldest daughter of Sayyid Muhammad as-Sharif bin Sayyid Muhammad al-Sanussi, by his fourth wife, Fatima, daughter of 'Umar bin Muhammad al-Ashhab, of Fezzan, by whom he had one son who died in infancy;
  2. At Kufra, 1907 (divorced 1922), his cousin, Sakina, daughter of Muhammad as-Sharif, by whom he had one son and one daughter, both of whom died in infancy;
  3. At Kufra, 1911 (divorced 1915), Nafisa, daughter of Ahmad Abu al-Qasim al-Isawi, by whom he had one son who died in infancy;
  4. At Siwa, Egypt, 1931, his cousin, Sayyida Fatima al-Shi'fa binti Sayyid Ahmad as-Sharif al-Sanussi, Fatimah el-Sharif (1911 Kufra – 3 October 2009, Cairo, buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia), fifth daughter of Field Marshal Sayyid Ahmad as-Sharif Pasha bin Sayyid Muhammad as-Sharif al-Sanussi, 3rd Grand Sanussi, by his second wife, Khadija, daughter of Ahmad al-Rifi, by whom he had one son who died in infancy;
  5. At the Libyan Embassy, Cairo, 6 June 1955 (divorced 20 May 1958), Aliya Khanum Effendi (1913 Guney, Egypt), daughter of Abdul-Qadir Lamlun Asadi Pasha.

For two short periods (1911–1922 and 1955–1958) Idris kept two wives, marrying his fifth wife with a view to providing a direct heir.

Idris fathered five sons and one daughter, none of whom survived childhood. He and Fatima adopted a daughter, Suleima, an Algerian orphan, who survived them.


Royal Standard of the King of Libya

Idris was grand master of the following Libyan orders:[26]

He was a recipient of the following foreign honours:




  1. ^ "Royal Ark". Retrieved 29 July 2012. 
  2. ^ Royal Ark. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
  3. ^ Bruce St. John 2012, p. 111.
  4. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 18.
  5. ^ Vandewalle 2003, p. 19.
  6. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 26.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Vandewalle 2006, p. 27.
  8. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 27; Bruce St. John 2012, p. 66.
  9. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 27; Bruce St. John 2012, pp. 66–67.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Vandewalle 2006, p. 28.
  11. ^ a b c d e Vandewalle 2006, p. 29.
  12. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 30.
  13. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 31.
  14. ^ Vandewalle 2006, pp. 32–33.
  15. ^ a b c d Vandewalle 2006, p. 36.
  16. ^ a b c Vandewalle 2006, p. 37.
  17. ^ Diller, Daniel; Moore, John (1995). The Middle East. Congressional Quarterly. p. 308.
  18. ^ Daily Mirror 23 September 1955
  19. ^ Vandewalle 2006, pp. 4–5.
  20. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 4.
  21. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 7.
  22. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 78.
  23. ^ Bloodless coup in Libya. BBC News On This Day. 1 September 1969.
  24. ^ Vandewalle 2006, p. 5.
  25. ^ "The liberated east: Building a new Libya". The Economist. 24 February 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2011. 
  26. ^ "Libya: Senussi Dynasty Orders and Decorations". Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  27. ^ Royal Ark


  • Bruce St. John, Ronald (2012). Libya: From Colony to Revolution (revised ed.). Oxford: Oneworld. ISBN 978-1-85168-919-4. 
  • Synge, Richard (2015). Operation Idris: Inside the British Administration of Cyrenaica and Libya, 1942-52. Silphium Press. ISBN 978-1900971256. 
  • Vandewalle, Dirk (2006). A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521615549. 

External links[edit]

Media related to Idris of Libya at Wikimedia Commons

Idris of Libya
Senussi dynasty
Born: 12 March 1889 Died: 25 May 1983
Regnal titles
New title
New states created
Emir of Cyrenaica
1920 – 24 December 1951
Titles dissolved
Countries merged into Kingdom of Libya
Emir of Tripolitania
1922 – 24 December 1951
King of Libya
24 December 1951 – 1 September 1969
Political offices
New title
Head of State of Libya
24 December 1951 – 1 September 1969
Succeeded by
Muammar Gaddafi
as de facto leader of Libya
Religious titles
Preceded by
Ahmed Sharif es Senussi
Chief of the Senussi order
1916 – 4 August 1969
Succeeded by
Crown Prince Hasan
Titles in pretence
Loss of title
King of Libya
1–2 September 1969
Succeeded by
Crown Prince Hasan