Libya's Oldest Statesman
A look at the life of former Prime Minister Mustafa Ben Halim, a man who has witnessed three Libyan regimes.
Ninety-two year-old Mustafa Ben Halim, the former prime minister of what was then Kingdom of Libya, is quick-witted and has a sharp memory despite aging and illnesses. He has, after all, a lot to remember- visits by kings, presidents, ministers and the media. Hanging on the wall in his reception room, are pictures of some of the most powerful men in world history: Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Nixon, Abdel Nasser and King Fahd, with whom Ben Halim had a rare friendship.
But during his tenure as prime minister, Halim also had another, secret identity. He used to publish articles under the nom de plume of "Ibn al-As" in which he outspokenly criticized the government he headed, even before the opposition did.
Fit for a King
Halim was also known for having the confidence of King Idris I without being intimidated by him or treating him with unusual regality, unlike Abdul Hamid al-Bakkoush - the youngest Libyan Prime Minister (1967 to 1968). Al-Bakkoush had a different vision for Libya and was efficient enough to transform Libya to wider horizons, but he did not know how to gain confidence of a moody and scrupulous king, the way Halim did.
Halim summarizes the monarchy crisis in three points: the king's inability to have a crown prince from his own flesh and blood, his lack of confidence in the efficiency of his nephew, Crown Prince Hasan as-Senussi, and the rupture of relations between him and the family of his cousin, Ahmed El-Sharif, whom he deemed responsible for the assassination of his companion Ibrahim Shalhi in 1954.
Halim claims that he tried to reform the monarchy, starting with the throne, so he suggested three things: the king chooses from the family a young man, whom he expected able to be his successor, to be trained by specialists and experts, like what royal families in other countries do; the king marries a women other than Queen Fatima, perhaps his new wife gives birth to his crown prince; and, the king transforms the country from monarchy to the republican system.
The then 33-year-old Prime Minister Ben Halim proposed these three suggestions before the assassination of Shalhi, an incident that greatly changed the king's mood and made him disinterested in power.
The king was enthused about the third suggestion and proposed that Ben Halim engage Cyrenaica ruler Hussein Maziq in the debate. But when Maziq learnedof Ben Halim's schemes, he mobilized Cyrenaica tribal elders to approach King Idris, asking him to maintain the monarchy. This created a kind of rupture between Ben Halim and Maziq for several years until they were reconciled by Cyrenaica elders, after Maziq headed the government, replacing his regional view as the Cyrenaica ruler with his view regarding Libya as a whole.
Ten years later in 1964, after Ben Halim left all his government positions and turned to his personal pursuits, the king called him again in order to activate his former proposal of converting Libya into a republic. This time however Ben Halim refused because the proposal was too late and the republican system was difficult and needed long years of care. The monarchy's inability to resolve this option paved the way for the military coup that took place in 1969.
Historical leaders repeat themselves
Libya's recent history has not greatly changed, whether under King Idris I or under Gaddafi-in both regimes, one man ruled the country. During the monarchy, a good and devout man who was uninterested in power ruled, but he was meticulous, temperamental and weak in front of his entourage, especially the Shalhis.
In the second era, an evil man hungry for power and tyranny ruled, whose entourage, sons and tent men, led him to his inevitable fate. Further, in both eras, the Libyan people could not build strong institutions to restrain the two men, achieve development, and distribute power to the largest possible number of qualified persons.
Ben Halim says during a meeting with the king and Maziq, the later admitted that the justifications of turning the country into a republic were strong and acceptable, but artfully wondered, "Is not that what Bashir Saadawi demanded?"
Ben Halim asks God to have mercy upon Saadawi, leader of the Congress Party, who demanded that King Idris becomes a constitutional king and that the power becomes in the hand of the parliament and the prime minister. Nonetheless, Saadawi succumbed to the king who threatened the independence of Cyrenaica. Then, the king exiled him shortly after independence on the pretense that he did not have a Libyan travel document. Ben Halim however says Saadawi's vision should have been adopted from the beginning.
Ben Halim was also shrewd in gaining aid from Great Britain and The United States. When both states promised urgent aid for the then world's poorest country, he announced the imminent arrival of the aid before the parliament. But when the aid did not come, he contacted the Soviets and suggested an exchange of ambassadors, which annoyed the Americans and the British. During the talks with the Soviets, Moscow proposed to provide some unconditional aid to Libya, which is when Ben Halim became sly.
At that time, an Australian man was working for the Libyan government, but Libyans knew he was a double agent for of the U.S and U.K embassies. When King Idris asked Ben Halim to expel the Australian, Ben Halim said he needed this agent. When the Soviets' telegram, in which they offered assistance, arrived, he asked Foreign Minister Suleiman Jerbi to translate it into English and say the aid amounted to US$15 million rather than the US$3 million the telegram actually stated. Then, he summoned the Australian, requesting advice and asking him to keep it a secret. After the Australian left, Ben Halim called the Federal Police head and asked him to put the Australian under surveillance for 24 hours. The next day, Ben Halim received the police report, which confirmed the Australian's visit to the U.S. and U.K embassies. After a short time, the two embassies called Ben Halim and offered urgent aid of $ 12 million.
Ben Halim's was more interested in business than in politics. Before King Idris called him in 1950 to assume minister of public works in the Cyrenaica government, he had overseen the largest two projects under King Farouk, including the Alexandria wharf designed for intercontinental ships docking. Thus, he remained restless in his office as prime minister, as well as in his office at the Libyan embassy in Paris, waiting his return to business world.
He had to ask his son, the late Tariq, when he was a young child to talk with the king in English when kissing his hand, which made the king very resentful. "Your Majesty, I am exiled in France and there is no Arab schools to teach my children Arabic," said Ben Halim. "If you believe you are exiled, resign," replied the king. Ben Halim then took the resignation letter out of his pocket and the king immediately signed it while still under anger and displeasure.
After the fall of Gaddafi who prevented him from entering Libya, Ben Halim returned to his homeland after 42 years. Tripoli and Benghazi people received him with open arms, but his house in Tripoli, which he had left in the custody of a sentry, was seized by the sentry who claimed ownership of the property. Until the judiciary and the police are activated, Ben Halim will have to spend even longer in exile before he might die in his house and homeland where he has spent the smallest part of his life.
The interview with former Prime Minister Mustafa Ben Halim was conducted in Doha, Qatar.
by Omar al-Kedy
Omar al-Kedy was born in the northwestern city of Gharyan in 1959. He served as editor-in-chief for several print newspapers. In 1999 he left Libya and worked at the Arabic department of 'Radio Netherlands International'. He is currently working for the 'Libya Al Ahrar' TV-Channel.