There was, for all the usual showmanship, something touching about Gaddafi’s last visit to Italy a few months ago. Dressed in his singular combination of Arab cloak and Western-style white business suit, he had pinned a grainy black-and-white picture to his lapel—which Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi studiously avoided looking at. The picture was of a shackled Omar al-Mukhtar, a Cyrenaican tribal leader and Libya’s national hero, who was taken prisoner in 1931 after resisting the Italian colonial invasion for several years. He was hanged by the Italians before an assembly of Libyan prisoners—his cloak and glasses remain a central exhibit in Libya’s national museum on Green Square in Tripoli.
It was Gaddafi’s way of paying homage to a man he believed represents the ideal of a true Libyan: a tribal warrior, brave, uncompromising, willing to take on insurmountable odds. Gaddafi wanted to remind Berlusconi of the horrors of the Italian occupation—during which as much as half the population of Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern province, may have died. It was no surprise that Gaddafi, in his first speech after the uprising against him spread across Libya, invoked these same qualities to explain that he would fight to the end and was willing to die as a (self-proclaimed) martyr.