The story of an unknown Libyan

Few countries have undergone such an extraordinary transformation in recent years as Libya. It is a transformation made even more remarkable by the fact that Libya has been presided over by one man—Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddafi—for almost 37 years. No other country—with the exception of Cuba and Gabon—has lived for so long under the rule of a single leader. And rarely has a country been so overshadowed by the overbearing presence of one man.

What is known about Libya is often little more than the eccentricities of Colonel Gaddafi—known simply as ‘the man’ by the trendy young on the streets of Libya—who has for almost four decades borne his country along on a tide of international unpredictability.

From the early days of his 1969 revolution, Colonel Gaddafi—then just 27 years old—rallied the Libyan people to his side with an anti-imperialist message, catching the popular mood of the times with the possibilities of pan-Arab nationalism as preached by the charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Colonel Gaddafi’s first moves were to close all British and American military bases on Libyan soil, nationalise Libya’s lucrative oil industry and expel 30,000 Italian settlers.

As was often the case with revolutionary Arab and African governments in the 1970s, the international hostility generated by Colonel Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist policies obscured the finer points of a country seeking to follow its own path.

Within Libya itself, Colonel Gaddafi championed the fight against inequality and attempted to steer a middle path between communism and capitalism—Colonel Gaddafi humbly called his philosophy the Third Universal Theory. He also took on what he described as ‘the problem with democracy’, his slogan of ‘committees everywhere’ promising political participation by all Libyans rather than a representative system.

Perhaps the experiment would have been allowed to continue were it not for Colonel Gaddafi’s insistence that Libya’s struggle be exported beyond Libya’s borders. Assassinations of political opponents took place across Europe and, most notoriously, revolutionary agents took over the Libyan Peoples’ Bureau in London in April 1984, prompting a ten-day siege and the shooting of police officer Yvonne Fletcher. Libya’s descent into international opprobrium and isolation dates from this event, with the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, the bombing of a French airliner over the Sahara the following year and alleged involvement in a string of terrorist attacks merely confirming Libya’s status as an international pariah.

In the midst of these events, the United States launched air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi on 15 April 1986 and Libya appeared to be condemned to a similar future of confrontation with the West that would later become Iraq’s destiny. Libya’s refusal to soften its rhetoric or rein in its agents would see it subject to
debilitating UN and US sanctions. Libya’s, and Colonel Gaddafi’s, fate as an enemy of the West was sealed.

Talk to any Libyan and you will find his or her nation’s story in microcosm.

Mohammed, a 36-year-old Libyan from Tripoli, was born two months before Colonel Gaddafi seized power and has only known a life under the Colonel. He remembers the long years of sanctions—when the economy was becalmed and regularly experienced negative growth, and prices soared to unprecedented levels—with a child’s eye for detail.

‘You know, back when I was a child, we had nothing. There were no shops like you see today. There were only government shops and when you heard that there was meat or milk, you would go to the shop and find 100 people waiting there and you had to fight them to get anything. If you heard that some dresses had arrived, the same thing, except that you couldn’t ask for large, or small. You would fight your way to the front and then find that they gave you a dress for a child. This continued when I got older. One time I went to Turkey and I brought back bananas as a gift, but I could only give them to my closest friends and family because they were such a luxury.’

Looking back now on the sanctions which the Libyan government says claimed 21,000 lives and cost the country over US$30 billion in lost revenues and production capacities, Mohammed is careful to apportion blame not only to Colonel Gaddafi, but to the Libyan people themselves.

‘When Gaddafi went to the people and spoke to them at the People’s Committees, he said that we could have everything in the shops, but we would have no money to buy them. He asked the people if they wanted this or the simple life. The people—I don’t know why—they said that they wanted a simple life. I think that it is because we are a simple people and we like the simple life. I don’t know what he was thinking or what we were thinking.’

Did the people have a choice? Did they have the freedom to say to Colonel Gaddafi, ‘No, we want things to be different?’

‘I don’t know. You know, the Libyan people, we are simple people and when Gaddafi he said this, we followed whatever he said.’

As he grew older, Mohammed began to become aware of a world beyond Libya’s borders, but with international airlines forbidden from flying into the country and Colonel Gaddafi’s singular ability to alienate Libya’s neighbours, this awareness was a bitter realisation for ordinary Libyans.

‘From the 1980s, the life was very difficult. From then, the country was closed. We were enemies with Tunisia, with Egypt, we were at war with Chad. From Europe we were closed. There was nowhere we could go and no one could come. Libya was like a prison.’

For Mohammed, mixed with the bitterness of such memories, however, is an unmistakable pride in the fact that Libyans learned a new self-sufficiency and discovered the deep roots of community that sustained them through the dark years and which may otherwise have been lost: ‘In Libya, if we wanted to fix a car, we learned to do it ourselves with whatever we had. If we needed to build a house, we called everyone in the family together and we built it ourselves. We didn’t ask anyone for help and everything we built we can look at and say, “We did this.”’

It is clear that Libyans like Mohammed also developed an eye for opportunity.

‘As the embargo went on, we found out that you could get many things from Tunisia and Egypt, but no one knew where to find them. We found out and set up a business, selling these things to people.’

His friends went on to become rich, but Mohammed decided that smuggling was not his future and went to university to study engineering. Although the economy was crippled, Libya’s large oil reserves and limited international sales ensured that some infrastructure projects continued. The most grandiose—and controversial—of these was Colonel Gaddafi’s signature project, the Great Man-Made River, whereby water from giant natural aquifers underneath the Sahara Desert was—and still is—pumped across the desert to Libya’s coastal cities.

But like his country, which has changed its identity numerous times—turning to other Arab states for support, taking on the leadership of African unity and now transforming itself into a friend of the West—Mohammed would change his career path yet again.

As a result of Libya’s decision to hand over its agents for trial, compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie disaster, assist Europe in fighting illegal immigration from African shores and, most stunningly, renounce its nuclear and chemical weapons program, Libya is suddenly the darling of the West. Western businesspeople are flocking to the country eager for a slice of lucrative oil contracts, following in the footsteps of Western leaders keen to forget Colonel Gaddafi’s past.

Perhaps most importantly for a country so long sealed from the outside world, Libya is booming as a tourist destination. By 2010, Libya is expected to receive one million tourists every year.

Mohammed, a man accustomed to making the most of the times in which he finds himself, has secured a foothold in the tourism industry and sees it as the way of the future. In one sense, this is economic.

‘Yes, the new times are good. My life is good, but for me, I could live anywhere or sleep anywhere. If you give me bread and water I would live. You know, in Libya we have saying—if you have bread and water, you are OK. But is for my children that I hope for the better life.’

Yet Libyans like Mohammed are also excited just to be able to interact with people again. ‘Before I could not travel to other countries because of my Libyan passport. Now it is very expensive.

But now all the world comes to me. I am lucky because I travel to all the countries—America, Japan, Italy, England—but I stay in my country.’

Such is the rate of change in Libya that the newfound optimism is also regarded with caution, a desire that economic development and international rehabilitation don’t come at the cost of traditional values.

‘We are Libyan and we have our way of life. Yes, we all want a comfortable life. We want our country to be clean, to be developed and everything to make life comfortable. But I am Libyan and I want to still eat like a Libyan on the floor from the communal plate, to dress like a Libyan, to be able to go to my friend’s house after I don’t see him for a long time and arrive without ringing first to see if it is OK. You know, in Libya, we have a saying—if you have a good heart, one spoon can feed 100 people. If a friend arrives and he hasn’t eaten, you will cook something for him. It is more important to see him than to worry whether you were expecting him. But if we change too much, we lose this, we lose our roots.’

As in most conversations in Libya, the figure of Colonel Gaddafi appears like a guest whom no-one quite knows how to treat. Mohammed is sanguine when asked about whether the Leader of the Revolution has been good for Libya and, like most Libyans, Mohammed has a grudging respect for ‘the man’.

‘They always say that it is better to have the one you know than the one you don’t. If we get a new leader now, I don’t know, maybe we have to go back and start again from nothing. If we have professional democracy, with parties, maybe, but at least we know how is Gaddafi. I don’t care if we have Gaddafi for another 100 years. If he wants to be emperor, I don’t care. As long as he lets us live. Before it was difficult, but Libya is exciting now, the life is changing. And Gaddafi, we know him. The Libyan people are simple people. If he lets us live—that is all we want—then we can live with Gaddafi.’

Mohammed pauses, lost somewhere between memories of a bitter past and dreams of an exciting future.
‘I am proud of my country and there are so many opportunities here. All the world is coming. I want to help build my country and now is the time to be here. Libya now is not like before. My children, God willing, can have a good life now.’               

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer, living in Madrid.



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