Release date: March 15, 2004
Suddenly the rustling among the 600 members of the Libyan NationalPeople's Congress and their foreign guests stopped. From out ofnowhere, a half-dozen "Qaddafi girls" have taken up position,sweeping the giant amphitheater for signs of potential danger fortheir leader. Gone are the blond-haired East Germans whom Col.Muammar Qaddafi used to employ as his personal bodyguards, alltrained in the martial arts. Today's Qaddafi girls are primarilyLibyan, although some have been recruited from neighboring Africancountries. They wear camouflage uniforms and red berets. All sporthardened fingernails an inch long, coated in a deep purple gloss tolook like congealed blood.
As one foreign diplomat remarked afterward, there is design behindthe ghoulishness. While the entire audience focuses on the Qaddafigirls, no one notices their leader whisk in from the wings. The nextthing we know, he has taken a seat at the long head table on thestage and in a halting whisper begins to address the nation'spolitical elite.
Also in the audience are a seven-member delegation from the U.S.House of Representatives, led by Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), andrepresentatives of more than 100 countries. The performance they areabout to witness is vintage Qaddafi, but with a twist. Instead of along, rambling diatribe denouncing America, Qaddafi embarks on alengthy justification of his decision to open his country to theWest. His message is unequivocal: Yesterday's enemies are about tobecome Libya's friends.
"At first, I was just listening to the speech," Rep. Susan Davis(D-Calif.) said afterward, "but what he was saying was so amazingthat I started writing it down so I could report to my constituents.I took 24 pages of notes."
In a brutally self-critical account of Libya's past support forterrorist movements around the world, Qaddafi concluded that Libyahad paid a high price for its adventures, reaping only isolation,international embargoes and underdevelopment. In case after case, hetold his countrymen, Libya had helped groups such as the IrishRepublican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization and theAfrican National Congress. Now they had all made their separatepeace, leaving Libya behind to continue fighting. "Are we more Irishthan the Irish?" he asked. "Are we more Palestinian than thePalestinians? ... How can [Yasser Arafat] enter the WhiteHouse and we not improve our relations with the United States?"
Weaving these and other examples of Libya's former actions into anoverarching theme that the realities of today's world are fardifferent from the past, Qaddafi said Libya needs to turn the page,recognizing that its troubles were not the fault of others but theresult of its own policies. "No one separated Libya from the worldcommunity," Qaddafi insisted. "Libya voluntarily separated itselffrom others" by its actions. "No one has imposed sanctions on us orpunished us. We have punished ourselves." The irony, Qaddafi stated,was that "all these things were done for the sake of others."
He asked, "If the Palestinians can recognize Israel, how can wenot recognize that country?" The liberation struggles that Libyasupported "are finished; the battle is finished. ... Now people areshaking hands. So should only we stay enemies?"
The United Nations imposed sweeping sanctions against Libya in1991 in retaliation for its involvement in the bombing of Pan AmFlight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, three years earlier. Libyafinally accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials andpaid $2.7 billion in compensation to families of the victims of theterrorist bombing in September 2003, leading the United Nations tolift sanctions on Sept. 12.
Qaddafi also gave the first detailed public account of the reasonsbehind his surprise announcement on Dec. 19, 2003, that Libya wasabandoning its previously secret nuclear-weapons program. "Yes, therewas such a program," he now admitted, to the astonishment of manypeople in the room. Libya chose to declare its program to the UnitedStates and Britain and seek their help in dismantling it "because itis in our own interest and for our own security," he said.
At another point he said, "We got rid of it. It was a waste oftime. It cost too much money." In a noteworthy departure from pastrhetoric, he called on all countries to "get rid of their WMD[weapons of mass destruction]," naming the United States,Russia, China, India and Pakistan, but not Israel, which is not adeclared nuclear-weapons state. "If there is any aggression againstLibya now, the whole world will come to defend Libya," he said."Yesterday, that was not the case."
Turning to the United States, the Libyan leader said he was hopingfor technology to help develop Libya's economy, as well as jointventures with U.S. firms. "We can be friends because we are notenemies anymore," he said.
"We were part of history tonight," Rep. Weldon told Insight afterthe speech. "Col. Qaddafi's statements were unequivocal. There wereno ifs, ands or buts. It reminds me of the sea change that occurredwhen the Berlin Wall came down, or when [Boris] Yeltsin stoodon top of a tank in front of the Russian White House. As startling asit is to us, we'd better take advantage of it."
After the speech Weldon and his delegation were taken to a privatereception to greet the Libyan leader. Qaddafi expressed admirationfor the lapel pin Weldon was wearing, an American and green Libyanflag intertwined. When the congressman offered it to Qaddafi, one ofQaddafi's aides stepped forward and whispered in Weldon's ear: "Pinit on him." Qaddafi was beaming.
So far, U.S. and British officials say, Libya has carried out itsside of the bargain without a hitch. "Libya's actions to date havebeen substantial, serious and consistent with its pledge to dismantleWMD programs and abandon terrorism," Assistant Secretary of State forNear Eastern Affairs William J. Burns told the Senate ForeignRelations Committee on Feb. 26.
On March 6, U.S. and British intelligence teams finished emptyingLibya's previously secret nuclear-weapons plants and loaded 1,000tons of equipment onto a cargo ship that promptly left the country.Also on the ship were five complete Scud-C missiles and theirlaunchers, purchased from North Korea.
But Libya still has a long way to go before it will be ready towelcome Western companies and investment, despite Qaddafi'swillingness to partner with the United States to rebuild his tatteredcountry. "I told Qaddafi there are certain basic rules to playing inthe global economy," Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said at a dinner inSirte with a group of Libyan officials after he had addressed theLibyan National People's Congress. "No one will invest in yourcountry without transparency or without stability. To deliver thepromise to your people is going to require significant change, notdictated by the United States but by reality."
Key to those changes are economic and political reforms thatQaddafi may be unwilling to accept without firm insistence from theUnited States. Decades of radicalism don't just disappear overnight."Qaddafi's speech was an educational exercise," a European diplomatin Tripoli tells Insight, "to show the traditionalists that timeshave changed." No major initiative such as the current opening towardthe West can take place unless it comes from Qaddafi himself.
Observers in the Libyan capital say that Qaddafi appears to bemore worried today about his grip on the country than ever before andis seeking to open it to Western investment to quell populardiscontent with his mismanagement of the nation's economy. Streets inLibya's bustling downtown market remain unpaved, telephones work onlyperiodically, and no foreign newspapers are allowed. In many ways,Libya appears to have drifted through the last 15 years in a daze. Atthe same time, however, Libyan universities are graduating largenumbers of well-educated young people with engineering and otherdegrees who are unable to find work. The potential for social unrestis very real.
The U.S. State Department's latest human-rights report on Libya,released Feb. 25, presents a devastating picture of an authoritarianstate that has evolved little since the collapse of its former Sovietsponsor. "In theory, the citizenry rules the country through a seriesof popular congresses," the report states. "However, in practice,Qaddafi and his inner circle monopolize political power." As aEuropean diplomat put it, "Libya is run by a clique of between 100and 120 people." None can make any decisions without Qaddafi'sspecific approval. Since he "has an absolute dread" of makingday-to-day decisions, many simple projects never get done, leavingstreets unpaved, garbage not picked up and buildings half-builtacross the country.
When Qaddafi does get involved, however, the results can bedramatic. Four years ago, he made the unpopular choice of moving thecapital from Tripoli to the provincial seaside town of Sirte, histribal home. Many government ministers initially balked. "Onemorning, the prime minister drove to his office in Tripoli," aEuropean diplomat tells Insight, "only to find it a pile of rubble."Frustrated by the minister's refusal to relocate to Sirte, Qaddafihad ordered bulldozers to tear down his office during the night.
Since 1999, Qaddafi's increasingly powerful 31-year-old son, Seifal-Islam al-Qaddafi, has come forward as an advocate of modernizationand openness to the West. As the head of the Qaddafi Foundation forCharitable Organizations, he is credited with having urged his fatherto accept responsibility for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan AmFlight 103 and the downing of a French airliner over Niger thefollowing year.
Under his direction, the Qaddafi Foundation has waged a campaignagainst torture and has intervened with Libyan authorities on behalfof political prisoners. Last month the foundation invited AmnestyInternational to send a team of human-rights investigators to Libya,the first time Amnesty International had been allowed into thecountry in 15 years. Its preliminary report - as with the StateDepartment's human-rights report - was not pretty. It found continuedserious allegations of torture and "prolonged incommunicadodetention" of political opponents.
But the human-rights watchdog group also found evidence that theLibyan regime was trying, however gradually, to change. "We arepleased with the unprecedented access we were given by the Libyanauthorities and others, particularly to prisoners," the group said inLondon. "We look forward to a serious engagement by Libya with aprocess of accountability for past violations and reform for thefuture."
The executive manager of the Qaddafi Foundation, Saleh Abdussalam,told Rep. Weldon and his delegation that the foundation recentlyurged the Libyan government to sign the Helsinki Final Act of theConference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which placesinternational standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms atthe center of relations between states. "This is big news, a majordevelopment," Weldon tells Insight in Tripoli. If the Libyangovernment responds favorably, it will become the first Arab stateofficially to adopt the principles that helped bring reform to theSoviet bloc.
The State Department human-rights report estimated that "10[percent] to 20 percent of the population was engaged insurveillance for the [Libyan] government," and cited Libyanlaws that allow the government to arrest the family members of itsopponents who have fled the country.
Although Libya is a far cry from the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, whereregime minders were visibly present and plainclothes thugs roamed thestreets with revolvers tucked into their belts, the limits on freespeech are clearly apparent. Libyans approached in a local market andin al-Fateh University, a state-run campus with 75,000 students, werereluctant to discuss politics with visiting U.S. congressmen orreporters, but all expressed delight at the prospect of renewedU.S.-Libyan ties. A government official engaged in a free-wheelingconversation that mocked Qaddafi's effort to instill hisrevolutionary ideology in Libyan children, pointing out that parentscontinue to overrule what their children learn in school. But as soonas others approached, he fell silent.
"If you want to improve the human-rights situation, the best thingyou can do is to open a U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and to be here withyour press," a 35-year-old Libyan electrical engineer tells Insight."If anything happens, you will see it soon enough."
Mohammad Ali, a spokesman for the National Front for the Salvationof Libya, agrees that the United States needs to keep up the pressureon human-rights issues. "Qaddafi feels his regime is threatened if hedoes not cooperate with the United States," Ali says. "That's why hehas made concessions. The United States should press him onhuman-rights violations, and ultimately press for a new constitutionand a new system of legal government."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.