Release date: March 15, 2004
Suddenly the rustling among the 600 members of the Libyan National People's Congress and their foreign guests stopped. From out of nowhere, a half-dozen "Qaddafi girls" have taken up position, sweeping the giant amphitheater for signs of potential danger for their leader. Gone are the blond-haired East Germans whom Col. Muammar Qaddafi used to employ as his personal bodyguards, all trained in the martial arts. Today's Qaddafi girls are primarily Libyan, although some have been recruited from neighboring African countries. They wear camouflage uniforms and red berets. All sport hardened fingernails an inch long, coated in a deep purple gloss to look like congealed blood.
As one foreign diplomat remarked afterward, there is design behind the ghoulishness. While the entire audience focuses on the Qaddafi girls, no one notices their leader whisk in from the wings. The next thing we know, he has taken a seat at the long head table on the stage and in a halting whisper begins to address the nation's political elite.
Also in the audience are a seven-member delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), and representatives of more than 100 countries. The performance they are about to witness is vintage Qaddafi, but with a twist. Instead of a long, rambling diatribe denouncing America, Qaddafi embarks on a lengthy justification of his decision to open his country to the West. His message is unequivocal: Yesterday's enemies are about to become 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 amazing that 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 for terrorist movements around the world, Qaddafi concluded that Libya had paid a high price for its adventures, reaping only isolation, international embargoes and underdevelopment. In case after case, he told his countrymen, Libya had helped groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the African National Congress. Now they had all made their separate peace, leaving Libya behind to continue fighting. "Are we more Irish than the Irish?" he asked. "Are we more Palestinian than the Palestinians? ... How can [Yasser Arafat] enter the White House and we not improve our relations with the United States?"
Weaving these and other examples of Libya's former actions into an overarching theme that the realities of today's world are far different from the past, Qaddafi said Libya needs to turn the page, recognizing that its troubles were not the fault of others but the result of its own policies. "No one separated Libya from the world community," Qaddafi insisted. "Libya voluntarily separated itself from others" by its actions. "No one has imposed sanctions on us or punished 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 we not recognize that country?" The liberation struggles that Libya supported "are finished; the battle is finished. ... Now people are shaking hands. So should only we stay enemies?"
The United Nations imposed sweeping sanctions against Libya in 1991 in retaliation for its involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, three years earlier. Libya finally accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials and paid $2.7 billion in compensation to families of the victims of the terrorist bombing in September 2003, leading the United Nations to lift sanctions on Sept. 12.
Qaddafi also gave the first detailed public account of the reasons behind his surprise announcement on Dec. 19, 2003, that Libya was abandoning its previously secret nuclear-weapons program. "Yes, there was such a program," he now admitted, to the astonishment of many people in the room. Libya chose to declare its program to the United States and Britain and seek their help in dismantling it "because it is 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 of time. It cost too much money." In a noteworthy departure from past rhetoric, 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 a declared nuclear-weapons state. "If there is any aggression against Libya 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 hoping for technology to help develop Libya's economy, as well as joint ventures with U.S. firms. "We can be friends because we are not enemies anymore," he said.
"We were part of history tonight," Rep. Weldon told Insight after the speech. "Col. Qaddafi's statements were unequivocal. There were no ifs, ands or buts. It reminds me of the sea change that occurred when the Berlin Wall came down, or when [Boris] Yeltsin stood on top of a tank in front of the Russian White House. As startling as it is to us, we'd better take advantage of it."
After the speech Weldon and his delegation were taken to a private reception to greet the Libyan leader. Qaddafi expressed admiration for the lapel pin Weldon was wearing, an American and green Libyan flag intertwined. When the congressman offered it to Qaddafi, one of Qaddafi's aides stepped forward and whispered in Weldon's ear: "Pin it on him." Qaddafi was beaming.
So far, U.S. and British officials say, Libya has carried out its side of the bargain without a hitch. "Libya's actions to date have been substantial, serious and consistent with its pledge to dismantle WMD programs and abandon terrorism," Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William J. Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 26.
On March 6, U.S. and British intelligence teams finished emptying Libya's previously secret nuclear-weapons plants and loaded 1,000 tons of equipment onto a cargo ship that promptly left the country. Also on the ship were five complete Scud-C missiles and their launchers, purchased from North Korea.
But Libya still has a long way to go before it will be ready to welcome Western companies and investment, despite Qaddafi's willingness to partner with the United States to rebuild his tattered country. "I told Qaddafi there are certain basic rules to playing in the global economy," Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said at a dinner in Sirte with a group of Libyan officials after he had addressed the Libyan National People's Congress. "No one will invest in your country without transparency or without stability. To deliver the promise to your people is going to require significant change, not dictated by the United States but by reality."
Key to those changes are economic and political reforms that Qaddafi may be unwilling to accept without firm insistence from the United States. Decades of radicalism don't just disappear overnight. "Qaddafi's speech was an educational exercise," a European diplomat in Tripoli tells Insight, "to show the traditionalists that times have changed." No major initiative such as the current opening toward the West can take place unless it comes from Qaddafi himself.
Observers in the Libyan capital say that Qaddafi appears to be more worried today about his grip on the country than ever before and is seeking to open it to Western investment to quell popular discontent with his mismanagement of the nation's economy. Streets in Libya's bustling downtown market remain unpaved, telephones work only periodically, and no foreign newspapers are allowed. In many ways, Libya appears to have drifted through the last 15 years in a daze. At the same time, however, Libyan universities are graduating large numbers of well-educated young people with engineering and other degrees who are unable to find work. The potential for social unrest is very real.
The U.S. State Department's latest human-rights report on Libya, released Feb. 25, presents a devastating picture of an authoritarian state that has evolved little since the collapse of its former Soviet sponsor. "In theory, the citizenry rules the country through a series of popular congresses," the report states. "However, in practice, Qaddafi and his inner circle monopolize political power." As a European diplomat put it, "Libya is run by a clique of between 100 and 120 people." None can make any decisions without Qaddafi's specific approval. Since he "has an absolute dread" of making day-to-day decisions, many simple projects never get done, leaving streets unpaved, garbage not picked up and buildings half-built across the country.
When Qaddafi does get involved, however, the results can be dramatic. Four years ago, he made the unpopular choice of moving the capital from Tripoli to the provincial seaside town of Sirte, his tribal home. Many government ministers initially balked. "One morning, the prime minister drove to his office in Tripoli," a European diplomat tells Insight, "only to find it a pile of rubble." Frustrated by the minister's refusal to relocate to Sirte, Qaddafi had ordered bulldozers to tear down his office during the night.
Since 1999, Qaddafi's increasingly powerful 31-year-old son, Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, has come forward as an advocate of modernization and openness to the West. As the head of the Qaddafi Foundation for Charitable Organizations, he is credited with having urged his father to accept responsibility for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the downing of a French airliner over Niger the following year.
Under his direction, the Qaddafi Foundation has waged a campaign against torture and has intervened with Libyan authorities on behalf of political prisoners. Last month the foundation invited Amnesty International to send a team of human-rights investigators to Libya, the first time Amnesty International had been allowed into the country in 15 years. Its preliminary report - as with the State Department's human-rights report - was not pretty. It found continued serious allegations of torture and "prolonged incommunicado detention" of political opponents.
But the human-rights watchdog group also found evidence that the Libyan regime was trying, however gradually, to change. "We are pleased with the unprecedented access we were given by the Libyan authorities and others, particularly to prisoners," the group said in London. "We look forward to a serious engagement by Libya with a process of accountability for past violations and reform for the future."
The executive manager of the Qaddafi Foundation, Saleh Abdussalam, told Rep. Weldon and his delegation that the foundation recently urged the Libyan government to sign the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which places international standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the center of relations between states. "This is big news, a major development," Weldon tells Insight in Tripoli. If the Libyan government responds favorably, it will become the first Arab state officially to adopt the principles that helped bring reform to the Soviet bloc.
The State Department human-rights report estimated that "10 [percent] to 20 percent of the population was engaged in surveillance for the [Libyan] government," and cited Libyan laws that allow the government to arrest the family members of its opponents who have fled the country.
Although Libya is a far cry from the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, where regime minders were visibly present and plainclothes thugs roamed the streets with revolvers tucked into their belts, the limits on free speech are clearly apparent. Libyans approached in a local market and in al-Fateh University, a state-run campus with 75,000 students, were reluctant to discuss politics with visiting U.S. congressmen or reporters, but all expressed delight at the prospect of renewed U.S.-Libyan ties. A government official engaged in a free-wheeling conversation that mocked Qaddafi's effort to instill his revolutionary ideology in Libyan children, pointing out that parents continue to overrule what their children learn in school. But as soon as others approached, he fell silent.
"If you want to improve the human-rights situation, the best thing you can do is to open a U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and to be here with your 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 Salvation of Libya, agrees that the United States needs to keep up the pressure on human-rights issues. "Qaddafi feels his regime is threatened if he does not cooperate with the United States," Ali says. "That's why he has made concessions. The United States should press him on human-rights violations, and ultimately press for a new constitution and a new system of legal government."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.