Libya’s Slow Trek Out of the Shadows

Times Staff Writer

At first, the changes were easy to ignore. Military roadblocks on the long, sun-scalded highways out of town melted away. Pious Muslim men were allowed to grow beards again. Libyans were permitted to carry a second passport after years as pariah travelers. Things like that; little things, one after the next.

Improbably, Moammar Kadafi stopped cursing America and the West, and the mercurial Libyan leader took to the national airwaves to hail a “new era.” Libyan officials began reminding anybody who cared to listen that this sandy Mediterranean nation issued one of the first arrest warrants for Osama bin Laden.

Then, this spring, Kadafi brought in a sharp-tongued, American-educated oil specialist and handed him unlikely instructions: Reform a system engineered by Kadafi himself. Under that newcomer, Prime Minister Shukri Mohammed Ghanim, Libya is undergoing a massive privatization of its socialist economy.


“It’s trying to become more democratic -- quote, unquote,” a European diplomat here said. “It will be easier for the West to stomach.”

Beneath its virgin beaches and its crumbling troves of Roman ruins, Libya is still a shadowy place. After more than three decades of capricious, ironfisted rule by the man known as “The Revolution Leader,” or simply “The Leader,” most people are afraid to speak with journalists, and international human rights groups are kept away. Allegations of arrests, disappearances and killings continue to darken Kadafi’s regime, along with suspicions that Libya is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Nevertheless, long-standing U.N. sanctions were lifted this fall, and hopeful, fearful Libyans are now blinking about like a people slowly waking from collective slumber. They are telling themselves, as one government official says quietly over a cup of coffee, glancing over both shoulders to see who might be near: “We can be a normal country, even with Kadafi.”


In a tumbledown neighborhood by the beach, a boy leans against a metal doorframe and lists his stock of illegal liquor. His jeans are bleached and tight; his undershirt old and frayed. “White Horse,” he says quietly. “Sixty-nine.”

This clutch of low houses is one of Tripoli’s black markets, and they say you can get just about anything here for a price -- whiskey or wine; hashish or heroin. The streets are garbage-strewn: margarine tubs, Pepsi cans, tattered plastic bags. The rust from the salt air spreads like a rash over the cars and motorbikes.

The men tinker beneath open hoods and lift their eyes to inspect passing cars, waiting to be summoned. The doors on the houses creak open and close fast, cracks of light split the edges of drawn curtains.

On paper, Libyans are entitled to a job, free school, free medicine and a house. But it hasn’t worked out that way. “We tried to take care of everybody, but we ended up standing on long queues in the black market,” Ghanim says.

One of Kadafi’s pet slogans is “Partners, not wage workers” -- but many Libyans can’t even claim the latter distinction. Unemployment is estimated at between 10% and 30%, but it’s hard to measure: No Libyan official has been so audacious as to tally the jobless.

And with oil production down and the economy in tatters, salaries are falling. In 1980, oil workers earned about $590 a month. These days, the average pay is $130 a month; the minimum wage is $89.

In the heat of afternoon, listless men line the cornice down by the water to stare off over the Mediterranean. Their clothes flap like rags in the wind. The country’s poor are wandering the streets. “If you come to my house for two hours,” a local oil company employee said, “you will answer the door to 12, 14 beggars.”

In this dingy neighborhood there is a street nicknamed Colombia -- that’s where the drugs come from. “Wine and drugs are total destruction weapons,” warns a missive painted prominently at the airport. “Hash is like the bacterial and chemical weapons and the atomic bomb.” The warning is signed, “The Revolution Leader.”

But many of Libya’s youth have no work, and nothing but drugs to do. A few years ago, the government built its first drug rehabilitation clinic in the abandoned British military barracks near the ocean, out by the prison and the fading tourist bungalows that rent for $10 a day.

Like Tripoli itself -- gaudy with strings of light, a city whose shop windows are thick with glittering party dresses -- the clinic is half-masked by whimsy: The drab wall facing the street is vibrant with painted flowers and birds.


The government waited until twilight on a September day to herd journalists and dignitaries into the burnt orange salon of a fading seaside hotel. A man stepped up to a podium and rattled off the news in a few clipped sentences: The Libyan charity headed by Kadafi’s son had struck an agreement with the families of the victims killed when a French airliner exploded in 1989. A bomb brought down the passenger plane, killing 170 people. Terms would be announced soon, he said. No questions, please.

Only a few hours passed before the United Nations voted to lift international sanctions. Cautiously optimistic over the promise of Libyan cash, France dropped its threat to veto, and opted instead to abstain.

There may be a hitch: As the weeks drag past, Libya appears to be balking. Last week, French President Jacques Chirac publicly warned Libya that it will remain isolated unless it fulfills “commitments made at the highest level of the Libyan state.”

This fall, Libya for the first time accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and promised to pay as much as $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims. Libya seemed newly eager to compromise, and talk in Tripoli attributed the change to the invasion of Baghdad.

“The Iraqi lesson was so bitter,” said one of the Western diplomats who climbed the old staircase to hear the government’s brief announcement. “And so clear.”

This is local wisdom: If there was a single moment when Libya’s slow drift toward practicality -- or even cynicism -- hardened into a solid trend, it was the day the United States invaded Iraq. “We learned how vulnerable a country like Libya can be,” government analyst Youssef Sawani said. “Everything had to be thought afresh.”

Nobody is bracing for a U.S. invasion; the shadow of Iraq is subtler than that. Many Libyans have simply become convinced that cooperation with the United States is the only way to protect their country. After all, the economy is sour and Kadafi, the man who invents Libya as he goes along, is now in his early 60s.

“The United States has the means and the power, and they will not hesitate to use them,” says Ghanim, the prime minister. The U.S. “can change the rules in the middle of the game, so what can we do?”

The war didn’t inspire the negotiations with the families of terror victims -- Libya was already deep into talks, pressed by poverty and isolation to buy back the world’s good graces. The U.S. attack only hardened official resolve to “buy peace,” as Ghanim puts it.

And if you ask Kadafi, it’s cash well spent. “God curse money. What is money for?” Kadafi told his people this fall. “We have our dignity, and we are not interested in money. We have reached a new era with the West.”


The roadside marquee at the edge of a tiny plaza of dead grass and empty benches is one of countless icons in the national cult of Kadafi -- his face is everywhere, staring down from banners and paintings and posters. This particular billboard is made of many thin slats, and every time they roll over, a new Leader comes to light.

First a young Leader is rendered high among a strapping herd of soldiers. In the next picture, Kadafi looks old but ecstatic, gazing at an invisible horizon with jowls dangling loose beneath oversized sunglasses. The map of Africa spreads like a halo behind his head. The slats rise up again, readying to bring forth a new visage.

Libya is like that -- mercurial, changeable. Officials talk of reform, human rights and democracy, but the people behave as if their lives were at risk for speaking. They might talk, their words quiet and urgent, but it seems nobody wants his name known. “I have already been twice to jail,” one man says apologetically. It is one o'clock in the morning, and another man is drunk on black-market wine. He is sitting in the back seat on the way home from a party, babbling to his friends. He speaks in faltering English of political chants and football songs. The car rolls to the gate of his villa, and the old man panics.

“I’m sorry to talk so much,” he says. “It’s the wine.” He clings to the car window. “Please don’t write the things I said,” he says. “I know about newspapers, they write everything.” His voice is rising through the thick air.

“You never met me,” he says. “We never spoke.”

Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were still being held by Libya in 2000, according to Amnesty International. Many have never been charged with a crime or put on trial, but they have been behind bars for more than a decade.

Throughout the 1990s, Libya was riddled with reports of torture, disappearances and inhumane prison conditions. Political opponents or academics suspected of supporting even nonviolent Islamic organizations were rounded up and jailed.


It is morning in Tripoli, and Ghanim sits behind his desk in an office soaked with light. Under the watchful eye of a journalist’s stern government minder he speaks earnestly, but his gaze keeps drifting. Across the room, Al Jazeera is blasting video of Israeli tanks crushing Palestinian homes.

The prime minister can’t keep his eyes off the television. They slip away in the middle of a treatise on currency equalization, and in the midst of a metaphor comparing Libya to the former Soviet Union.

“This is the basic problem,” he finally bursts out. “America is looking at the Arab world through Israeli eyes. Look at this building -- they’re demolishing it. Why?

“Israel,” he says, “is distorting our picture and image to the Americans.”

Ghanim knows that all the financial renovations he can dream up won’t be enough -- the regime’s underlying struggle is to reconcile with the Americans, to overcome a tumultuous and often ugly history. Clear of U.N. sanctions, Libya has only the American trade and travel restrictions to wriggle out of -- but that’s no mean task.

It wasn’t always this way -- it was Americans who first struck oil in Libya back in the 1950s, and American companies drove the burgeoning oil industry here throughout its early days.

Even during its ugliest moments, even when the United States bombed Libya and reportedly killed one of Kadafi’s adopted children, Libya never lost hope of luring America back to its oil fields. American oil concessions remain intact nearly two decades after an executive order from President Reagan banned U.S. companies from doing business here.

Drawn to collect their lost profits, representatives of American oil companies flit in and out of Tripoli. Libyan leaders say U.S. officials have quietly pledged to do their best to persuade Congress to lift sanctions. If true, that’s a sharp contrast to what they say in public.

U.S. officials upbraid Libya for human rights abuses, for tampering in Africa and for allegedly pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions won’t budge, they say -- not without serious change.


When Libyans say “The Leader,” you can hear the capital letters. The Leader is a man of mysterious motives and sweeping decrees. In a gesture of empire fit for an ancient ruler, he sliced his nation with a vast waterworks project, the Great Man-Made River. Another time, he renamed the months on a whim. February is “flowers.” April is “bird.” September, the month in which he seized power, is “fatah,” or “conquest.”

The country glows with his favorite color, green, and when he wrote his manifesto he named it the Green Book. Every table, chair, door and shelf in the sun-dappled World Center for Studies and Researches of the Green Book in Tripoli glistens with fresh green paint. The Green Book is translated into 25 languages here, and scholars pore over every speech or proclamation Kadafi has ever made.

The professors are blunt. They call the Libyan system a “mistake,” an “illusion.” They talk about Libya’s “defunct” vision, about nationalized “naivete” and “stupidity.”

“Libya has come to be in contact with the real world, not the imagined world,” says Dr. Miloud Mehadbi, the center’s director of foreign relations.

It sounds like rebel talk, but this is the new mainstream -- these academics were trotted out by the government for a sanctioned interview. Their disgust is better understood as a measurement of the latest in many Libyan trends.

Kadafi was originally a zealous proponent of pan-Arab unity, which he later abandoned to cast his lot with Africa. He imposed Islamic law, only to recoil in later years from fundamentalist Islam as a potential threat to his regime. He has flirted with the West before, only to lose his temper and storm back into isolation. Kadafi watchers say his latest fancy is reform and economic reinvention, or at least the appearance of it.

It remains to be seen whether it will last.

When the government threw a reception this fall to toast the African Union, a pet project of Kadafi’s, it should have been an important night. But in a land where political whims are many -- and often short-lived -- it was a distinctly indifferent gathering.

The foreign minister didn’t show, and Kadafi was nowhere to be seen. The speeches were brief and vague and all but inaudible -- the mutter of bored ambassadors, in their suits and robes, was too loud.

It turned out that Libya had other business that night -- the government was negotiating with the French families. Kadafi’s son was in charge of the talks -- the same son whose name is whispered when Libyans dare to ponder the eventual end of The Leader.

Some say Kadafi looks weary or sickly. He has cut down his public appearances, they say, and the state-run television cameras no longer linger on him in moments of repose.

It’s impossible to know whether The Leader is ailing; the government says he’s as healthy as ever. The truth may emerge, but only in time.