- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya - For 34 years, his eccentricities have been law. When he declared green the color of his revolution, a nation painted its doorways. When he proclaimed his Third Universal Theory, academics authored 1,000 studies of it. When he renamed the months of the year, Libyans celebrated Valentine’s Day in “Bird” and Revolution Day in “Conquest.”

But now, Moammar Gadhafi, 61, in power since he overthrew King Idris I in 1969, is scrambling to keep up with his people. His government is opening up to the Western world, making amends for its terrorist past and promising to live a peaceful existence without the burden of renegade allies or weapons of mass destruction.

“It’s not something where he had a choice in it,” said Hafez Ali Khalifa, a neurosurgeon. “You go with the flow, and he’s going with the flow.”

Libyans on the gritty streets of Tripoli or amid the decaying splendor of ancient desert towns already have moved beyond the isolation that Col. Gadhafi imposed.

They are learning English and using the Internet to chat with relatives in the United States. They watch “Big Brother” on satellite television. They follow news of European elections, the war in Iraq and the avian flu. They debate democracy and explore international business opportunities.

Foreign companies are back, with multibillion-dollar contracts to overhaul Libya’s oil infrastructure. With U.N. sanctions lifted, Libya’s economy is awakening, and grandiose new projects promise big money.

Living in the past

During much of his rule over his Alaska-size country of 5.5 million people, Col. Gadhafi went against the flow.

He sheltered terrorists such as Palestinian militant Abu Nidal. He shipped weapons to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He meddled in neighboring African countries. Gunfire from his London embassy at anti-Gadhafi demonstrators killed a British policewoman. It took him nearly 15 years to take responsibility for the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 persons.

Libya supported not only the IRA, Basque separatists and Palestinians, but obscure movements in the Caribbean and South Pacific, said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

The United States, which dropped bombs on Libya in 1986 as retaliation for a terrorist attack in Germany, was the archenemy. In the government’s propaganda, it still is.

In a stairwell of Tripoli’s Advancement Primary School, there is a mural of an eagle, Libya’s national bird, shredding a U.S. flag in its talons.

“Arab unity. African unity,” children chant during morning calisthenics. “God is Great. We are the youth of the future. We are the army of the future.”

But when the bell rings, the children fan out to Internet cafes with fast connections and cheap hourly rates, open AOL Instant Messenger and chat about the latest installment of the “The Lord of the Rings.”

They go home to watch “Frasier” through satellite TV dishes that sprout from even the humblest apartment blocks.

Ignoring politics

There is a disconnect in Libya between the state-sponsored dogma and ordinary life. It’s not that everyone rejects the propaganda they are fed; it’s just less relevant to their lives.

Col. Gadhafi’s image remains everywhere in Libya. His photograph gazes from above the counter of Afaaq Co., an advertising, publishing and printing firm. But in general manager Radwan al-Qaeed’s office, the only posters are of European landscapes.

Mr. al-Qaeed, 30, talks excitedly about expansion. His company makes commemorative pins and brochures for the government, but the real money lies elsewhere.

“Every business needs advertising,” he said. “I want to extend my company internationally. I hope I can take it to the United States.”

Mr. al-Qaeed has little time to think about Col. Gadhafi.

“Most people my age are in private business,” he said. “Politics doesn’t really interest us.”

Moving forward

What does interest people is economics. And that, too, is changing.

Since Col. Gadhafi came to power, Libya’s oil output, which accounts for almost all of its foreign earnings, has dropped from more than 3 million barrels a day to 1.4 million barrels. Libya remains one of Africa’s richest nations, but life has become increasingly tough.

Some U.S. sanctions have eased, and Libyans think that if all are lifted, their oil industry will soar and they will be wealthy again. In anticipation, the country has asked the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to raise its export quota from 1.3 million barrels a day to 2 million.

Work already has begun. Bringing in European and Asian companies to provide the technology and experience, the government is building a $5 billion pipeline to pump natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea, from Libyan fields to Italian power plants.

Libya is about to put out bids for a $2 billion upgrade of an important oil refinery, and officials say the government soon will offer contracts for oil exploration in the Libyan desert.

“There are lots of areas that haven’t been explored yet,” said Mohammed Abouzaid Naser, an official at the Zawya Oil Refinery.

Libyan officials say they can make improvements with the help of European and Asian companies, but what they really want is for the Americans to return.

“It will make a big difference,” said Khalifa Sahli, Zawya’s operations manager. “The Americans have a good share of the technology in the oil business.”

Given the changes, people say, there can be no turning back for Col. Gadhafi.

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya already is looking less socialist by the day and has announced plans to privatize 361 state companies.

“We realize that the world is entering a new stage, and we realize that we should be more open to others,” Miloud El Mehadbi said. “Being introverted means death.”

Mr. Mehadbi is foreign affairs director for the World Center for the Studies and Researches of the Green Book, Col. Gadhafi’s 1970s treatise on politics, economy and society, which the center publishes in 53 languages.

Mr. Mehadbi defends the Green Book, saying its theory was implemented poorly and any mistakes are being corrected.

Other Libyans see the changes in their country’s politics as an acknowledgment that in a world dominated by rich nations, casting Libya as the anti-Western leader of African and Arab countries won’t revive a struggling economy. They say 17 years of U.S. sanctions drove that point home.

“You find yourself ostracized. That’s what they found,” said Dr. Khalifa, the neurosurgeon. “The sanctions are part of that, and they worked.

“There is a carrot and a stick, and you have to make a choice.”

Speaking out — quietly

It is impossible to know how many Libyans oppose the rule of Col. Gadhafi — universally known as “the leader.” There is no organized dissident movement, and under an omnipresent security apparatus, most Libyans keep their mouths shut.

“I can’t give you an interview,” an old man protested when approached on the street. “Maybe I’ll say something about politics.”

Libyans often give the impression that they are biting their tongues in the presence of government minders, who accompany foreign journalists on most reporting trips. One man, deep into a discussion about golf, suddenly interrupted himself as the minder wandered off, lowering his voice and speaking hurriedly.

“The leader should follow the American leader — Bush — and let people be happy,” he said. “We have many problems. Talking, that is one problem.”

Then, picking up seamlessly where he left off, he went on about Tiger Woods’ swing.

Even foreigners in Libya watch what they say.

A British couple takes an afternoon walk, pushing their baby in a stroller, in one of the comfortable compounds built for foreign workers. A reporter approaches to ask them what life is like in Libya.

“It’s quite a nice place to live,” the man says cheerfully. Asked what he does for a living, he replies: “I’d rather not say.”

His wife says quietly: “That’s what it’s like in Libya.”

In recognition of Col. Gadhafi’s moves on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the White House in late February lifted a 23-year-old ban on Americans traveling to Libya and announced that U.S. companies that had been in Libya before the sanctions can negotiate their return.

Most Libyans say the countries’ new relationship is cause for rejoicing.

“People aren’t excited. They’re ecstatic,” said Debbie McCully, a Tulsa, Okla., woman who has lived in Libya since the 1970s.

The sanctions have cost Libya tens of billions of dollars, but most Libyans say the travel ban, which prevented Americans from visiting Libya and made it difficult for Libyans to visit the United States, caused as much harm.

“Most of my generation did its undergraduate or graduate work in the States. It’s amazing how people forget how things were,” said Tarek Hassan-Beck, a top oil official who studied in Illinois and New Mexico in the 1970s. “This political misunderstanding lasted too long, and we’re happy these things are taking place.”

Added Salah Ibrahim, an economist who heads Tripoli’s Academy of Post-Graduate Studies, said: “We are not as isolated as before. We are a part of international society. … Now we have a new country, and new possibilities to improve ourselves.”

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