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Libya: An End to Isolation?
By Andrew Cockburn
Housam, a guide from the Libyan Ministry of Information, had run only 20 yards (18 meters) from his hotel room to mine, but he was perspiring. "Come quickly," he said, "the Leader is waiting for you in Banghazi. There is a plane ready." We raced downstairs. The government driver, allegedly on standby for just this occasion, had characteristically disappeared. Cursing, Housam led me in a sprint to his own car, and we roared off down the corniche that runs along the Mediterranean seafront of Tripoli, Libya's capital city. We were heading away from the city's main commercial airport.
After a few miles we suddenly peeled off the highway and sped through a gate onto an airfield where a dozen huge Russian-built Ilyushin-76 military transport planes were parked. We climbed a ladder into the vast cargo bay of one of the planes. Waiting inside were Fuad, Muammar Qaddafi's English interpreter, and a youth named Ibrahim toting two large cardboard boxes tied with string. I asked what was in the boxes. "Correspondence for the Leader," replied Fuad, lighting a cigarette. So this was how Muammar Qaddafi gets his mail.
"Do you notice how they're trying to get that light in the cockpit to go out?"
remarked Fuad. "There is a problem with this plane." A nervous-looking pilot appeared at the door moments later and concurred that the plane was not safe. We climbed down, got back in our car, and drove into town. "Kul takhira fi'khira," said Fuad cheerfully, "sometimes it is better to delay," a common Libyan phrase that I was beginning to know well.
This was a voyage of exploration. For years Libya has been a country largely unknown to the outside world. Even the few outsiders who managed to make their way here usually found it impossible to penetrate beneath the surface. Casual contact between ordinary Libyans and foreigners was heavily discouraged as Qaddafi, who came to power
in 1969, gradually imposed his own brand of revolutionary theory on the country. As embassies closed and foreign companies pulled out throughout the 1970s and '80s, there was an ever diminishing number of visitors from the Western world.
Libya's isolation became even more pronounced following the 1992 imposition of United Nations sanctions designed to force Qaddafi to hand over two suspects indicted for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people.
Qaddafi refused for seven years to release the suspects for trial in either the United States or Britain, defying the international community and reinforcing Libya's image as a terrorist state, its people crushed under a dictatorial regime of unbridled repression.
Qaddafi had done much to court this reputation. For years he harbored the infamous terrorist Abu Nidal. He was there for the Irish Republican Army when it needed him, supplying large quantities of arms in the later stages of the Northern Ireland conflict. Libyan agents have murdered people around the world, the victims for the most part "stray dogs"—exiled dissidents on whom Qaddafi had declared war.
When Qaddafi surrendered the Lockerbie suspects in April 1999 for a trial in the Netherlands starting in May 2000, the UN suspended sanctions—although the United States still maintains its own embargo. As the trial began, Qaddafi seemed to feel confident that his years as an international pariah were drawing to an end. He declared that it was "absurd" to postulate that he had ordered the bombing. "The court is sitting to judge them," he told the press, "not whether they are Libyan agents."
In fact, some countries appear ready to forgive crimes where Libyan guilt is far more certain than in the Lockerbie case. In July 1999, for example, Libya agreed to pay compensation to the relatives of the 170 victims of the French airline UTA flight 772, which was destroyed by a bomb over Niger in 1989. A Paris court had found Qaddafi's brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Sanusi, guilty of orchestrating the mass murder.
Now French diplomats and businessmen are among those from around the world who disembark regularly at Tripoli's airport, suddenly bustling after being closed to international flights for the better part of a decade. Foreign businessmen flock to Tripoli as the government makes pleas for foreign investment. All-terrain vehicles filled with European tourists ply the Sahara dunes. Libyans themselves are not only permitted but actually encouraged to embark on private business ventures.
Still, Libya is hardly a country where travel for outsiders is routine, a truth rendered evident by my journey to meet the Leader. Hardly had we returned after the abortive trip to the military airport when Housam reappeared. "There's another plane," he gasped. "Come quick."
This time we drove to the main civilian airport, where we were ushered onto a modern jetliner, part of the Libyan Arab Airlines fleet. Ibrahim reappeared with the boxes containing the Leader's mail. Later I was told that our plane had been diverted from its scheduled afternoon flight to Malta, leaving would-be passengers steaming in the terminal.
We took off, soaring east over green fields dotted with farmhouses along the fertile strip that edges the coast. Far to the south I could see the yellow fringe that marks the beginning of the great sandy waste of the Libyan desert, stretching far into Africa. We were headed for Al Bayda, a sleepy town in the mercifully cool Cyrenaic uplands east of Banghazi.
Late that night I was driven down dark and empty back roads to Qaddafi's temporary residence, a marble-floored villa set in spacious grounds. Just before we pulled up, I noticed an open canvas shelter with a brightly colored checkerboard pattern—a familiar image from pictures of Qaddafi, dressed in extravagant cloaks and turbans, greeting visitors "in his tent." We bypassed the tent, and I was ushered into the mansion to a formal drawing room furnished with white velvet chairs and decorated with framed pictures of Qaddafi's wife and children.
Qaddafi himself finally entered the room, leaning on an aluminum crutch that clicked rhythmically on the marble floor. He had broken his leg some months before, the injury variously ascribed to an assassination attempt, an accident on the football field, a fall in the bathroom, or a fall while trying to climb out the bathroom window—a confusion indicative of the miasma of rumor that surrounds Qaddafi. (A close friend of the Libyan leader insisted to me that the fall in the bathroom was the correct version of the story.)
Clad in a faded sport shirt, khaki slacks, and worn leather slippers, Qaddafi presented a very different picture from the flamboyant figure in extravagant dress long familiar to the outside world. He looked tired. In the past 12 hours he had talked with three African presidents and the Italian foreign minister, worked on plans for a summit conference, and given a stern lecture to the city fathers of Al Bayda regarding unchecked development in the picturesque Green Mountains around the city. "We are a backward country," Qaddafi said matter-of-factly. "People don't understand that we are damaging the land, damaging the environment."
The Leader had also spent a few hours reading a book on mergers and acquisitions in pursuit of his present project to unite Africa. "I work 25 hours a day—but reading is part of the work, and I am a slow reader. Often I have to read things several times to understand." He sighed. The effect was disarming, as were his frequent chuckles and word-play jokes.
The country Qaddafi rules stretches for more than a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) along the North African coast from Tunisia to Egypt and another thousand deep into the heart of the Sahara. Before Qaddafi achieved power and gave Libya notoriety, this vast land—more than three times the size of France—reposed in obscurity, making only periodic appearances on the world stage.
Long before recorded history the desert interior, where daytime temperatures can exceed 130 degrees, was a sparsely wooded grassland. The people who lived there left images of their daily lives carved and painted on the rocks of the Akakus mountain range in the far southwest before they vanished in the face of the advancing desert some 4,000 years ago.
Scattered oases, all that remained of human habitation, became the way stations for caravans from central Africa as they skirted the great sand seas of Marzuq in the west or Rabyanah in the east, the desolate black highlands of the Jabal as Sawda, and the vast stony plain of Al Hamra before finally reaching the farmlands, settlements, and ports along the Mediterranean. Here in Tripolitania at the western end of the country and Cyrenaica in the east, rainfall and underground reservoirs produced lush landscapes of wheat fields, olive groves, and fruit plantations little different from the landscapes of southern Italy a few hundred miles across the sea.
Before and after the Arabs erupted out of their homeland in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, planting their language, religion, and culture across all of North Africa, the coastal strip was a corridor for invaders passing back and forth between Egypt and the lands to the west. Roman legions marched this way, conquering the settlements of the Phoenician and Greek colonists who first traded along the coasts. Mementos of ancient civilization are everywhere, notably in the cities preserved for centuries in the drifting Saharan sands that buried them long ago. In the east, toward the Egyptian frontier, sand also preserves the lethal legacy of more recent transients—land mines laid by the British Eighth Army and the German Afrika Korps during their epic battles in World War II.
For all this weight of cosmopolitan history, Libya is a young country. Loosely controlled by the Ottoman Empire until early in the 20th century, the peoples of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, as well as Fezzan, which covers most of the southern desert region, had little in common, still less a sense of nationhood, until the Italians made a belated bid for empire and invaded in 1911. Though the invaders had expected an easy conquest, it took them 20 years to stamp out the last resistance. In the occupation of what Mussolini called "Italy's fourth shore," the Italians beautified Tripoli, excavated the Roman cities, and presided over the death of as much as a quarter of the population.
Finally in 1951 Libya became an independent kingdom with an economy based on exports of scrap metal from the wartime battlefields, esparto grass (used for making fine paper), and rent from U.S. and British military bases.
Eight years after independence the average annual income was 25 dollars. But in 1959 American companies began striking oil, and Libya went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being, potentially at least, one of the richest. I recall a 1964 party thrown on a beach outside Tripoli by an overnight millionaire. The entire expanse of sand, down to the waterline, had been covered with oriental carpets. Then in 1969, irked by pervasive corruption and inspired by the Arab nationalism of his idol, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, 27-year-old army Capt. Muammar Qaddafi, the son of a desert nomad, overthrew the feeble monarchy in a bloodless coup and began his revolution.
Qaddafi gradually eliminated foreign investment, abolished private enterprise, forbade all political parties, renamed the months of the year, supported revolutionary causes around the world, implemented his own concepts of democracy, and eventually renamed the country the Great Jamahiriya, which translates roughly as "ruled by the masses."
Libya gradually disappeared behind the face, rhetoric, and dubious actions of its leader while some five million ordinary Libyans remained anonymous, their daily lives a mystery. "The outside world thinks that this country consists of a man and a desert," Libyan playwright Mohammed al-Allasi remarked to me one evening as we sipped coffee in a Tripoli theater, "but we are more than that."
The fact that the isolation is beginning to lift might not be immediately evident to visitors who switch on the TV in their Tripoli hotel rooms and find only a single local channel of unremitting tedium, heavy on the Leader's speeches and the historical iniquities of various foreign invaders over the centuries. Yet the rooftops of Tripoli and Banghazi are studded with satellite dishes beaming in dozens of channels from around the world. During my meeting with Qaddafi I asked why he does not permit foreign broadcasts in the hotels. "Libyans can watch anything they want," he responded sharply, "but visitors should learn about Libya."
That, in a new and extraordinary change, now includes learning about Libya directly from Libyans. "It used to be almost an act of conspiracy to approach a foreigner," remarked Yousuf, an entrepreneur in the tourist industry, as we chatted openly in a coffee shop. "You just wouldn't dare. But things are changing, much more relaxed. We have many problems, but at least now we can talk."
Hitham, an air-conditioning engineer who works at a health spa in Al Ujaylat, close to the Tunisian frontier, certainly qualifies as an informed observer on the subject of repression, for he is an Iraqi—one of the vast diaspora of professionals who have left the ruined state of Saddam Hussein in search of a better life.
Sitting outside the health spa, the Iraqi appeared far more cautious than the affable Yousuf about talking with a visitor from the West. But finally he broke his silence to draw an implicit comparison with his home country: "I came here as a stranger, but nobody asks me, even at midnight, 'Where are you going?' When I go to Banghazi, Surt, or Al Bayda, nobody, no police, asks me, 'Who are you, what are you doing?'"
Roaming Libya, I certainly found few impediments, beyond the semi-functional telephone system and a baroque bureaucracy, placed in the way of contact with ordinary Libyans, naturally friendly and prone to shaking hands with perfect strangers in the course of an elevator ride.
Accompanying new attitudes toward open communication is a theme that resonates throughout the Arab world—acceptance of modern values that conflict with the tenets of traditional Islam. Before the revolution Libya was a deeply conservative Muslim society—the majority of the population shocked by the decadent habits spread by foreign occupation and the oil boom. Women in public places were almost invariably invisible behind the all-encompassing traditional white furushiya, and the number of female university graduates amounted to just 35. Today, the furushiya has all but disappeared, and the number of women graduating from universities exceeds that of men.
Qaddafi, famous for his interest in promoting women, has also seen to it that they find their place in traditionally male occupations. One blisteringly hot summer afternoon in Tripoli, I sat on a dais overlooking a barracks square. Beside me sat a row of senior officials in sport shirts and slacks (only the minister of the interior was wearing a suit). We were on hand for the graduation ceremony of the Libyan Women's Police Officers' Academy, class of 1999. As a verse from the Koran echoed from loudspeakers around the barracks square, the green-uniformed ranks of teenage girls in front of me hefted their automatic rifles and snapped smartly to attention. Green flags fluttered in the breeze, and the white-uniformed girls' military band struck up the national anthem:
I with my beliefs and my weapons will sacrifice myself
For my nation as the light of the truth shines in my hand. . . .
Once the last strains had died away, academy commandant Col. Mohammed Amiel stepped up to the microphone. "My daughters, now you participate in serving our country. Our task is to maintain public security, and that can only come with revolutionary action. You have to be aware of the Leader's support in getting you here. We salute our Leader!" he shouted. A high-pitched chorus of revolutionary slogans arose from rows of the graduates' younger siblings in the bleachers beside the dais.
By the time night fell the guns had disappeared, and the graduates—combat boots exchanged for high heels or modish platform shoes—were clustered happily around tables that now covered the parade ground. The party ended near midnight, but the streets were still crowded. Traffic hummed along the highways and overpasses (there is one vehicle for every seven Libyans) past the endless rows of apartment blocks in which most of the cityfolk are housed. In the center of town the open-air café on Green Square opposite the floodlit Red Castle, once the fortress of Tripoli's Turkish governors, was crowded with men talking, sipping coffee, playing cards. Sweet-smelling clouds of apple-flavored tobacco drifted from their water pipes out across the sidewalks. The only woman in the establishment was the Moroccan waitress who brought me my coffee.
Thousands of Moroccan women, from a poorer but more liberated society, arrived in the 1980s to become the waitress class of Libya. Many, however, turned to prostitution, a service previously in short supply. There is a widespread rumor that this trend was encouraged by the government in an effort to relieve the sexual frustrations of the male population without jeopardizing the virtue of local women. "It backfired," said a friend, his voice sinking to an uncharacteristic whisper. "When times got hard, poor Libyan women realized how much these ladies were making and followed suit. It's something no one wants to talk about."
Away down the coastal road, on the dark beach beyond the seawall, groups of young people huddled on blankets, passing soft drink cans to each other in a manner that suggested they contained something stronger than Pepsi—alcohol does not appear to be in as short supply these days as it was 30 years ago. Nor are the penalties for violating prohibition that severe, at least in comparison with other "dry" Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran.
"A first offender gets a year's suspended sentence and a fine," stated Shawki, who, as a veteran judge, is in a position to know. "Heroin is the big problem now, especially among students and young people," he continued, echoing a striking confession made by Qaddafi himself in 1996: "We have lost our youths."
Official figures on this topic are hard to come by, but according to a report from the government department in charge of the "fight against atheism, drugs, and hallucinogens," between 1997 and 1998 the Libyan police seized, in addition to almost 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of heroin, over three-quarters of a ton of hashish, more than 90,000 pills, likely amphetamines, and some 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of cocaine.
One morning, waiting in a Tripoli courtroom for the day's session to begin, Shawki was explaining that half the criminal cases that come before the courts concern drugs. As he spoke, the clerk of the court, wearing a loud, red-checked shirt, stood to summon us to order as a judge and two advisers, all in black robes with green sashes over open-necked shirts, took their places. A group of young men were led into a barred enclosure and their handcuffs removed, and we got down to business. Shawki, recently retired, sat with me in the well of the court, offering clearly audible comments on the cases being heard by his former colleagues sitting above us on the bench.
Abdul, the first defendant, charged with possession of heroin, was pleading not guilty. His lawyer argued that the drugs had been planted and that the police had not followed the proper procedures in their search. The judge conferred with his advisers, ignoring Shawki's loudly stated opinion to the courtroom at large that the man was "clearly guilty," and then remanded the case for two weeks.
Another heroin possession case followed, enlivened by the intervention of the defendant's father, an elderly man in a white skullcap, who advanced from the back of the court to offer his own analysis of events. The judge remanded the case for two weeks. "They will get about three years, maybe less," predicted Shawki. "Small dealers get five years, big ones, death. Mind you, if there's a hole in the evidence, they can get off."
I asked him about sharia, the Muslim code of justice, that applies in Libya. "According to sharia, the penalty for theft is the amputation of a hand," he answered. "That's the law here, but the doctors refuse." What about whipping an unmarried couple when the woman gets pregnant, also a standard sentence? Shawki's grizzled face grew serious. "It is very rare; usually the families pressure them to marry. But yes, it does happen. In fact the last case was about three months ago, in Sabha."
I thought of this grim practice strolling one evening on Gargaresh Street in southwest Tripoli; upscale boutiques and fast-food restaurants make this a favored haunt of the younger set. A ponytailed young man in an Italian designer shirt was revving the engine of his Korean car in evident hopes of attracting the attention of two girls climbing into an Isuzu. Getting no reaction, he turned up the volume of his tape player, booming out the latest local hit over the noise of the traffic. They drove off. A few minutes later I saw both cars cruising by, nose to tail. The young man's hopes may have been raised by the stretch pants and T-shirt worn by one of the women, but her companion's hair was concealed under a head scarf, a hijab, in conformance with the dress code many Muslims believe is mandated by the Koran. I suddenly realized how many hijab I was seeing around me—on women driving cars, running government departments, working as doctors and lawyers.
"The government has tried to resist, but Islamic influence is seeping in; it's a real change," remarked a friend later. "Look at this." He flipped open an old book to a picture of a crowded Tripoli street, taken in the 1970s. "You don't see a single hijab on any of the women."
Qaddafi himself makes his feelings about fundamentalist Islam quite clear. Those who fought in Afghanistan and now seek to impose their views on Arab countries, including Libya, he refers to contemptuously as zanadiq—heretics. His attitude extends beyond forceful language. Islamic activists have been rounded up and jailed by the score. An armed fundamentalist uprising in the east of the country in 1996 was harshly and summarily repressed.
Yet traditional attitudes, particularly with regard to the rights of women, persist in society at large—to the Leader's irritation. When the General People's Congress, Libya's version of a parliament, voted to withdraw the requirement for a husband to get his wife's permission before marrying a second spouse, he erupted in fury, both at the Congress and at women for not using their right to speak out. "Your education is a waste of time. You are like furniture," he told a meeting of women shown on Libyan TV (which sometimes has its moments). "From now on, any law or measure connected with half of society that is decided in the absence of women is null and void," he declared, tearing up a text of the amended law and storming out of the meeting hall.
In the palmy days of the '70s and '80s almost the entire working population in Libya was on the government payroll. The flow of oil revenues had ensured that the vast bulk of the population lived comfortably, even if no one put in much effort at their nine-to-two jobs before going home to sleep. Housing was practically free, and the government threw up endless apartment blocks and modern houses for all who needed them. Water and electricity came without charge. This unbounded largesse was already being trimmed back in the late '80s, but the sanctions, while not savage enough to cause misery on the scale of conditions in Iraq, brought harder times. Soon there was a black market price for the Libyan dinar, which had long enjoyed rock-solid stability, and it started to slide.
"Government salaries were frozen," recalled Yousuf, the tourism entrepreneur, as we drove out one morning across the farm country inland from Tripoli, passing groups of foreign laborers squatting at crossroads as they waited for work. "Meanwhile, prices started to go up—for food, clothes, everything. Of course the government subsidized essentials, but without that ration system some people would have gone hungry. At the same time the government made it easier to do business."
An optimist, Yousuf saw himself as the beneficiary of a change in the system by which individual initiative was at last being rewarded again. "I used to work for the government, but I resigned because my salary was becoming worthless. Now I not only support myself well with my own business, I am even building a house," he said, pointing up the irony of sanctions actually having had productive consequences.
The tourism business is indeed an area where the embargo has produced positive changes. As the dinar slid, foreign travelers bearing hard currency became ever more valuable, and now some 100,000 travelers a year from Europe and elsewhere are exploring this unknown country. Once upon a time the people of Ghat and Ghadamis, desert towns deep in the interior, prospered by providing shelter, protection, and guides for the trans-Sahara caravan trade, which consisted mostly of slaves. Today their descendants have adapted to escorting four-wheel-drive caravans of European tourists along the same ancient desert routes.
While some greet the commercial possibilities of the growing stream of foreign visitors, others are capitalizing on Libya's one really big business: oil. In a secluded office building in southwest Tripoli, Abdullah Ashour, a burly, ebullient oil engineer who learned his trade in Houston, Texas, is busily superintending the affairs of TOCS, the oil service company he helped found in 1997. His office walls are festooned with spiderweb diagrams of pipelines and pumping stations, and he discourses fluently in oilman's jargon about wire line units and gate valves. "The oil," he says, "was found by Americans, so we talk American, we use American equipment. We never stopped dealing with Americans," despite U.S. sanctions that forbid U.S. firms to operate in Libya. "The Americans
are very clever. They did not go away; they went from the door to the window." Smiling, Ashour reels off the names of a number of corporations that shifted their Libyan business to European subsidiaries and carried on as before.
Also flowing under the desert these days is a supply of fresh water that before the Great Man-Made River project began in 1984 was unavailable to the thirsty fields and cities of Libya's coast. To the amazement of many in the outside world, this pet project of Qaddafi's—a network of massive 13-foot-wide (4 meter) underground pipelines, some as long as 740 miles (1,191 kilometers)—has so far been a success. Clean, sweet water flows steadily down the gentle south-to-north slope of the Sahara to emerge finally from long-idle taps in Tripoli and Banghazi.
One of the great pipeline's earliest destinations was Surt, Qaddafi's made-to-order capital at the base of the Gulf of Surt, close to the Leader's birthplace. Mustafa, a professor at Tripoli's vast Al Fatah University, offers a cynical interpretation of this plan. "In this sort of project you usually move the water to the people. Sometimes you might want to move the people to the water. But Qaddafi wanted to move both the water and the people, or at least all the government workers, from Tripoli to Surt, which was hardly more than a desert village before."
It didn't work. Surt has indeed sprouted into a concrete landscape of apartment buildings and vast government office buildings, with an occasional weather-beaten café or tire-repair shop serving as a reminder of its former role as a stop-off on the coast highway. But the city is strangely empty. The vast mass of bureaucrats found excuses to delay their departure from Tripoli or, if forced to move, left their wives and families behind and return at every opportunity.
Exploring the sterile expanses of Surt one day, I came upon two officials whiling away the time in a hotel coffee shop. One of them had been summoned from Tripoli to meet with the Leader, who at the last minute had decided to go to Egypt instead. Condemned to a wasted day, this official had persuaded his friend, who held a post in the foreign ministry, to postpone his own return to Tripoli.
As we chatted, the friend's cell phone kept ringing with desperate phone calls from foreign envoys in Tripoli (none of the embassies have moved) requesting urgent meetings. "I am so sorry," he would reply smoothly. "I am detained in Surt on important business. I will contact you immediately when I return."
Today, on Green Square in Tripoli, a coffee shop stands on the site once occupied by a fine turn-of-the-century Italian palazzo. "That used to be the office of the Libyan prime minister," explained Mustafa, the professor. "Then one day the Leader noticed that every time he phoned the prime minister's office in Surt, he was told that the prime minister was visiting Tripoli for the day. When he discovered that the prime minister had never moved to Surt at all, making only quick trips there when he had to, Qaddafi ordered up the bulldozers and had the place demolished that afternoon."
In his collection of stories and essays, Escape to Hell and Other Stories, Qaddafi conveys his deep distaste for cities and other manifestations of what he sees as the barren materialism of Western urban culture: "Life in the city is merely a wormlike biological existence where man lives and dies meaninglessly." However, as he told me in the house in Al Bayda, jahannam—Arabic for "hell"—is also the name of an area in the desert close to Surt and to his birthplace. He still spends time there. "The desert climate gives me a chance to think. When there is a lot of work, I escape to hell." He laughed, displaying an author's pride at the play on words.
Conscious of the widespread perception in the West that the old rabble-rouser has changed his spots, abandoning his youthful plans to transform society, I inquired if he was still a revolutionary. He gave a chuckle and an emphatic "yes," and then observed that although he is "really satisfied with what we have done in 30 years," there is "still room for improvement." Eventually he moved slowly off to bed, to rest up for the new and uncertain days that are dawning over Libya.