Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert

The revolution that led to the ‘successful’ decapitation of Libya’s corrupt system has resulted in a somewhat lawless state, vulnerable to extortion and corruption from Islamist, other maleficent and outside forces. Last week, militia seized the capital city. The various factions have aligned into two key groups; Libya Dawn comprises mainly of Islamists and their opponents operate under Khalifa Hifter, who claims to be combatting extremist insurgents. The region of Libya has seen no shortage of struggle and division in its history, most notably under the Ottomans and during the Italian period of the early 20th century. Gaddafi lengthened the duration of his final days by exacerbating existing tribal and family fissures.

After the Italo-Turkish war, the region was carved into three colonies and dubbed Italian North Africa. In 1934, Italy adopted the name “Libya”, from the Ancient Greek for all of North Africa found west of Egypt. Italian occupation was nothing short of brutal, reducing the Bedouin population by a half through massacres and starvation in concentration camps. After Italy’s World War defeat in 1940, Libya came under control of the Allies and Italy was forced to relinquish all control of the country under the 1947 Peace Treaty.

mukhtar3
Mukhtar and his fellow Libyan fighters

Omar Mukhtar was the leader of the resistance against Italian occupation and remains Libya’s anti-colonialist hero despite multiple attempts contemptuous rulers have made at hijacking his image. Born under the Ottoman Empire, he witnessed the loss of his homeland to ‘European’ forces and his people arrested, killed and driven into camps during the 1920s. By profession, Mukhtar was a teacher of the Quran, but he was adept in strategic and desert warfare – allowing him to outwit the Italian machine. Alongside a small band of men, he would manage to carry out numerous successful attacks on the Italians and cut lines of supply and communication. The Italian army was humiliated and they seized their moment to capture Mukhtar when he was wounded in battle to then publicly execute on him in September 1931 – two decades after his struggle began.

Mukhtar arrested by Italian forces
Mukhtar arrested by Italian forces

Mukhtar was refused prisoner of war status, but was treated as a rebel, whose trial was hastily completed within three days. Whether an impartial trial was carried out by a regime that penned citizens into concentration camps is questionable and as a result of this, Mukhtar was subsequently hung at the age of 73 years old. It has been recorded that his final words were “to Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.”

An extract from Mustapha Akkad’s film, ‘Lion of the desert’.

Twenty years later, Libya declared its independence with its new head, King Idris, under whom the nation discovered its rich oil reserves. Arguably the worst day in its recent history, this discovery was then appropriated by Gaddafi who carried out a coup d’état on the monarchy and lived his life plundering the nation’s resources sharing little of it amongst Libyan citizens. Libya’s present is bleak and worrying – it has been hacked to pieces and manipulated by those who see benefit in bloody lines of division. Mukhtar remains symbol of unity and strength in the perilous present, featuring heavily in the uprising against Gaddafi, but does his history prove that unity can only be found in a common enemy? Gaddafi worked hard to create an environment of secrecy, fear and distrust between individuals, towns and tribes – and it will take the two fighting militia groups to realise their true enemies are not Libyans, but those providing them with weapons to kill each other, before a real peace and prosperity can develop.

Mukhtar amongst his supporters
Mukhtar amongst his supporters

Noora Ismail

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