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Libya: Beyond the Barracks Gates

5 minute read

Tension between the U.S. and Libya continued last week in the aftermath of the Dec. 27 attacks at Rome and Vienna airports by Palestinian terrorists supported by Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. Two Libyan MiG-25 fighters intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to the north of the Gulf of Sidra, then darted back to Libyan airspace before F/ A-18 jets from the U.S. aircraft carrier Coral Sea could reach the scene. While Gaddafi condemned Ronald Reagan as a “Hitler No. 2, ” the Pentagon expressed concern about increasingly overt intelligence-gathering activities in the area by Soviet ships and aircraft. The crisis, meanwhile, gave TIME Correspondent John Borrell a chance to observe at close range a country that, though oil rich, is devoting far more of its wealth to guns than to butter. His report:

Crowd control is more of a problem than stock control at the state-run Jamahiriya supermarket in central Tripoli. Most days there are plenty of people and few goods, an elementary supply-and-demand problem that sometimes leads to fisticuffs and invariably produces squabbles. When a consignment of locally produced laundry soap reached the shelves last week, several hundred people were crowded around the doors at opening time. Once inside, they wrestled to get at the cartons and then elbowed and pushed their way to the cash registers. “I was hoping for cooking oil today,” admitted one old man as he clutched his box and fended off latecomers, “but these days you take what you can get.” So serious are shortages of many consumer goods that two people died last year during a stampede following the arrival of bananas from Nicaragua.

That there are fights over soap and bananas in Libya, which has a population of only 3.6 million and a per capita gross national product of about $8,000 (vs. $9,000 in Britain), is the result of both softening demand for petroleum and poor economic planning. Oil revenues are down from $22 billion in 1980 to an anticipated $8 billion this year. “The cash-flow problem is hurting,” said a Western diplomat in Tripoli. “It is like taking a 60% salary cut and trying to keep up with the payments on the house and car.” Some construction contracts have been canceled, and imports of many consumer goods, including food, have been slashed. But the defense budget alone consumes $2 billion, and an additional $1 billion goes to payments for the $12 billion worth of Soviet arms that Gaddafi has bought since he came to power in a 1969 coup.

Moreover, if Gaddafi has not spent wisely abroad, some of his domestic economic decisions have been disastrous. Starting in 1979, he stepped up his nationalization drive under the slogan PARTNERS, NOT WAGE EARNERS. Plucked from his Green Book, a manifesto containing Gaddafi’s self-promoted “third universal theory” (after Communism and capitalism), the state takeovers have cast a long shadow over Tripoli and other cities. Even the corner barber has become a government employee. Entire streets in Trip oli’s old Casbah are now boarded up, and solemn green shutters with heavy padlocks give the commercial center a forlorn appearance. The few shops that remain open look as if they have been looted. On the growing black market, meat sells for $9 per lb. and a carton of American cigarettes changes hands for $70. Some foreigners and wealthy Libyans fly to the island of Malta to buy meat and other food. Most Libyans, who fear the presence of police informers everywhere, grumble only rarely in public or to a stranger.

But their lack of enthusiasm for the whole system was palpable at the Akasha theater, where one of Libya’s 1,400 “people’s committees,” the first layer in a supposedly democratic decision-making process, met last week. Through shrouds of smoke, the fists of the faithful rose in a ragged display of political calisthenics as they warmed up with ritualistic slogans of praise for Gaddafi and denunciations of the U.S. “Gaddafi and Libya are one and the same!” the crowd intoned, cynically switching to “Down with America!” when U.S. television crews turned on their lights. Many people sat out the ceremony in silence, and even those participating did so with a well-scrubbed fervor that seemed bereft of any real feeling.

Until recently, the people’s committees were forums for widespread if circumspect complaints. But this outlet became so bothersome to Gaddafi that he decided to make the committees subservient to “revolutionary committees,” which are his ideological watchdogs. Composed mostly of young zealots, they sometimes allow glimpses into their Orwellian world. Said Ahmed Fakradeen, an older member of one such group: “We have to make sure people don’t go astray.”

The revolutionary committees, which have perhaps 10,000 members and are in the process of being armed, are also being used as a counterweight to the regular 58,000-man army. After several attempted coups, including at least one last year, the army’s loyalty has become suspect. One proposal currently on the committees’ agenda is a plan to abolish the army, but Gaddafi is unlikely to go that far. Much military equipment, including SA-5 missiles shipped from the Soviet Union, is too sophisticated for irregulars to use.

Nonetheless, Gaddafi remains fascinated by his Bedouin heritage and feels that all Libyan men should be ready to answer his call to arms. He often sets up his own tent in the middle of the Bab al Azizia barracks, on the road to the airport. Tank bays are built into the barracks gates, which are further protected by concrete slabs that force drivers to zigzag slowly to the entrance. Inside are more tanks surrounding Gaddafi’s Bedouin tent, into which he will often invite guests. “It is more natural here,” he explained recently before proudly proclaiming that Libya was pretty close to being a Utopia. Surrounded by modern-day Bedouin creature comforts, including three telephones, five electric heaters, a TV set and a video recorder, the colonel seemed more than a little cut off from the realities beyond the barracks gates.

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