The son of Libya’s first revolutionary can barely remember his freedom-fighter father, hanged 80 years ago by the Italians, but he has no doubt that today’s rebels will prevail.
“They should hold themselves up and fill themselves with courage. God shall support them and give them victory,” says 90-year-old Mohammed Omar al-Mukhtar, sitting slightly stooped in a black cloak, white scarf and red hat.
“The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did. That’s where they get their energy from
Mohammed Omar al-Mukhtar
His father’s 20-year guerrilla war against Italian colonial rulers made him a national hero, inspired generations of Libyans and was immortalized by Oscar-winning actor Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film “Lion of the Desert”.
So powerful is his legacy, Mohammed said it was important for Muammer Gaddafi to declare the start of his revolution from Mukhtar’s tomb.
More than 30 years later, rebels rising up in Mukhtar’s eastern heartland, determined to oust the Libyan strongman, claim him as their own.
Like most Libyans living in the rebel-held east, the little old man with his wizened hands, sunken cheeks and stub nose, is delighted that eastern Libya has again become the font of revolution.
Since Gaddafi ‘s forces fled his home city Benghazi, Mohammed has made rare visits outside the home, to which he is largely confined, to join the ebullient youth outside their headquarters on the blustery Corniche.
“I’m encouraging the youth to unite and have one voice,” he said.
“The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did. That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar,” he added.
Much like today’s rebels, forced to retreat to the oil town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday under government artillery and air strikes, Mukhtar’s men battled a much more powerful and better equipped opponent.
But his son refuses to criticize the often ragtag fighters, whom relatives say include at least four Mukhtar family members.
“The revolutionaries are on the right path,” he insists. “There is leadership and they aren’t just going it alone. They have their strategies. I have a good feeling. And they will be victorious, God willing. Soon, very soon.”
He would have been more supportive and in favor of this revolution because it really symbolizes Omar al-Mukhtar
Mohammed Omar al-Mukhtar
Unlike oil barons who have amassed fortunes in Libya, living in sprawling mansions with luxury bolt-holes in Monaco, London or Venice, Mukhtar’s home is a relatively modest bungalow opposite a wedding accessories shop.
Black and white photographs of his father clutter a table, and a flat-screen television screwed to the wall remains politely off when guests come to call.
At times Mohammed appears forgetful or confused. In the film, he is depicted watching his father swing from the gallows, but he told AFP he hadn’t seen his father after being taken with his mother to Egypt in 1927, four years earlier.
Ironically, the Mukhtar clan initially welcomed Gaddafi, believing in his revolution and early promises, and only losing faith in the 1980s.
“He would have been more supportive and in favor of this revolution because it really symbolizes Omar al-Mukhtar,” says Mohammed, referring to the three-week-long campaign to oust Gaddafi.
“It was started by the youth. They aren’t with the military or the government, so we feel more connected to this revolution.”
That’s a sentiment largely embraced by student activists. With schools and universities closed, they are using their free time to take part in demonstrations.
Mina, wearing a strappy pink top over long sleeves to preserve her modesty, said “Gaddafi used Omar al-Mukhtar’s symbolism to cheat people. We’re truly, truly using Omar al-Mukhtar to represent everything he ever stood for.”
But Rafa Berassali, an engineer once jailed by the Gaddafi regime and stumbling around underground cells at a looted army barracks, believes greater inspiration has come from more recent, and more successful, uprisings.
“To be quite honest, Omar Mukhtar was an inspiration but this was mainly inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions — revolutions that succeeded. So definitely, definitely they were the main inspiration.”