Withdraw and leave the people alone, hero's son tells Gadafy


Omar al-Mukhtar’s son, who turned up to join demonstrators, tells MARY FITZGERALDit was something he had to do

EVERY LIBYAN grows up on tales of Omar al-Mukhtar’s derring-do during the struggle against colonial rule in the 1920s. The story of how he fought the Italians in the mountains of eastern Libya before being caught and hanged in 1931 is celebrated across the Arab world, and was the subject of the 1981 film Lion of the Desert,starring Anthony Quinn. In Libya, the portrait of an ascetic-looking al-Mukhtar in profile, with white prayer cap and neatly trimmed beard, adorns everything from shop fronts to the 10 dinar note.

Scores of streets are named after him.

“Omar al-Mukhtar is Libya’s national hero,” says one young Benghazi resident. “He is a potent symbol of resistance.” Small wonder then that those whose protests evolved in a matter of days into all-out revolt across Libya’s eastern belt have adopted al-Mukhtar as an emblem of their struggle to end the 42-year rule of Muammer Gadafy. His image has been used to cover Gadafy’s face on monuments and it features on rebel flags, pamphlets, and even the handwritten press passes issued to foreign journalists. Al-Mukhtar’s stirring declaration “victory or death” is regularly invoked by those seeking what they call a “New Libya”.

So when Omar al-Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son Mohammad Omar turned up less than two weeks ago to join demonstrators on the third day of protests which were met with brutal force by the regime, the crowd was overjoyed.

“Because these protests were by Libyan youth for the cause of Libya, I wanted to go to support them. It was something I felt I had to do,” he told The Irish Timesyesterday. “I was proud to be there. I went to help raise their morale. There was a lot of cheering when they saw me because of my father’s legacy.

“I advised them to be under the guidance of God and to avoid any destruction of property like banks and private buildings. I told them I was with them and backing them.” Asked how Omar al-Mukhtar might view the situation if he were alive today, his son replied: “That man loved Libya. He would have a similar position to mine for the benefit of the country.”

Would he be on the streets with the youth? “Yes, of course.” Asked what advice he would give Gadafy, who appears increasingly isolated in the capital Tripoli, al-Mukhtar smiles. “He doesn’t listen to advice. A lot of people try to advise him but he still has a hard head and he doesn’t want to listen.

“From the first day he could have sorted this out but my advice to him now is: ‘Withdraw and leave the people alone, this will be good for your own sake as well. Take anything you want and go away. Leave the country’.” Al-Mukhtar added that he hoped the decision would come from Gadafy himself.

“I hope that he will choose to leave to give the country the chance to reach its potential.” Several factors had sparked the protests, he said. “The Libyan youth have no jobs and no opportunities. The Libyan people in general have a lot of grievances.” Al-Mukhtar said he was shocked by the regime’s use of violence to snuff out peaceful rallies. “This was the biggest mistake [Gadafy] has ever made . . . to kill your own people in this way is appalling.

“We bless the souls of the martyrs. Their deaths are a great loss to the country.

“I don’t know what is inside [Gadafy] these days. At the beginning he looked after the Libyan people and some Libyan people agreed with him. But in recent times he changed. Nobody expected him to behave like this.” Al-Mukhtar dismisses Gadafy’s threats that if he falls, Libya will descend into civil war along tribal lines.

“No, no, no. Tribes will not be an issue and we have never had a civil war,” he says. “We hope to have a good, democratic government to give Libya a bright future. We have a lot of Libyans who are qualified enough to hold this country together.” Asked how history might judge Gadafy, al-Mukhtar said: “People can make mistakes, and he did . . . When the history is written, it will show that Gadafy did good and bad things but in my opinion, he did more bad than good for the country.”