Middle East

The New Libya

Back in the late ’80s when America was Saddam Hussein’s ally in his war against Iran, the pariah of the day was Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. His revolutionary rhetoric and support for radical groups accused of terrorism led to American bombings, sanctions and isolation from the world community. Times are now changing. Last month the sanctions against Libya were finally dropped. Gaddafi is now claiming that he is about to privatise the Libyan economy, join the international war on terror and welcome in the American oil giants. Matthew Carney reports on this promised turnaround.

REPORTER: Matthew Carney

It's the anniversary of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's 34th year in power and tonight he's left the women of Libya in charge of the celebrations. Gaddafi is a survivor who has played many roles. To the West, he was a sponsor of terrorism but to the region, a champion of Arab and African causes.

Tonight Gaddafi is playing the feminist. Displaying Libya's military hardware are the women's contingent of the people's army. Also on show are the virgin guards - Gaddafi's personal bodyguards. Hundreds of women have turned out to cheer them on. Our Libyan minders direct us to fighter pilot Selima Miskowah.

SELIMA MISKOWAH: The women in Libya when Mr Gaddafi come, became free. Before the woman not free but now, the woman is free. Now the woman is captain, she fly in aeroplane, she will drive the ship, she in the army like you see.

It is true that compared to other Arab countries, Libyan women share equality in education and marriage. But the real message of the night was left to the man himself. At another venue, Gaddafi announced he was making peace with the West and ending years of international isolation.

COLONEL MUAMMAR GADDAFI, (Translation): We should turn over a new leaf and move forward.

It was the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that triggered Libya's isolation and UN sanctions. Libya was blamed for the bomb that killed 270 people. It was one of the most infamous terrorist acts of that decade. To end the sanctions, Gaddafi will pay one of the biggest compensation packages of all time - a total of US$10 billion to the victims' families. To the UN, he also had to admit responsibility for the actions of his officials. But to his domestic audience, Gaddafi is defiant. He said the money was not an admission of guilt but just the price Libya had to pay for entry back into the world community.

COLONEL MUAMMAR GADDAFI, (Translation): The Libyans said they'll buy their way out of these three black lists. We'll pay so much, to hell with $2 billion or more. It's not compensation. It's a price. The Americans said it was Libya who did it. It is known that the president was madman Reagan who's got Alzheimer's and has lost his mind. He now crawls on all fours.

But in his denial of responsibility for Lockerbie, Gaddafi has found an unlikely ally in Scotland. Professor Robert Black has campaigned for years to bring the Lockerbie perpetrators to justice. He was instrumental in setting up the trial under Scottish law in The Hague that in January 2001 convicted a Libyan intelligence agent.

PROFESSOR ROBERT BLACK, UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH: Yes, it is a betrayal, I feel.

But now Professor Black thinks Adbel Baset al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted.

PROFESSOR ROBERT BLACK: It angers me that although the arrangement itself, the actual practicalities of the trial worked perfectly, it's just that, in my view, the outcome was a wholly and utterly perverse verdict.

Professor Black says the main evidence against Megrahi was not only circumstantial, but not credible. It centres around the clothes in the suitcase that contained the bomb. It's alleged Megrahi bought them off a shopkeeper in Malta, thus connecting him to the attack.

PROFESSOR ROBERT BLACK: The shopkeeper at no point ever said "That is the man who bought the clothes." The most that he would say is that "That man resembles a lot the person who bought the clothes in my shop." And he had also in his original statement to the police, the shopkeeper had given a description of the man who bought the clothes. That description was that the man was over 50 years old and that he was over 6 feet tall. Adbel Baset al-Megrahi at the relevant date was 36 years of age and at that date, and still, he is 5 feet 8 inches tall. Nevertheless, on that evidence, the judges held that Adbel Baset al-Megrahi was the person who bought the clothes in the shop.

Many of the British victims' families agree with Professor Black that the verdict was unreliable. To uncover the truth, the families are calling for a full public inquiry. Professor Black wants a retrial. And if that doesn't happen, he's prepared to quit the profession.

PROFESSOR ROBERT BLACK: If our legal and judicial system is not strong enough to recognise that it has made a mistake, and to take the appropriate action to rectify that mistake, then I'm afraid it is a system with which I do not wish to be connected.

Black says he doesn't know who is responsible for the bombing, but says there is other evidence pointing to the radical Palestinian faction, the PFLP General Command and Iran. Gaddafi has always denied that Libya was responsible for Lockerbie. But he's desperate to end Libya's isolation, so desperate that he's willing to pay US$10 billion.

YOUSSEF SAWANI, LIBYAN GOVERNMENT ADVISOR: Even though we paid money for something that we did not commit, we are paying this to buy a licence. Libya needs to be admitted into the world stage, to be looked into as a serious partner that people can do business with.

As part of this strategy, Libya is quietly dropping its own compensation claims for America's bombing of Libya in 1986. The Americans accused Libya of state-sponsored terrorism. In the attack, Gaddafi's own adopted daughter was killed along with 50 other civilians. One of them was Raafat Ghussein, a daughter of Lebanese petroleum engineer Bassam Ghussein. The memories of the night still haunt the family.

MRS. GHUSSEIN: Then I tried to get up I couldn't see anything. I touched the walls of the rooms there were no doors, so I had to speak to my husband from behind the wall. I told him, "Bassam, what happened? Where is Kinda?" He said, "She is safe, she is under the rubble but I can feel her and I can touch her hand." So I went to the other wall where my daughter Raafat was sleeping. I called her by name. She did not answer me. I knew immediately that Raafat had passed away. So I told him, "Bassam, I think Raafat is gone, she is gone."

Their daughter Raafat was a budding artist and was visiting the family on Easter holidays from her English boarding school when she was killed.

MRS. GHUSSEIN: In one year she did around 60 pictures.

The family wants to know why their home, that was located in an exclusive suburb in Tripoli, was targeted in a raid that the Americans said was an attack on terrorism. Five of their neighbours were also killed.

MRS. GHUSSEIN: When they speak about terrorism, it really surprises me so much because all the people who were killed there were so innocent and so good. So what is it? What is it that I would like to know and understand? They have mixed up my head so I can't really explain things.

For 17 years, Bassam has lobbied for justice and pursued the case both through American and British courts, but to no avail. The contrast with the Lockerbie victims angers him.

BASSAM GHUSSEIN: I've been reminded that your daughter is nothing, has no value, it's just the others and because they have support and power behind them they can get compensated.

In Tripoli, the only memorial to the American raids is this monument. Repeated attempts to interview victims' families were blocked by my Libyan minders. Gaddafi wants to put the past behind him and embrace the future, his new era for Libya. To achieve it, he is preparing to overhaul the system he created. The Lockerbie payout was just one step in a wider plan to liberalise and privatise Libya's economy. It's a radical departure, but it seems Gaddafi doesn't have a choice. Unemployment is running at estimates of 30%, and Libya's population is expanding rapidly. The face of reform is the new Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem. In a country that does not tolerate criticism, he is surprisingly frank about Libya's failures.

SHUKRI GHANEM, PRIME MINISTER OF LIBYA: But as you know, public sector has proven to be sluggish, sometimes even corrupt in a way and then we have to revisit it and revise our policies that at least we give the opportunity to the private sector to play and augment the role of the public sector in economic development.

The Prime Minister knows he will have to open Libya's economy to the world if Gaddafi's regime is going to survive. And he's thinking big - calling for $60 billion in foreign investment over the next five years.

SHUKRI GHANEM: So we just abolish all trade licences on importation and exportation and that of course has meant that we are integrating in the international market in trade. And even we applied to join the World Trade Organisation and we lodged our application there. And for certain reasons, it has now been a little bit delayed but we are hoping that this application will be looked at soon pretty soon.

For more than three decades, Libya has been ruled by Gaddafi's green book and its third universal theory - a blend of socialist and Islamic thought. In theory Libya is run by the people through popular committees, but in practice it's a bureaucratic nightmare. At the Green Book Research Centre where students and academics try to decipher the wise words of their leader, they are now studying Gaddafi's privatisation push. Does this mean that one of the last bastions of anti-Western ideology is faltering and capitalism has won?

YOUSSEF SAWANI: One of the characteristics of this ideology is that it is evolving, it is dynamic, it lives in constant dialogue with reality, it is dynamic so its premises are reinterpreted.

Youssef Sawani is also the research director of the centre and says the regime has become pragmatic and has stopped trying to export its revolutionary ideas.

YOUSSEF SAWANI: There was a contradiction between Libya's national interest and the dictates of ideology. And for most of the time, Libyan politics was to be carried out according to the projection of ideology that meant the neglect of national interest. Libya paid heavy, heavy losses for the maintenance of these ideological aims, nationalist aim, pan Arabic, pan Islamist, pan African.

The fate of Saddam Hussein also speeded up the process. The last thing Gaddafi wants is regime change.

YOUSSEF SAWANI: The process of rethinking, adjusting, rehabilitating Libya's foreign policy started very well before the war against Iraq. The war in Iraq consolidated that process and it gave Libya and its leadership a very strong message that that process ought to be consolidated and taken a bit further down the road.

When support for radical Arab factions and Arab unity only brought Libya international isolation, Gaddafi turned to Africa. In 1999, he declared his own USA, or United States of Africa. It was a bid for respectability, a chance to promote himself as Africa's elder statesman and satisfy his desire for world influence. This is the fourth anniversary of the African Union and the diplomatic community has turned out to thank Gaddafi.

WILLIAM HIKISA, DEAN OF AFRICAN DIPLOMATS: On this historical day, we commend highly your eminent role and your wise leadership, which encouraged your brothers the African leaders, to concrete ties to dream of unity of our continent.

It is a worthy idea, but it too has been an expensive failure. Gaddafi has had to finance the venture and the participation of the poorer African states, even opening up Libya's borders to African guest workers. Libya now has more than a million Africans looking for work. Hundreds of Africans live in this abandoned construction site in Tripoli.

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: Now this is where I sleep.

Sybel Coffeemarfou came from Ghana to make his fortune.

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: To go to work, so this is my blanket, my mattress.

REPORTER: So how many people would sleep here in this area?

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: About seven or eight people here.

Sybel was a teacher in Ghana but now he's lucky to earn $3 a day shoe shining.

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: What I do is I just sit by the roadside, when your shoes spoil then I make it for you, that is what I am doing here. And it's not that there are no schools, there are schools but because I am a black man, you know, they wouldn't allow me - a black man to stand before them to teach them what they don't know.

For all the official rhetoric of African unity and brotherly love, these Africans find it's a different story with the Libyan people.

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: Sometimes when you are going upstairs on the building, they will be throwing stones at you and some will even call you a slave.

AFRICAN MAN 1: We are worse than refugees, we need something from the Europeans, the Europeans and Americans. No, we are not saying we are Ghanas we are refugees because back home we cannot stay. Here we are not staying, we are suffering.

AFRICAN MAN 2: I swear to God I don't have nothing. I spent about three years in the country, I don't have nothing.

Libyans don't want the Africans to stay. They say they bring crime, AIDS and prostitution. This anger erupted into race riots in October 2000 when nearly 200 Africans were killed and thousands were forced to flee.

SYBEL COFFEEMARFOU: They started killing the blacks wherever they saw a black man they have run after him, if they had him they would kill him. That is what happened before.

Libyans resented Gaddafi's expensive pan African experiment at a time when they were suffering.

YOUSSEF SAWANI: It could be explained by the hardships Libya felt during the sanctions. I mean, money became, you know, dearer and job opportunities became less and less available in the Libyan economy because the economy stopped developing and, you know, the rate of development was probably less than 1% during the last 10 years or so. So that brought more pressure on the resources of this country.

It's been a blow for Gaddafi's pan African visions and these Africans are now stranded. They don't have the money to return home. Returning home soon is also not an option for the Libyan opposition based in London. Members of the Libyan political forum recognise that reform is under way but question the motives.

GUMA ELGAMATY, LIBYA POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT FORUM: What we have been witnessing in the last few months or couple of years is Gaddafi giving a lot of concessions to the outside world, mainly to the West, but not giving any concession at all to the Libyan people and our worry is now that because Gaddafi is going to feel more secure with the West, that the West have accepted him, that he has no longer any external threat like the threat that was faced by Saddam, so Gaddafi's going to feel more secure and he's going to be free to be even more oppressive to his own people.

ASHUR SHAMIS, WRITER: Reform must come from the bottom up and it must involve all sections of society. There must be a debate about it beforehand, you know. What are the conditions of reform? What are the premises? What are the objectives? Are we reforming in order to support the regime and strengthen the regime's hold on the country or are we reforming in order to improve the lot of the whole of the country?

While these men lobby for political reform from afar, it's not about to happen soon. Internal dissent to Gaddafi's rule is not tolerated. Unlike many of the regimes that surround Libya, Gaddafi has spent money on his people. The Sharif's are a middle class family living in Tripoli and it's no surprise with my minders looking on, that they praise the benefits of Gaddafi's revolution.

MR SHARIF, (Translation): But we know how it was before the revolution and how it is since the revolution. People now own their houses instead of renting or living in huts. They now have wages and their children have free education and other things as well, it's hard to specify them. There are many things.

Libya does have the highest standard of living in Africa. The United Nations lists Libya in the top third of its human development index above Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And the family thinks that now UN sanctions have been finally lifted, that that's set to increase.

MR SHARIF, (Translation): The major change that will take place is the development in the field of education, greater than we have now. Even the economic aspect will develop enormously not like it is now.

Oil will be the key to Gaddafi's continued rule. Libya has some of the largest unexplored oilfields in the world and Gaddafi has recently put them on the market. Foreign oil companies are pleased to see Libya welcomed back into the international fold. Now they can get their hands on the oil.

TAREK HASSAN-BECK, LIBYAN NATIONAL OIL COMPANY: We are categorised in the community as the most potential country as far as exploration and new finds. We are maybe the only country that people can find half a billion barrels plus of reserves and we have a lot of interest from international companies to do business with us.

As Iraq falls apart, the oil companies that were hoping to do business after Saddam are now looking at Libya as a more promising and secure source.

TAREK HASSAN-BECK: You will see a stampede in by American companies because they know what opportunities exist in Libya.

Gaddafi is now the longest serving Arab leader and the key to his survival has been an ability to reinvent himself. Now the man who had seen himself as a leader of global revolution, is seeking redemption from the West. He's holding his rhetorical tongue and brought his ticket back to the world. The removal of Saddam Hussein and Libya's economic isolation have left him with no other option.

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