Like the current insurgents, al Mukhtar came from the east of the country. Cyrenaica is named for Cyrene, the oldest and most important of 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 invaded Libya in 1911 under the bogus claim of liberating the country from the rule of the Sultans. The Libyans under al-Mukhtar fought a resistance lasting until World War II. For 20 years al-Mukhtar 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 70, was wounded in battle in the eastern town of Slonta and captured by the Italians. After a three-day trial, he was hanged. His last words were “to God we belong and to Him we shall return.”After the war, Italy relinquished 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 King Idris, head of a constitutional monarchy as the Libyan economy prospered with oil wealth. Idris was increasingly disliked for close ties to the US and UK. His vulnerability increased due to ill-health and the death in childhood of all his male heirs (a female monarch was unthinkable). Purges against Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians and Baathists did little to endear him. On 1 September 1969, a group of officers 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. 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 iconography of al-Mukhtar took a back seat to the new Lion of the Desert. Gaddafy was supported by Egypt’s Nasser who provided advisers and advice on media, propaganda and 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 began 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 to 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.
George W Bush’s executive order 13477 in October 2008 brought Gaddafy in from the cold. Libyan oil revenues were lucrative and American and European energy companies wanted to do business with Gaddafy. The West ignored his increasingly erratic behaviour. No one paid attention to internal grumblings against the autocrat. 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 people power revolutions spread from Tunisia and Egypt and escalated into civil war.
Gaddafy claims he is fighting against Al Qaeda, though Al Qaeda were caught as flatfooted as Western leaders by the speed of the revolution. The wheel has 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, he replied: “[He] loved Libya. He would have a similar position to mine for the benefit of the country.”