80th Death Anniversary of The Lion Of The Desert: Omar Mukhtar


The Arab spring has brought the charismatic leadership of Omar Mukhtar back into focus in an ironic chain of events. Yes, the bearded and bespectacled scholar-like man whose face looks back at you from the 10-dinar bill is Omar Al Mukhtar, whose life has great relevance to those studying the contemporary Libyan crisis or peoples’ movements in general. In India, Anna Hazare typifies another type of a protest against another type of colonization, that of governmental and corporate corruption. Both these leaders come from spiritual backgrounds, and both have been underestimated by those they were fighting against. Both have been conned into submission by their adversaries at different points in their struggle against the powers that be, but both refused to give in to these attempts to subvert their cause. At a time when the world is in need of truly capable and upright leaders, people like Omar Mukhtar need to be remembered and their beliefs and values re-examined.

Omar Mukhtar was a leader of the Libyan Resistance against their colonization by Italy. He was born in Janzour, in Eastern Barqa on August 20, 1862. He was captured and hanged by the Italian forces eighty years back on this day, September 16, 1931. He was a teacher of the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, who used his understanding of the land and the people to ignite their national pride and organize themselves into a resistance against the invaders.

When Tripoli and Benghazi were invaded and colonized by the Italians in 1911, the people were poorly equipped to protect themselves. Omar Mukhtar, who had earlier been sent to participate in the Senussi resistance against the French in Chad, rallied the Libyan people together to create a resistance that outsmarted the Italian army under its commander Rudolfo Graziani and the Italian Governor of Libya Pietro Badoglio. He continued to fight and lead his people till he was 80 years old, with failing health, and with his army challenged for food and arms by Italian blockades. The Italians repeatedly resorted to public display of atrocities against all who supported the resistance in order to instill fear in the minds of the Libyan people, Even Mussolini and his strategies were not able to break the fire that he had lit in the hearts of his followers. A master of desert warfare and guerrilla tactics, he turned his lack of numbers and weaponry into an asset, by organizing surprise attacks on the Italian bases with small teams of highly alert and motivated soldiers.

Omar Mukhtar fought the Italian army for twenty long years, till this frail and unwell 80-year-old man was wounded while fighting near Slonta and captured by the Italians. He was tried and convicted in three days and sentenced on September 14, 1931, to be hanged publicly. He was hanged on September 16 in public in the city of Soluq. Asked if he had any final words, he quoted from the Quran, To God we belong and to Him we shall return.

I first came to know about Omar Mukhtar and his life from a film that was released in 1981 called Omar Mukhtar: The Lion of the Desert. This film will remain one that made a major impression on me as a teenager whose role models were from the 60s and who had to fit into the senseless consumerism of the 80s and 90s. This film was made by Moustapha Akkad, a Muslim filmmaker who, ironically, died in the suicide bombing targeting western diplomats in Amman, Jordan in 1995.

In the Italian scheme of things, Omar Mukhtar’s death was the end of the Libyan Resistance. Libya stayed under Italian rule till the defeat of Italy by the Allies in 1943. Libya gained independence from allied occupation in 1951, the first nation to do so under the United Nations. With three capital cities and a large population but poor education and infrastructure, and plenty of oil in the region, this kingdom was soon being run by civil servants from Europe or the remaining Italian settlers. This led to the all too familiar story of resource-rich  poor nations of Africa, the wealth was taken over and controlled by the elite, and the majority of the population was left mired in poor health, education and governance. This inequity finally led to the revolt against the system that was led by Muammar Gaddafi in 1969, and the Kingdom of Libya became the Libyan Arab Republic.

Unfortunately, in spite of his charisma, Gaddafi was ultimately a man driven by his vision of himself as a savior of Islamic Africa. This led him to adopt terror as an instrument of way of realizing that vision. Gaddafi’s Libya was globally acknowledged as a nation that endorsed and sponsored terrorist acts, and in 1986, the United States went ahead and bombed Tripoli and Benghazi. Gaddafi toned his anti-Israel pitch down a little but continued to openly support the Palestinian-Syrian terror axis. However, in 40 years of single-mindedly pursuing self aggrandizement, the people of the country were nowhere in his agenda.

With time, Gaddafi’s kleptocracy, with its inhuman living conditions, censorship, unemployment, poverty, and deteriorating health standards, resulted in a mass uprising against the government in February this year (2011), months before a similar, but peaceful, mass movement evolved in India.  Omar Mukhtar once again came back to life in the hearts of the Libyan people. The Arab Spring uprising used the example of Omar Mukhtar to inspire the masses of modern Libya. However, the tragedy of Libya plays on to do this date, with a new National Transitional Council being recognized internationally as the official government of Libya, even as Gaddafi vows from hiding never to give up. The will of a people is a difficult thing to suppress, no matter how much power you have at your beck and call. The protests in Libya and the victorious first steps in India are proof that in the end, the righteous always triumph.

Update: October 20, 2011: Muammar Gaddafi led the military coup against the then King of Libya - King Idris - in 1969, and the Kingdom of Libya became the Libyan Arab Republic. Born in 1942, the charismatic and whimsical leader, did manage to bring some improvement in the lives of the Libyan people but most his work was overshadowed by the ills his regime inflicted on the masses. On October 20, 2011, the NTC spokesperson announced that Muammar Gaddafi was killed in an attack. You may want to read my post on Gaddafi and his life and time.

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