Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Omar Mukhtar (1858 – 1931)

Omar Mukhtar
“Libya 100 dirham miniature sheet – martyrdom of Omar Mukhtar 1931 1980” by sludgegulper is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Omar Mukhtar was born in Cyrenaica in 1858 and educated at the Senussi center at Jaghbub. He became a Koran teacher, but when Italian forces began to penetrate Cyrenaica deep, he used his local knowledge to organize a highly successful guerrilla resistance. Northern Tripolitania surrendered in 1924, and the Senussi leadership in Cyrenaica did the same in 1926.

But Omar Mukhtar and his supporters did not accept the surrender. He did not come from the traditional elite of the Senussi order: he represented a group that had never been willing to compromise with the Italian invaders, and he continued to lead the resistance. Although his men were less well equipped than the Italians, they repeatedly beat them in action. Omar Mukhtar united the various tribes of Cyrenaica into an effective army. The resistance continued until 1931 when the elderly Umar (at age 73) was captured by the Italians, tried, sentenced to death, and hanged in the Suluq concentration camp in front of 20,000 prisoners. After independence, he became a national hero: his portrait adorned the 10-dinar banknote, and the Gaddafi government financed a blockbuster movie Omar al-Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert (1981), starring Anthony Quinn. Pictures of Omar Mukhtar reappeared during the 2011 revolt.

In January 1929, the Italian government had united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into the single colony of Libya: with the defeat of Omar Mukhtar, the colonial state had, at last, come into being. But the cost to the Libyan population was enormous: more than 6,000 dead, tens of thousands of refugees in Tunisia and Egypt, and most livestock destroyed. In its place, the Italians attempted to build a settler colony, with no success at all, apart from that of removing Libyans from any positions of responsibility in the country. In any event, the Italians had little time to put their plans into effect. World War II led to their defeat by the British, during which battles raged across the Libyan desert. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]