By Donna Abu-Nasr
TRIPOLI, Libya – In the heart of Tripoli, off a boulevard lined with buildings from Libya’s colonial past, is the building that until recently sheltered an organization led by one of the world’s most notorious terrorists – Abu Nidal.
Today, the green-shuttered building houses the Arabic Language Institute, one of Libya’s most respected research academies.
This change of occupancy, from internationally wanted terrorists to academics discussing the intricacies of Arabic prose, falls in with the benign image that Moammar Gadhafi, once the enfant terrible of the Arab world, is trying to project.
In a process he began four years ago and seems to be accelerating after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Gadhafi is trying to present Libya more as America’s friend than as the enemy still listed on the U.S. State Department roster of terrorism-sponsoring states.
He condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as “horrifying and destructive” and said U.S. retaliation would be an act of self-defense. He urged Libyans to donate blood for the victims and denounced the use of anthrax as “demonic.”
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that this is the same North African leader whose terrorist connections provoked President Reagan to order Libya bombed in 1986.
“I do think the climate’s improving,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In 1997, in one of his first moves to shake off his country’s pariah state and ingratiate himself with the West, Gadhafi expelled Abu Nidal and his group, which has killed more than 300 people since the 1970s. They had been sheltered in Libya for more than a decade.
Since then, Gadhafi has donned many hats to prove the radical revolutionary has mellowed.
He has tried to paint himself as Africa’s senior statesman and conscience, and meddles less in his neighbors’ affairs. He spends money on schools and hospitals instead of financing rebel movements.
In 1999, after a protracted diplomatic battle, he handed over for trial two Libyan suspects in the December 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. A Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands acquitted one – a Libyan Arab Airlines official – while the second – an intelligence agent – is appealing his life sentence. Libya’s government has always denied involvement in the bombing, in which 270 people died.
Last year, in a spectacular saga of diplomacy and rhetoric, Gadhafi brokered the release of 10 Western and South African hostages in the Philippines held by rebels over whom Libya has influence. Libya denies reports that it paid a ransom of $10 million, saying it only offered funding for development projects in the impoverished, largely Muslim southern Philippines.
Gadhafi has crushed his country’s Muslim militants, including those who fought in Afghanistan alongside terror suspect Osama bin Laden, and has banned clergymen from expressing political opinions in their Friday sermons. Ironically, one of the organizations now defined by the U.S. government as terrorist is the little-known Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant outfit that claims responsibility for a 1996 assassination attempt against Gadhafi.
When he overthrew Libya’s king in 1969, he was a handsome 27-year-old colonel determined to run the former Italian colony on revolutionary lines. He renamed the country the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and produced his own political philosophy – a “Third International Theory” between capitalism and socialism, summed up in Mao Tse-tung-style little “Green Books” of his sayings.
And under his Alaska-sized country, nine-tenths of it desert, lay plenty of oil to finance his ambitions.
Among his grandiose projects is a man-made river begun in 1984 to pump drinking water from desert aquifers to the coast where most Libyans live. It is still under construction.
Now, nearing 60, he is one of the longest-ruling Middle Eastern leaders, a flamboyant dresser who favors designer robes in striking blues, mauves and greens; a rambling speaker whose provocative sarcasm appeals to his audiences.
Some may find him sinister, others comical. But at home he has plenty of admirers.
“He brought us victory, light and education,” said Mustafa al-Zintani, a hotel manager. “And I tell the skeptical West: Yes, he brought us freedom, but unlike you, we don’t drink alcohol or walk half-naked in the street to prove that we are free.”
There’s still plenty of the old, eccentric Gadhafi. Take “Libya’s Rocket,” for instance. Two years ago, Libyan officials announced that Gadhafi had invented the world’s safest car, with air bags that deploy all around. A factory was supposed to turn out 50,000 cars a year. Nothing more has been heard of the “Rocket.”
He tells his people to live more frugally by buying smaller drinking glasses and talks about abolishing universities and allowing students to begin their majors in high school.
Then there’s the matter of what year this is. Most of the Muslim world follows a lunar calendar that begins the count from the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina to found the faith 1,422 years ago.
But Libya follows a solar calendar designed by Gadhafi, one he keeps changing on a whim.
For instance, this year began as 1431, counting from Muhammad’s birth. But in early January, Gadhafi changed the year to 1369 to begin from the prophet’s death.
There are no proper government institutions, no parliament, no unions, no parties, no independent news organizations. Gadhafi has used his dictatorial powers to keep the country in permanent flux in the belief that a society can only be free if it’s in constant revolution.
But globalization is creeping up on Libya’s 5 million people.
Western music, once frowned upon, blares from speeding cars and fast food joints that have cropped up in the past two years. Hamburgers, pizzas and “contacky” fried chicken are slowly encroaching on staples such as couscous. Internet cafes have opened up new worlds. Cable television has introduced Libyans to “Seinfeld” and “Ally McBeal.”
Libya used to have only one decent hotel, the Beach Hotel, which reportedly accommodated Abu Nidal and the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Abu Nidal has disappeared since his expulsion and there have been reports he was in Iraq. Carlos is serving a life sentence in France. The Beach Hotel has been turned into a shopping center.
Oil has underwritten Gadhafi’s autocracy for 32 years, but the per capita income hovers around $5,000 a year – well behind the oil-rich Persian Gulf states – and the wealth is not evenly distributed since much of it is funneled to Gadhafi’s inner circle.
Libyan officials say that their country has done enough to prove it has turned a new leaf, and that Washington is being unfair in refusing to lift its unilateral sanctions. The United Nations suspended its sanctions in 1999, and Europeans have reopened embassies and air links. They sponsor trade fairs and encourage businesses to visit.
The Clinton administration softened its stance on Libya, perceiving it to have become more moderate. Last year Ronald E. Neumann, a State Department official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Libya no longer poses the threat it once did.”
But the United States insists that before there can be any policy change, Libya must fully comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on it to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, compensate the families of those killed, and renounce terrorism.
Western diplomats in Libya, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they can’t be certain that Gadhafi has cut all ties to terror groups, but they express doubt he would jeopardize his effort to rebuild his image by sponsoring violence.
Even though Gadhafi still rails against the United States, his foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, said in September that Libya was keen to thaw relations with Washington.
Libyan officials point out that although American companies abandoned their oil fields after U.S. sanctions were imposed in 1986, the government has not sold their rights to European firms.
Indeed, U.S. oil executives are still in touch with their Libyan counterparts and have visited the country several times, sometimes secretly, and were treated as honored guests.
Meanwhile, hundreds of students are signing up for English classes, once banned as the language of imperialists.
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