Libya: behind the ‘madman’s’ labels

July 16 1979

Libya: behind the ‘madman’s’ labels

July 16 1979

Libya: behind the ‘madman’s’ labels


Khadafy omnipresent in Tripoli: a freak?

Libya ’s Colonel Moammar Khadafy was back in the news last week with a reported threat to stop all oil exports for several years, a move which could deepen severely the world energy crisis. His remarks came in Syria during a month-long tour of Arab countries in sea rch of support for his anti-Egyptian, anti-U.S. stance. But what the reports didn’t make clear was that his threat was aimed less at the West in general, than at the United States, which recently suspended deliveries of Boeing 7Jt7s to Libya and which is currently training Egyptian pilots for what Khadafy believes is a new Egyptian strike against Libya before the end of the year. Claudia Wright, who has twice visited Libya recently, reports:

The centrepiece of the Museum of Natural History in Tripoli is a room filled with freaks of nature. A two-headed calf looks forlornly left and right out of its dusty glass case. Two lambs joined at the hip, one white, the other black, are a tangle of legs in their case. To the nomadic shepherds who, 25 years ago, were more than three-quarters of the Libyan population, these

would have been treasured portents of luck or horrible misfortune. To sophisticated urbanites, however, who now number more than half the 2.5 million Libyans, these exhibits hold no interest.

To them, the freaks who bode no good these days are the foreigners—half a

million of whom have poured into the country to work, teach, buy, sell and steal. And it must be said the feeling is mutual. To the outside world Libya itself is a freak among nations—a tiny, oil-rich supporter of every crank revolution and band of malcontents the world over. Khadafy, the epitome of the Libyan revolution, in the eyes of the Western press is “the world’s No. 1 troublemaker,” “the maniac,” “madman” and “the most dangerous leader in the Middle East.”

Libyans have heard all that many times before. They are ardent radio listeners and color television sets, which cost only two weeks’ average wages, are widely owned. But they don’t necessarily believe the foreign reports about Libya, the attempted coups against Khadafy.

Salah Zarem, has a PhD in Greek civilization from the Sorbonne, in Paris. He speaks Arabic, French, Latin, Greek and Italian and is currently excavating the largest ancient Greek temple ever found in North Africa. He knew, he says, the pilot of the helicopter that crashed in March, 1978, killing several Libyan officials and a visiting East German delegation.

Western reports said that Khadafy should have been aboard and had been the target of an assassination attempt. Zarem says that he has read the accident reports and knows the pilot’s family well: “It was an accident, a rotor failure . . . very tragic, but that’s all.” He also knows the story of the attempted coup by army officers which appeared early this year. “What happened was that there was an argument in the barracks. One officer drew his pistol. An-

other was killed, two wounded. The killer was court-martialled, convicted and shot . . . talk of a coup is Egyptian invention.”

Libya has not spent its oil affluence as have other windfall states nor does it suffer the same insecurities. There are no sheiks secluded in marble palaces and chauffeured in Rolls-Royces or Cadillacs behind gunmen with gold-plated pistols. They were sent packing with King Idris in the revolution of 1969. Every Libyan is now guaranteed a house or apartment, car, minimum income, subsidies on basic necessities, free education, medicine and health care.

In the past 12 months, according to the Green Book, Khadafy’s three-part revolutionary manual, most forms of private commercial enterprise, including landlords, have been abolished or turned into worker partnerships. The average per capita income has shot up from about $59 in 1950 to $6,164 in 1977.

Today’s intellectuals nevertheless remember poverty as the dominating force of their early lives. Before oil, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, stripped of its limited assets by the Italian colonizers and devastated by the North African campaigns of the Second World War. Before the revolu-

tion, they say, most of the oil revenues flowed into the same few hands that held most of the land: 90 per cent of the population was illiterate—99 per cent of the women.

Ali El Hawat is an assistant professor of sociology who studied at Louisiana State University. He was born in Homs, about 100 miles along the Mediterranean east of Tripoli. “Ten years ago,” he recalls, “it was a town with one street. Now there’s a cement factory, a harbor for fishing, a central hospital, two high schools, elementary schools, a teachers’ training institute, date processing factories and electricity.”

If there is a spectre of opposition to Khadafy, Hawat and those around him do not see it in the officer corps, on which Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat is pinning his hopes. Khadafy’s greatest concern is with the educated youth of the country, and he spends a lot of time with them.

“We are now cultured by Khadafy’s way of doing things,” observes Omar El Fathaly, the director of political research at the Arab Development Institute in Tripoli. But that creates its own special stresses and tensions. Fuelled by sharply rising oil revenues—by more than $4.76 billion in accumulated reserves, and about $5.95 billion to be spent each year of the current five-year plan—it is more than possible that the pace of modernization will stimulate

people’s demands faster than the government can satisfy them.

A man called Old Mohammed—a nickname by which he introduces himself to foreigners—parades Tripoli’s beach hotel in open shirt, wide belt and cowboy boots. The hotel stands on what used to be part of his father’s farm, and he has made a living as a real estate agent finding apartments for diplomats and businessmen who favor the beach.

He complains about the inflation. He has to run three cars, he confesses, because if one breaks down, it takes weeks to be fixed. Another complaint: he can’t find secretaries anymore. “Libyan women . . . once they were like sheep. They did what they were told. Now they are taught to be good housewives and— engineers.”

And the men? The 20-year-olds with blow-waved John Travolta pompadours, who carry the paperback of Grease, say they are not eager for military service, which has become a requirement for all % men up to the age of 30 and involves I partial mobilization and training of z older men in the local militias. But no $ one in Libya minimizes the need for

1 military readiness in the face of an § Egyptian attack, which they feel will

2 come this year and be more forceful than the border fighting of July, 1977. g To their country’s detractors, they say

their military preparations were made inevitable by the Egyptian-Israeli pact. This, in their view, pits Egypt’s 400,000man army against their 40,000. But it is not a fight that they relish.