Gadaffi's demise is similar to the ending of another vivid figure in Libyan history: Benito Mussolini, who in the early 20th century waged a full scale war against Libya's popular resistance against Italian occupation. Although Italian forces invaded Libya in 1911, it was Mussolini who ultimately crushed Libyan resistance, using poison gas, tanks, and whatever the Italian Army had to offer in the late 1920s. According to some historians, more than 80,000 people in the eastern coastal province of Cyrenaica died in combat or of starvation and disease.
The end for Mussolini and his fascist apparatus came years later, as the remnants of the German army evacuated Italy. “I shall go to the mountains. Surely it is possible that five hundred men can be found who will follow me,” Mussolini is known to have said before taking his last stand in the mountains in Valtellina, Northern Italy. Only 12 black shirts showed up to support him. The rest, recognizing the end was near, had already surrendered. Communist partisans of Italy's National Liberation Committee found Mussolini, II Duce, wearing a German uniform while hiding in a German lorry. They arrested him, shot him and then hanged his bloodstained body alongside that of his mistress, Claretta Petacci, in Piazzale Loreto in Milan. People called Mussolini names and shot bullets into his dead body, an eyewitness wrote later. “In those few seconds, it was as if we all had shared the realization that the Duce was really dead at last, and that there had been a time when we would have given his dead body not insults and degradation, but the honours due to a hero and prayers worthy of a saint.”
There is a haunting resemblance between the footage of Gadaffi’s capture and that of Mussolini’s last scene in Milan.
Nevertheless, Gadaffi, whose personal hero was the famed Libyan resistance fighter, Ommar Mokhtar, never aspired to be like Mussolini, the fascist he believed to be an oppressor. Ironically, it was Mokhtar who led Libya's fight against the Italian imperialism embodied by Mussolini. Mokhtar fought gallantly against the Italians, and was ultimately captured by the Fascists in battle, tried in a military court whose authority he never recognized, and finally executed by a government whose legitimacy he never accepted. He was hanged in front of his followers. With his death, the Fascists hoped to hang the Libyan resistance. Instead, they provided Libya its protector saint and national hero.
Fifty years later, it was Gadaffi, at the time a young revolutionary leader of an independent Libya, who funded a major Hollywood production starring famous actors such as Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed. ‘Lion of the Desert’ commemorated Ommar Mokhtar’s life and death, and upon its completion Gadaffi took Mokhtar’s elderly son to an official visit to Italy and even posed with him in photos for reporters.
Ironically, while Gadaffi aspired to be remembered by coming generations of young Libyans as a saint and martyr like Ommar Mokhtar, his life ended like that of Mokhtar’s murderer, worthy of a dictator and tyrant.
In Gadaffi's demise rests the tragedy of many of his generation of Middle Eastern and African leaders. They sought to become heroes of the past, but ended up resembling the very invaders and oppressors their heroes always fought against. True, they embraced glory and global attention. Gadaffi, in particular, seemed in love with his media image. Still many dictators’ road to dictatorship was paved by oil and other natural resources. When you do not need taxation, speaking of representation is futile. There rests the danger.
It is a new beginning in Libya, a new day. Would the rebel leaders break the vicious circle and become someone different than the tyrant they just overthrew? It seems Libya, its economy and its approach to governance must change before any hopeful answer can be found. Otherwise there will be another Gadaffi, with a different name, but with the same aspirations.