Behind Gadaffi's facade of freedom
As Libya's dictator celebrates 38 years in power, the West is beating a path to his door. Jason Burke reports from Tripoli
Sunday September 2, 2007
Just behind the bagpipe band, in the ranks of unarmed conscripts in ill-fitting uniforms, and opposite the row of sweating foreign dignitaries, Nadia Ibrahim Calipha, 19, with thick black hair braided under her baseball cap, was awaiting her turn to march.
'I am proud to be here, proud of our Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, proud of my country,' she said brightly. From the wall of the old citadel a hundred yards away, the stern features of the Supreme Guide of the Revolution himself, 8ft high on a green banner, looked over Tripoli's central square, a thin crowd of spectators, some haphazard fireworks, Nadia and the Mediterranean.
Yesterday Gadaffi celebrated the 38th anniversary of the military coup in which he ousted the British-backed King Idris. The 65-year-old, one of the last of a generation of strongman rulers, is no longer a pariah. His support for fanatical terrorists, violent warlords and corrupt African dictators - and the decade and a half of UN and American sanctions that they brought - are over. Libya's recent history, said Tony Blair during a visit, showed that 'it is possible to go from a situation [of being] an outcast in the international community to one in which the relationship is transformed'.
Libya is certainly changing. 'We are now taking our rightful place in the international order,' Rafaa, a 63-year-old businessman said as he prepared to launch his speedboat at a private beach club outside Tripoli last week. 'We have been cut off for too long. It is as if we are waking from a long sleep.'
Yet a week here makes clear that change is far more limited than Blair and others seem to think. Mohammed Ahmed, 43, who has sold fruit at Tripoli's Friday market for 18 years, agreed that 'business is better than it has ever been', but otherwise, he said drily, 'I haven't seen much change.'
Any radical developments have been restricted to the narrow sector of foreign trade and investment. The focus of Western nations is understandable: there is big money to be made in Libya. During Blair's visit in May, a £450 million gas exploitation contract for BP was signed and a major sale of British missiles and air defence systems announced.
'There's a bit of a Klondike atmosphere,' said one British businessman. 'Everyone is streaming in, looking for their bit of land to dig.'
For Gadaffi's pockets are deep. 'He has way more cash than he knows what to do with,' one Western diplomat in Tripoli said. High oil prices have meant that the Supreme Guide of The Great Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriya is sitting on estimated currency reserves of £35 billion and has annual oil revenues of £20 billion.
Other major powers are also taking an interest in the new 'open and re-integrated' country. Days after Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, negotiated the release of a group of Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya on trumped-up charges of deliberately infecting children with HIV-infected blood, Paris announced a major arms deal - and more aid in the building of Libya's first nuclear power station.
Combined with a £10 billion government construction programme, the result is a boom. All over the country, blocks of flats, hotels, shopping centres, parks and port facilities are being built, often by foreign companies. Outside the al-Kouf showroom on the outskirts of Tripoli, six new excavators, each worth £100,000, sit beside the busy highway. Nurredin, the manager, said he expects to sell them all within a month or so. 'No problem,' he said. 'We are selling 40 cars and two concrete mixers a month.'
The effects of the Libyan economic explosion - Tripoli claimed growth rates of 7 per cent last year - are being felt across North Africa. Mahmud, the Sudanese night-watchman at the al-Kouf showroom, is one of more than a million illegal immigrants drawn to Libya by the demand for labour and the relatively high local wages. He earns £100 a month. 'It's not much,' he said. 'But without me my family of nine would not eat.'
At roundabouts, groups of plumbers, electricians and labourers wait to be hired. Abu Bakr, a 24-year-old from Ghana, has invested in a power saw and is hired, for between £5 and £10, one day in two. 'Life is tough,' he said. Immigrants are notoriously badly treated by local authorities. Regularly beaten by police, they are frequently deported en masse.
It is tempting to dismiss Libya - with its giant portraits of Gadaffi, ridiculous paperwork and sleepy atmosphere - as a tinpot but relatively benign dictatorship. Certainly this weekend's celebrations, with its parades of ambulances and jogging schoolboys, lacked the military menace of other annual 'revolutionary' festivities. But the internal press remains tightly controlled, foreign journalists carefully monitored and no political dissent is tolerated.
Conversations in which criticism of the regime is voiced are rare. In one hurried late-night conversation in the shadows of Tripoli's old market area, a local journalist whispered rapidly: 'Is very closed here. Very restricted.' Another man spoke, in the relative safety of a car, about 'the security' and how he risked arrest for speaking about the cronyism, incompetence and graft that defines much of the sprawling Libyan bureaucracy. 'No one is who he seems to be, nothing is what it appears to be,' he said.
Commentators talk of a culture of concealment and opacity. There is no telephone directory, and ministries and offices are not sign-posted. Publicly, nobody is prepared to talk about politics, so questions about Saif al-Islam, the second son of Gadaffi, who has recently voiced a desire for more democracy and reforms, elicit an equivocal response. 'He is comparatively popular,' said one man.
Nor does Gadaffi appear to be either grooming a successor. 'He's in pretty good health and likely to be there for a good decade or so,' said a Tripoli-based Western diplomat.
But dissent within Libya is limited. There is no need for Saddam-style endemic brutality. Gadaffi rules by carrot as much as stick. The vast oil revenues may have been horrendously mismanaged over decades, but they have none the less allowed Gadaffi to buy off any unrest. Sixty per cent of jobs are provided by the state, education is free and staples such as rice, flour and petrol are heavily subsidised.
'You have your democracy,' said Professor Suleiman Abu Saif, a plant science professor at al-Fatah university. 'We have our own system. It is a very good system that provides for everybody.'
Tomorrow, Calipha will be bussed back to her single-sex state summer camp to resume a programme of sports, hobbies and reading from Gadaffi's Green Book. She has one parting message: 'Tell your readers the truth. We are not terrorists, we want to be your friends.'