ARAB NEWS 6/6/2011

  • Title:The return of the king in Libya’s radical uprising?
  • Date & Time:6 JUNE 2011

BENGHAZI: In many ways, Libya’s is an odd revolution. It is as much about bringing back an old Libya as making a new one.

The insurgents have reclaimed the old red, black and green flag with its star and crescent that served the kingdom from independence in 1951 to Muammar Qaddafi's coup in 1969. They have reclaimed its anthem with its words about sacrifice, liberation and never going back to live in chains — words written in fact to commemorate the fight against the Italians but resonating so perfectly with the present struggle against Qaddafi.

“When foreigners thought about Libya,” said one Libyan journalist at the new media center, “they thought only about Qaddafi. He robbed us of our identity. We have to regain it. That means reconnecting with our past.”

Just outside Benghazi’s burned-out court house, in the area that has become the emotional heart of the uprising against Qaddafi, that is happening. Stalls sell a variety of revolutionary memorabilia — badges, caps, pens, key rings and other assorted items with the old/new flag. There are innumerable pictures too of Omar Mukhtar, who fought the Italian colonizers before being caught and hanged by them in 1931. There are photos of old Benghazi. There are also pictures of former King Idris along with his nephew Crown Prince Hassan.

It was Idris, as head of the powerful Senussi movement and an ally of the Ottomans, who fought the British and French during World War I. He then headed the struggle against the Italian colonizers in the 1920s from exile in Egypt; Omar Mukhtar was his commander. That fight continued through to World War II, this time with Idris as an ally of the British and French. It was he who finally led Libya to independence in 1951, only to be overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969. The history of Libya and the life of Idris Al-Sayyid Muhammad Al-Senussi, emir of Cyrenaica, emir of Tripolitania, king of Libya and head of the Senussi order founded in Makkah in 1837 by his grandfather, the Grand Senussi, Al-Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali Al-Senussi, are inextricably bound up.

A couple of young women, dressed in jeans, sweatshirts and scarves covering their heads look at the photo on one of the stalls of the former king and Crown Prince Hassan, wondering whether to buy it or not. In their early 20s, they were not even born when Idris died in exile in Egypt in 1983 and then buried in Madinah. They would probably have been just infants when Crown Prince Hassan died a broken man in exile in London aged just 64; he too was buried in Madinah.

The conversation between them and the stallholder turns to the crown prince’s family. Where is his son? What is he called? It is not surprising they do not know. Qaddafi’s schools drew a veil over anything to do with the Senussi royal family. Idris’ role in Libya’s long struggle for independence was airbrushed out of the country’s history. The film about Omar Mukhtar, “Lion in the Desert”, which Qaddafi funded, is deliberately silent about Mukhtar being a loyal member of Idris’ Senussi order, and Idris himself completely ignored.

However, the stallholder, who looks even younger than the two women, knows the name of Crown Prince Hassan’s son — Mohammed Al-Rida Al-Senussi — but not where he is.

The Arab News regional editor, who spent his childhood in Libya and well remembers the celebrations for the marriage of the crown prince in 1959, has been listening to this conversation and comes to the rescue. “He usually lives in London and is either there or in Egypt.”

The vehemence in the response from one of the young women is startling: “He should be here! This is his home! We need him here!” The others agree.

In conversation after conversation with Libyans in Benghazi, all invariably spoke of the fall of Qaddafi and his regime and their hope it would happen soon. But the next most common subject was the monarchy and the hope that it would be restored. It is amazing how many Libyan raise the issue, young and old alike.

There is an obvious affection for the old king. Articles about him appear in the new press. With no stain of political or financial corruption attached to him, he is now seen as a man of integrity and honor — the complete antithesis of Qaddafi. Twice he tried to abdicate to devote himself to study and prayer.

Moreover, despite Qaddafi’s efforts to eradicate every last memory of the Senussi order — to the point of smashing the graves of Senussi members at Al-Jaghbub and scattering their bones in the desert — it is still greatly revered. Support for the house of Senussi is powerfully strong in eastern Libya, probably stronger than at any time since the early 1960s.

A restoration movement has been started in Benghazi. “We’ve brought back the flag, the anthem,” said one of the volunteers at the TNC’s press registration offices, “why not the monarchy?” The aim is not to have a politically active monarchy as elsewhere in the Arab world, but a strictly limited constitutional one, with the king as a living symbol of Libyan unity, but who would not be allowed to take part in political affairs.

That is also what the would-be king, Crown Prince Mohammed Al-Rida Al-Senussi, proposes. However, he also says that it is up to the Libyan people to decide what they want — a monarchy or a republic — and that he will support whatever they decide. Early on in the revolution he did a number of press interviews strongly supporting it. He called for airstrikes against Qaddafi’s forces to protect civilians before the UN authorized the no-fly zone. However since speaking to the European Parliament on April 20, he has become relatively tight-lipped about his plans, leading to suggestion that pressure has been put on him to lower his profile.

The TNC’s view on the matter is difficult to assess. It has published its road map for a new Libya entitled "A Vision of a Democratic Libya” in which it says there will be “free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections” — which suggests that Libya will become a republic. But last month, the head of the TNC, Mahmoud Jibril, while reaffirming this also said that it would be up to the people to decide whether there would be a return to monarchy.

“If there isn’t a referendum on it,” said one Libyan woman last week who works for an international relief organization in Benghazi, “there will be trouble.”

A rather different take comes from another Libyan official also involved in relief work who did not want to be named. He had been asked to join the restoration movement but had declined. That is because while he too thinks there will have to be a referendum, he fears the issue could be divisive.

“Personally, I’m loyal to the Senussis and I would love to see them restored. If it were left to Cyrenaicans (eastern Libyans), there would probably be an 80-percent vote in favor of bringing back the monarchy. But in the west, there isn’t this loyalty. Unless the people of Tripoli have reason to change their minds, I do not think that they will support a restoration — and there are more of them than there are of us. We have to go with what the majority wants.”

The word "radical" is usually used these days to denote ideas that are drastically different from the accepted norm and the people that hold them. But the word in fact means “a return to the roots”, from the Latin radix, a root. Libya’s is a radical revolution in every sense of the term — a return to its roots and a fundamental change from the Qaddafi years.

Given the joint backward and forward-looking drive to the revolution, it is hardly surprising that the Senussis are back on the agenda. They are part of Libya’s past, a past Libyans are determined to reconnect with. Whether they are part of its future remains to be seen.