Libya’s government has been forcibly overthrown. But as in previous years, events are being held there this week to commemorate Libya’s national hero, the man to whom, paradoxically, both the new leaders and their deposed opponent, Muammar Gadhafi, compare themselves. Eighty years ago—on September 16, 1931—in Soluk (a town south of Benghazi in the eastern part of the country), Omar al-Mukhtar, the leader of the resistance to the Italian occupation, was hanged in the prison yard in front of hundreds of evicted residents and other prisoners. According to legend, when the Italians allowed him to say his last words, he quoted a verse from the Quran: “Verily we belong to Allah and truly to him shall we return.”
A mystic and ascetic joined the guerrillas
Two years prior to that, sympathizers had invited al-Mukhtar to go to Egypt. The Italians clearly had the upper hand by the end of 1929. So it was surprising that the rebels had held out since 1923. However, the 70-year-old guerrilla commander, who more closely resembled a cleric with his handsome gray beard, politely rejected the idea of flight. He replied: “I will not leave my land and would rather stay as a martyr.” The Italians negotiated for his surrender, but they did it so crudely and hypocritically that the proud al-Mukhtar, on whose head there was a large reward, chose to reject their offers.
He and a hundred of his fighters were surrounded in the fall of 1931. His horse was killed beneath him in a battle on September 13, and he was wounded in the arm and taken prisoner. To keep up appearances, the Italians put him on trial in Benghazi, where a closed military tribunal sentenced him to death. “The mere name of this national hero caused consternation among Italian pickets and convoys. But the forces were unequal,” notes the well-known Russian scholar on Libya, Anatoly Yegorin.
Actually, al-Mukhtar was not just a fighter, he was also the rebels’ spiritual leader. He had received a good education before the war and and headed a local Sufi Muslim center. Most Sufis in Libya belong to the Senussi order (named after the Arab Muhammad al-Senussi, who founded it there in the 19th century). His followers, like other Sufis, practice mysticism, with perhaps even greater asceticism.
A premonition of violent death
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi repeated al-Mukhtar’s statement that a heroic death is preferable to expulsion almost word for word when he repeatedly declared, “I will not flee the country and would rather die as a martyr.” His press secretary Moussa Ibrahim recently said that the Colonel is in Libya: “We are strong. The fight is far from over.” Many foreign political analysts believe some of Libya’s people will remember Colonel Gadhafi as a hero, especially if he dies a gallant death as he has promised.
The rebels were able to defeat him only with NATO’s help. Some Libyans now fear that the foreign intervention will cost them their independence. In his fiery speeches, Gadhafi has repeatedly warned his fellow countrymen about the danger of returning to foreign hands the oil and gas industry, which he nationalized after his 1969 revolution against the monarchy. He sees another threat in the reactivation of foreign military bases on Libyan soil. The United States and Great Britain operated bases in the country before the revolution. Gadhafi thinks of himself as a fighter against neocolonialism who is prepared for self-sacrifice.
Since he was young, Gadhafi has revered the memory of the hero of the national liberation movement, Omar al-Mukhtar. Al-Mukhtar was out of favor under King Idris (although he was also a Senussite and, unlike Gadhafi, was from the eastern part of the country). That may have been because there were times when they did not get along, and also because he was influenced by western politicians and businessmen, including the Italians.
But the 27-year-old Captain Gadhafi, who soon became a colonel, felt it his duty to visit al-Mukhtar’s grave immediately after the September Revolution succeeded. Gadhafi later proclaimed September 16—the date of al-Mukhtar’s execution—a national day of mourning, to be observed annually.
Since that time, streets in Libya have been named after the military leader who fought against the occupiers. Books have been written and movies made about him, the most popular, of course, being the Hollywood film “Lion of the Desert,” which featured Anthony Quinn in the title role. Its director and producer, Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian by birth, became an American citizen. He is rumored to have received Libyan funding for the film. In November 2005, he and his adult daughter were killed in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Amman. Suicide bombers from the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda carried out a series of bombings in three of the Jordanian capital’s most expensive hotels (a wedding was underway in one), killing over 60 people and seriously injuring hundreds.
200 million euros per year for executing war heroes
When Gadhafi’s Libya began establishing relations with Western countries, the Colonel had not forgotten that al-Mukhtar’s just cause was in need of rehabilitation there. He demanded that Rome apologize, and, quite in keeping with the Gadhafi’s spirit, pay for damages.
Libya was colonized while Italy was under fascist rule. Professor Anatoly Yegorin recalls that “as a result of the Italian colonial war, more than 4000 people were executed over the course of just six years beginning in 1923; and more than 141,000 Libyans were driven from their communities or killed, not counting those killed in battle.”So when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Tripoli in late August and early September of 2008, the parties agreed that the Italians would pay the Libyan treasury €5 billion for the suffering caused to the Libyan people. Libya was to receive €200 million each year for 25 years. In return, Gadhafi gave Italian businesses lucrative contracts.
As a gift, Berlusconi had brought the Colonel a silver inkstand in the form of a lion’s head with two expensive fountain pens, which they used to sign the agreement. On that visit, a statue of Venus that colonizers had taken from Cyrenaica, i.e., the eastern part of present-day Libya, was returned from the National Museum of Rome. Berlusconi said, “All of this is material and emotional acknowledgment of mistakes committed by our country during the colonial era, and it paves the way for future cooperation.”
Satisfied with that, Gadhafi with his usual tenacity nevertheless brought the issue up again a year later when he arrived in Italy on a trip around Europe. During one official ceremony, he appeared before reporters in uniform wearing a mid-sized photograph of al-Mukhtar surrounded by Italian guards on his right lapel. Gadhafi answered the baffled journalists’ questions by saying, “This man was martyred even though he fought barbaric foreign troops for the freedom and dignity of his country and for independence.” The reference to past wrongs was obvious; however, the visit was a success.
I wonder, did the Colonel have a presentiment then that two years later he would be hiding from a tribunal and savage reprisal?
The popular idol’s tomb will be returned
Prominent historical figures cause less controversy during times of peace than conflict. Things have been less than clear during Libya’s civil war. Each of the warring parties has struggled for the honor of fighting with the name of Omar al-Mukhtar on their lips. He became an example for both sides, but in quite different ways.
The rebels’ best units are awaiting orders to attack outside the city of Sirte, near which Gadhafi was born and where he may be hiding. The battalion commanded by Naji al-Maghribi is named after Omar al-Mukhtar.
The Libyan opposition leader has called al-Mukhtar his hero. Even those the Libyan authorities say are members of al-Qaeda have spoken of their respect for him. Many of the demonstrators who participated in the protests in mid-February carried his portrait along with anti-government placards and wore pins with his picture on their T-shirts. People chanted slogans attributed to al-Mukhtar, for example: “Victory or death!” and “Live with dignity or die with dignity!”
Members of the Transitional National Council said at the time, “Al-Mukhtar fought foreign invaders, but these days he would be fighting a dictator.” Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (an Egyptian living in Qatar who is believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) spoke in support of the rebels and urged them to persevere, saying: “You are the heirs of Omar al-Mukhtar!”
Venerable grandsons and granddaughters of the great man were found. One of his descendents lives in London, for example. They supported the opposition and made appropriate statements on the most popular Arabic TV stations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. It turns out that all these years members of this family have been unhappy that, without consulting them crazy Gadhafi moved al-Mukhtar’s grave from Benghazi 50 km south to Soluk, where he was executed.
A museum complex was to have been built there, but his relatives say that everything turned out much less imposing than they had expected. Now the victorious opposition is talking about returning his remains to Benghazi, especially since the uprising against Gadhafi began there. Despite other important matters, this issue is still being discussed.
The opponents of Gadhafi’s regime see him not as a fighter against foreign military intervention, but as an extravagant ruler clinging to power who has enriched his family and his entire clan by impoverishing others. To remove a leader they are sick and tired, of some Libyans felt they could rely on foreign bayonets; and although it is a fait accompli, he is still controversial among the new leaders.
“Omar al-Mukhtar’s portrait is on our 10-dinar bill. That apparently is how Gadhafi paid homage to him. But the trouble is that a few years ago Gadhafi began putting his own portrait on the large 50-dinar bill!” say critics of the previous regime, which lasted nearly 42 years. The victors have ordered the Central Bank to gradually remove those bills from circulation so that the Colonel is no longer peering at his fellow countrymen from them. But the common 10-dinar bills will retain the portrait of the national hero, Omar al-Mukhtar, who fought against foreign domination. His name now unites the Libyans.
Source: New Eastern Outlook