Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Still Gadhafi – After All These Years

Middle east Times


September 23, 2008

In his Little Green Book, published in the 1970s, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi wrote that, "Man's freedom is lacking if somebody else controls what he needs." Now, 39 years after he seized power from King Idris of Libya on Sept. 1, 1969, he is poised to put this precept into practice.

He has announced that most of the machinery of the Libyan government is to be dismantled by the beginning of next year, and that oil revenue will be disbursed directly to the people. Most ministries will be closed down except for foreign affairs, defense, internal security and energy.

"Each one of you," he told his bemused subjects, "prepare to take his portion of the wealth and spend it as you wish … As long as money is administered by a government body, there will be theft and corruption.

"The money that we put in the education budget, I say let the Libyan people take it. Put it in your pockets and teach your kids as you wish. You take responsibility."

Gadhafi's latest revolutionary edict means -- in theory at least -- that education, health, social services and much else besides will be privatized, giving Libyans the choice to shop around for what they need, freed from government controls. But how this will work out in practice is difficult to predict. How many billions of oil revenue will be distributed and to whom is also unclear. Many fear utter chaos.

When Gadhafi created his Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya ("state of the masses") four decades ago, it was conceived as a novel form of direct, popular democracy. Local councils were set up with wide powers, not only to debate policy but also to implement it.

This seemed a plausible way to run a country, inhabited by little more than a million notoriously apathetic people, spread out over some 2,000 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, backed by a vast, mostly barren, hinterland. It was said that when Gadhafi sat down to dinner with 200 tribal chiefs, he was dining with his entire country.

In the event, Gadhafi's "Islamic socialism" never really worked. Instead of the trumpeted popular democracy, he runs one of the most ruthlessly authoritarian regimes in a generally despotic Arab world. A rigid command economy was established with little room for the private sector. Dissidence was stamped out. Political opponents were hunted down and assassinated, at home and abroad.

One might say that Gadhafi's greatest personal achievement has been to survive in power for so long, in spite of numerous plots, incipient revolts, and American attempts to overthrow him.

In recent years, with a population edging towards six million, he seems to have understood the need for a change in course. There has been a belated attempt by him and his sons -- notably his reform-minded son Seif al-Islam -- to switch to something like a market economy, patch up relations with the Western world, and attract foreign investment, especially in the key oil sector which provides 95 per cent of Libya's export earnings.

Investment in tourism has started, the private sector has been given more scope, foreign businessmen are flocking to Tripoli, and international oil majors -- American companies as well as BP and ENI -- have been welcomed back, with the ambition of doubling oil production from 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3 million bpd by 2015.

On paper, Libya's GDP is over $57 billion and its foreign exchange and gold reserves close to $100 billion. Per capita income is one of the highest in Africa. But in practice, economic and social development has been slow, unemployment is high, infrastructure still primitive, and the country lags far behind the booming oil economies of the Arab Gulf.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tripoli -- the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state since 1953. It was evidently meant to symbolize American-Libyan reconciliation. U.S. sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2004 following Libya's decision to abandon its attempts to build nuclear weapons and its agreement to compensate families of the victims of the Pan Am aircraft blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988, with the loss of 270 lives.

In the last four years, U.S.-Libyan trade has increased tenfold. The United States wants a share of Libyan oil, but also wants its backing in its "global war on terror." In turn, the European Union is anxious for Libyan cooperation in checking illegal immigration.

The colonel, who has presided over Libya's destinies for 39 years, is now 66 years old and -- judging from his photographs -- is no longer in very good shape. What further contribution to the Arab scene can he be expected to make? His latest revolution will be closely watched.

He remains a flamboyant and highly independent figure, more eccentric in his behavior than ever, unrepentant in his love affair with Africa, in his condemnation of his fellow Arab leaders, and -- in spite of the end of their long feud -- his suspicion of America.

"We have no ambition to be friends of America," he declared in a speech on Sept. 1. "We only want them to leave us alone." Reporters noted that he kept Condoleezza Rice waiting for a whole hour before he received her and did not shake her hand.


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