The Washington Diplomat / October 2009
By Larry Luxner
TRIPOLI — Workers in the large grassy park in front of downtown Tripoli's state-run El-Kabir Hotel were scurrying around for the past month or so, washing down the walkways, removing trash and setting up scaffolding.
They also plastered every available inch of wall space with identical banners honoring Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The big event: the 40th anniversary on Sept. 1 of the revolution that brought Libya's "Great Leader" to power.
"Forty years of revolution!" proclaims the Arabic-language murals, which depict Qaddafi at the center of a photo montage featuring fellow revolutionaries Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Gamel Abdel Nasser and Malcolm X.
All across Libya, huge celebrations are planned throughout September to mark that historic day in 1969, when Qaddafi — then only 28 — toppled King Idris and set the vast North African nation on a path of socialism, confrontation, isolation and eventually reconciliation with the Western world.
Targeted by U.S. fighter jets during the Reagan administration and later blacklisted because of its involvement in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is now a full-fledged member of the international community.
The country's $2.7 billion payout to families of the Lockerbie victims, the lifting of UN sanctions in September 2003 and the renouncement of violence and weapons of mass destructions three months later — followed by the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Libya in May 2006 — were all milestones in the road to Libya's redemption in the eyes of the West.
One year ago, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Tripoli and met with Qaddafi, marking the highest-level U.S. visit to Libya since 1953. This past January, U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz presented his credentials as the first full-fledged American ambassador in Tripoli in 36 years. Less than a month later, Qaddafi further burnished his credentials by getting himself elected chairman of the 53-member African Union.
Later this month, Qaddafi plans to make an unprecedented visit to New York, where he'll address the UN General Assembly (which itself is headed for the first time ever by a Libyan, former foreign minister and veteran diplomat Ali Treki).
The flurry of good news extends to the economic front as well.
Flush with oil export revenue, Libya now boasts an annual per-capita GDP of $14,400, the highest in Africa. It's the only country on the continent with more cellphones than people, and one of the few places on Earth not significantly affected by the global financial crisis.
Mohamed H. Matri is director of the Americas department at the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation — Libya's equivalent of a foreign ministry. He says the Libyan economy will grow by at least 6 percent this year.
"The international sanctions declared against us were actually a benefit in disguise," Matri told The Washington Diplomat during an interview in Tripoli. "Because we were under an embargo, we didn't have the chance to invest in international financial markets. So when the financial crisis came, we didn't lose much."
Lured by the oil bonanza, businessmen are descending upon Tripoli, which is witnessing a Dubai-style boom in construction of office towers and luxury hotels. A brand-new Radisson Blu already dominates the Tripoli waterfront, with many more five-star properties on the way.
According to David Hamod of the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC), Libya can expect GDP growth of 5.4 percent in 2010, rising to 7.5 percent in 2011 and 7.8 percent in 2012. By that time, Libya's total imports will have more than doubled, from $20.6 billion to nearly $43 billion, and the U.S. share of those imports will rise to 7.5 percent.
Even so, the country's image in the United States is decidedly negatve. v"Despite our best efforts to show Western media what Libya is all about, they're always one-sided," complained Abdul Majeed el-Dursi, chairman of the state-run Foreign Media Corp., which controls the nation's newspapers, radio and TV outlets. "Last March, we invited a number of journalists from Europe and the States to come here and see for themselves. They liked what they saw. But when they went back, they wrote the same old stereotypical stories."
That's unfortunate, because ordinary Libyans are genuinely friendly with the few Americans they run into. A typical example: after this journalist placed a five-minute phone call to Florida from an international call center in Tripoli's ancient medina, the man who ran the kiosk refused to accept payment of any kind.
"No charge — we love USA," he beamed, even running outside in the 100-degree heat and insisting that his grateful customer accept orange juice and bottled water as a thank-you for stopping in his little hole-in-the-wall shop.
"Our most basic belief is that relations should be between peoples, not governments," said Matri. "Peoples should interact, because governments come and go. We really want to have a solid foundation whereby Americans understand Libyans, and vice-versa, and to work together towards mutual benefits. Things have changed since the '70s and '80s, when our policy was very militant. We supported all the liberation movements, and now Africa is totally liberated, and we're proud of that."
Qaddafi's 1975 masterpiece, "The Green Book," outlines his political philosophy and has been translated into 84 languages including Vietnamese and Hebrew. His push for African unity is reflected in the billboards that pepper just about every highway in Libya.
Strolling around Tripoli even past midnight, you're likely to see teenage boys munching on fast food and playing foosball in the glare of the bright lights that illuminate Martyrs' Square. Older men prefer to sit in cafes, drinking sweet tea and puffing on their hookas.
Women, meanwhile, generally stay at home — a reflection of deeply held conservative Islamic values — though even that's starting to change.
"Libya is getting better all the time," says a receptionist for a U.S. company doing business here. "Five years ago, girls couldn't even go out for a coffee." But when asked where there's anything to do for young people in Tripoli, the 24-year-old woman smiled cheerfully and said "Nothing."
Lack of preparation for the modern world continues to be one of the biggest problems plaguing Libya, an Alaska-sized nation where more than a third of its six million inhabitants are 15 or younger. The literacy rate is 85 percent and rising, though few Libyans speak any language other than Arabic, and the work ethic is not particularly strong.
"In 1948, we had only seven university graduates in all of Libya. Today we have hundreds of thousands," said Matri, who studied political science at the University of Oregon in Eugene (he also has a master's degree from Portland State University). "Unfortunately, there was a period during the 1980s when foreign languages were eliminated from the curriculum. It was a mistake. But now we are trying to make up for this."
Even Qaddafi himself has commented that "Libyans have become lazy," a wake-up call that — 40 years after the Great September Revolution — attitudes must change.
"When states are very generous with subsidies and everything comes easy, people don't feel they need to work. And here in Libya, this generation is spoiled," said Matri. "We know that in the final analysis, the oil won't last forever. That's why we are sending so many students to the United States and Europe, in order to capitalize on our human resources."
In fact, some 1,500 young Libyans are enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities — a direct benefit of the renewed diplomatic relations that have also allowed Americans to visit and invest here.
Despite the frenetic growth and the appearance of construction cranes all over the Tripoli and Benghazi metro areas, which together account for about a third of Libya's population, remember this is still a deeply conservative Islamic nation.
Accordingly, a few words of advice from NUSACC's Hamod: "Things take time, so be patient. Libya has not been part of the international marketplace for decades, so prospective partners in Libya will need time to get to know you. Personal relationships remain paramount."
He quickly added: "Make no mistake; Libyans drive a hard bargain, and they're some of the toughest negotiators in the Arab world."