Abdel Rahman Shalgham
Former Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs

Libya: The Year of the Double Earthquake

1969 was a year of great upheaval in Libya. The monarchy was falling apart. The key state institution scattered between Tripoli, Benghazi, Al Bayda, and Tobruk, as well as Libya’s King, Idris Al Senussi, had become indifferent. Senussi had grown weary of ruling the country and began spending much of his time abroad. He did not manage the state on a day-to-day basis, nor did he delegate power to his prime ministers. Silent conflicts were being fought among the rulers.

The Shalhi family came to control the key facets of the state, and the King strongly favored them. He was convinced that the murder of their father, Ibrahim, his old friend and advisor, by a member of the Senussi family, was partly his responsibility. The assassination of Ibrahim Al Shalhi, the King's special advisor, was blamed on a large segment of the Senussi family, who believed that Al Shalhi had convinced the King to distance them and mute their role in political and economic life.

The young man who killed Ibrahim Al Shalhi in 1954 was Al Sharif Mohyi Al Din Al Senussi. His father was the brother of Queen Fatima, King Idris's wife. The investigations and trial of the killer did not reveal the true motives for the crime, or its instigators. After the assassination of Ibrahim Al Shalhi, King Idris abandoned the city of Benghazi and settled in the city of Tobruk, in the far east of the country. The children of Shalhi lived with King Idris, alongside their father, becoming part of his family. Having no children of his own, the King adopted them, raised them, and felt like their father. After the death of their father, the King opened every door to them, rebuffing any accusations against them and overlooking all their transgressions. Indeed, they became part of the royal family, and Shalhi children wielded more influence than members of the Senussi family.

The king had appointed Omar Ibrahim Al Shalhi as his special advisor, giving him sweeping powers. The king supported Omar Al Shalhi's marriage to the daughter of Hussein Mazzeg, the former prime minister, sending a clear message. Colonel Abdul Aziz Al Shalhi was tasked with rebuilding the Libyan army and given five hundred million dollars to do so. Even Latifa, their sister, got her share. She ventured into the world of finance and concluded prominent financial deals, including in the oil sector. The reports that the US ambassador in Libya, David Newsom, sent his foreign ministry that year outlined the political situation in Libya. The late diplomat, Nabil Hameema, compiled a number of these documents released by the United States, translated them, and published them in a booklet titled 'Documents from the Archives of the American Foreign Ministry about Libya in 1969'.

In one section of the lengthy report on the situation in Libya, sent by the embassy to the US Secretary of State, Newsom explains: “This report introduces and evaluates the influence of the Shalhi family. The Shalhi family rose as servants to the king, replacing members of the Senussi family in the king's entourage. Omar and Latifa had a share in many major deals, and Colonel Abdul Aziz Al Shalhi and his brother-in-law Colonel Awn Rahouma almost controlled the army. The king turned a blind eye to the exploitation of their influence by the Al Shalhi family, as he asked them to ensure the financial security of his wife Queen Fatima after his departure. The king grants the Shalhi family any wish and trusts them blindly; as a result, the Shalhi family intervened in all the high matters of the state, especially in Libyan-Egyptian relations and defense plans, and they have been engaged in dubious activities and deals without facing any legal consequences. All of this has undermined the king's reputation.”

The report also asserts that: 'Recently, the Shalhis have become the closest people to the king on earth.' Elsewhere, the report explains that the king had personally orchestrated the marriage of Omar Al Shalhi to the daughter of Hussein Mazzeg, the former prime minister and one of the major notables of Cyrenaica.

Senior officials began competing for access to the Shalhi family, hoping that their favor could get them promoted or allow them to maintain their positions. The report mentions that both Mohamed bin Osman El Sayed and Abdel Qader El Badri, heads of the government, lost their positions for trying to oppose the Shalhis.

In conclusion, this family became the actual ruler of the Libyan state, and no official could stand against them. Omar and Abdul Aziz Al Shalhi called for the establishment of a republican system in the country and enjoyed strong relations with the United Arab Republic.

The American report also cited dozens of incidents and events that highlight the excesses of the Shalhis, especially Al Bosiri, who had no regard for the law. As for the lavish and unprecedented marriage of Omar Al Shalhi to the daughter of Hussein Mazzeg, it was the talk of the entire country. The Libyan Kingdom was very fragile, and in parallel, young officers had established an organization called 'The Free Officers' led by Lieutenant Muammar Gaddafi. These officers, including a number of junior officers, overthrew the monarchy and seized power.

After unpacking the confusion that prevailed in Libya that year, we find that the junior officers found a fragmented state, almost divided, led by an indifferent elderly king who had tried to turn the country into a republic.

Meanwhile, the ruling upper class was fighting a violent, albeit almost silent, struggle. However, it was not a secret to observers. The late King Hassan II of Morocco stated in his memoirs that King Idris Al Senussi supplied all the requisites for the demise of his rule. That year was the year of great upheaval in Libya.