Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Ghost of Omar al-Mukhtar haunts Gaddafy

When Muamar Gaddafy made his first ever visit to Italy in 2009, he wore a ill-fitting, gold braided military uniform with an image of Omar al Mukhtar pinned to his chest. It was a pointed borrowing of the legacy of an older Libyan hero, whose face still adorns the Libyan ten-dinar note. Al Mukhtar was the Lion of the Desert, the Libyan resistance leader who fought a brutal Italian regime for 20 years and was hanged by colonial forces in 1931. (picture of the arrest of Omar al-Mukhtar from Wikipedia)

Like the current insurgents, al Mukhtar came from the east of the country, Cyrenaica, named for the city of Cyrene, the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the region. Cyrenaica was a part of the Ottoman Empire as al Mukhtar grew up but was claimed by Italy with Tripolitana and Fezzan who together formed modern Libya. The Italians launched an invasion of Libya in 1911 under the bogus claim of liberating it from the rule of the Sultans.

The Libyans weren’t fooled and organised by al-Mukhtar they fought a resistance that would last until World War II. For 20 years he was a thorn in the colonists side until Mussolini placed 100,000 Libyans in internment camps and closed the borders preventing foreign aid. In September 1931 Al-Mukhtar, then aged 70, was wounded in battle in the eastern town of Slonta and captured by the Italians. After a three-day trial, he was hanged and his last words were “to God we belong and to Him we shall return.”

After the war, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya which was one of the first African countries to gain independence in 1951. The former Emir of Cyrenaica, Sayyid Muhammad Idris was anointed as King Idris, head of a constitutional monarchy as the Libyan economy prospered with oil wealth. But Idris was increasingly disliked at home for his close ties to the US and UK. His vulnerability increased due to ill-health and the death in childhood of all of his male heirs (a female monarch was unthinkable). Purges against Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians and internal Baathists did little to endear him to his people. On 1 September 1969, a group of officers acting under the name of the Revolutionary Command Council launched a coup while Idris was recuperating in Turkey.

Seven days later the new cabinet was announced. The commander in chief of the armed forces was named as Colonel Muammar Gaddafy, then 27. The monarchy was abolished and the Libyan Arab Republic was proclaimed. Initially the Americans believed they could work with the new ruler and killed a secret British plan to restore the king with the aid of mercenaries. Slowly the cult of personality took over. The Idris portraits were banished and even the worshipped iconography of al-Mukhtar took a back seat to the new Lion of the Desert. Gaddafy was supported by Nasser as Egypt provided advisers and advice on media, propaganda and use of the security apparatus.

As Mohamed Eljahmi noted in the Middle East Quarterly in 2006, Gaddafy used various means to hold on to power. He made it a criminal offense to proselytise against the state, to arouse class hatred, to spread falsehood, or to participate in strikes and demonstrations. He instituted an Islamisation and Arabisation campaign to rid the country of Western influence. He removed European street signs, banned alcohol, closed US and UK bases, and expelled foreigners and Jews. He converted Tripoli's cathedral to a mosque and Benghazi's cathedral to a headquarters for the Arab Socialist Union. He even forced the Italian community to exhume the remains of their dead to take back to Italy, an event he televised live.

Gaddafy’s sponsorship of international terrorism brought the wrath of the Reagan administration in 1986. He narrowly survived the bombing of Libya after being tipped by the Prime Minister of Malta who told him unauthorised aircraft were flying over Maltese airspace heading south towards Tripoli. He also won the subsequent propaganda war inventing the death of an adopted daughter which was swallowed whole by western media. Libyan isolation grew in the 1990s after Gaddafy’s agents were blamed for the Lockerbie disaster.

It wasn’t until George W Bush’s executive order 13477 in October 2008 the Gaddafy regime finally came in from the cold. Libyan oil revenues were too lucrative to ignore and American and European energy companies lined up to do business with him. The West ignored the fact his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. No one paid attention to the growing internal grumblings. The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition was founded in 2005 in London but could not mobilise in Libya until the protests started last month. Then the people power revolutions spread across the border from Tunisia and Egypt and quickly escalated into civil war.

Gaddafy claims he is fighting against Al Qaeda, though in truth Al Qaeda were caught as flatfooted as Western leaders by the speed of the revolution. The wheel has now come full circle with Omar al-Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son coming out in support of the opposition. “I was proud to be there. I went to help raise their morale,” he told the Irish Times. “There was a lot of cheering when they saw me because of my father’s legacy.” Asked how his father might view the situation if he were alive today, his son replied: “[He] loved Libya. He would have a similar position to mine for the benefit of the country.”

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