Financial Times 6/26/2011

  • Source:Financial Times
  • Title:Libyans look back fondly to monarchy before Gaddafi coup By Neil MacDonald in Tobruk
  • Author:Neil MacDonald in Tobruk
  • Date & Time:June 26, 2011 6:56 pm

Above the facades around Tubruq’s harbour, the flag of the Kingdom of Libya flutters again. Portraits of Idris I, the king ousted nearly 42 years ago, sit in shop windows next to those of Omar al-Mukhtar, an earlier anti-colonial warrior.

“Every Libyan loves King Idris. Every Libyan loves Omar al-Mukhtar. And every Libyan hates Muammer Gaddafi,” says Adel Aroud, a watchman in the eastern port town.

Affection for the king is more a rejection of the detour the country took under Colonel Gaddafi, the leader still clinging to power in central and western Libya, than a sign that Libyans pine for a return to monarchical rule. “We remember the king as good. Having a king again now is not important,” says Moussa Saad, a tourist policeman who grew up on a British base 25km south of Tubruq, near King Idris’s favourite palace.

Eastern Libya showed anti-regime leanings long before this year’s uprising. In the 1990s a militant Islamist movement, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, battled the regime from a base in the eastern mountains and demonstrators protesting in 2006 about cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed were gunned down by regime forces.

The angry crowds who drove Col Gaddafi’s forces out of Benghazi, Tubruq and other eastern towns in February adopted the red, black and green banner with the white crescent and star of Cyrenaica, that attested to the monarchy’s roots in the eastern region, as its centrepiece.

More than nostalgia for the royals, the flag stands for undoing perceived wrongs – starting with the September 1969 coup when the ailing king was abroad and about to hand power to his nephew.

Wrapped in the flag of the old kingdom: a man wears his opposition to the Gaddafi regime round his shoulders

The coup ringleader, then Captain Gaddafi, vowed to free Libya from foreign manipulation.

King Idris, who came to the throne upon independence from Italy in 1951, was liked but produced no sons. Palace insiders were seen to have pandered to US and UK military interests and failed to share oil wealth with the population.

But the Gaddafi regime turned out incomparably worse, eastern Libyans say.

“His coup may have been bloodless, but he started murdering his opponents the very same night,” says Majdy Mujaja, a bank official.

“We had no reason to change our government 42 years ago, but we desperately need to now.”

Col Gaddafi surrounded himself with sycophants and dragged the country into economic isolation. Everything before him, including Italian colonial rule, was preferable, Mr Mujaja says.

In Tubruq’s main square, the colonial-era Catholic church, as well as the former king’s mosque, stir up nostalgia. “These fine buildings are all from the king’s time,” says a man sipping tea under a neo-Romanesque arch. “Gaddafi built nothing good, especially here in the east.”

Libya’s pre-Gaddafi constitution vested considerable power with the monarch. Under Idris’s rule, the country grew from desert backwater to influential oil exporter.

The provisional government in Benghazi says it hopes to hold a constitutional referendum and free elections within a year of the moment Mr Gaddafi leaves.

Muhammed al-Sennusi, Libya’s crown prince and great-nephew of King Idris, has endorsed the revolt from his London-based exile. The 48-year-old heir-apparent depends on funds from the Libyan diaspora – some of the same wealthy dissidents who now back the rebel ruling council – but says he does not presume to reclaim the throne. “I see myself as a servant of the Libyan people,” he said recently. “They will decide what they want.” He is heartened by the rebel flag. “This flag has become the symbol of the young people,” he says. “That makes me very, very happy. Because this flag is for freedom.”