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In Libya, Regional Divide Mirrors Disparities

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In Libya, Regional Divide Mirrors Disparities

In Libya, Regional Divide Mirrors Disparities

In Libya, Regional Divide Mirrors Disparities

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In Libya, many supporters of Moammar Gadhafi say the leader has used the country's oil money to provide real benefits to the people, including subsidized housing, free health care and education. Critics say those benefits were unequally distributed, with favored groups around Tripoli and the western part of the country getting the lion's share — and those in the east, around Benghazi, getting the least. They say the country's political divide mirrors an economic one.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The battle for Libya has become a battle of two regions. The east is controlled by the rebels. The west is largely controlled by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

And as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Tripoli, the regional divide is also an economic divide between those who have benefited from government money and those who have not.

COREY FLINTOFF: One of the first things you notice about Libya's capital city are the hundreds of building cranes standing idle above unfinished apartment blocks. Before the crisis began in February, the Libyan government was in the midst of a building binge. It was fueled by the oil money that began flowing freely again after international economic sanctions were lifted in 2003.

According to the World Bank, Libya was investing some $225 billion to improve its infrastructure, from oil field facilities to schools and hospitals. That program is one of things that Gadhafi's most fervent supporters point to when they say the leader has been good for Libya.

(Soundbite of protest)

Mr. MOHAMMAD MAGAM: Do people, Libyans have cars and money and food? Yes. Is living in Libya cheap? Yes. Is Gadhafi building houses for three million Libyans to live? Yes. So where is this dissatisfaction?

FLINTOFF: That's 29-year-old Mohammad Magam, speaking at a massive pro-Gadhafi demonstration in Tripoli on Friday.

(Soundbite of protest)

FLINTOFF: He gestures at a sea of people filling the city's central Green Square, many of them holding pictures of the leader, or carrying a wide strip of green cloth they say is the longest national flag ever created.

Magam says these people see Gadhafi as the source of all their benefits.

Mr. MAGAM: Health insurance? We - every single Libyan goes and have health care, treatment for free. Did Gadhafi do that? Yes. Does any Libyan go to school for free? Yes. Who provided all of that, do you think? Who provided all of this? How would you know Libya if it wasn't Gadhafi?

FLINTOFF: An official at Libya's Real Estate and Investment Bank, which oversees housing construction, says there are currently about 32,000 housing units being built around the country. He says the aim is to build around half a million units over the next five years, and make them available to Libyans at low cost and with long-term payment plans.

Dirk Vandewalle, a professor of government at Dartmouth, has been studying Libya's development. He says that, in many ways, Gadhafi's government was following the pattern of other oil-rich autocracies, such as those in the Persian Gulf, offering benefits in return for political silence.

But Vandewalle says Gadhafi neglected the part of Libya that's now mostly in the hands of the rebels.

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Political Science, Dartmouth College): The eastern part of the country has, I think, systematically suffered from underdevelopment. And the Gadhafi government, I think, did that to some extent deliberately because they distrusted the eastern part. But also, I think the business elite of Libya is overwhelmingly concentrated in Tripolitania.

FLINTOFF: Tripolitania is the western part of Libya. And Vandewalle says Gadhafi created a massive patronage system that favored wealthy business people there in order to assure their support. Vandewalle compares Libya to Dubai, another autocratic state where oil money provides citizens with benefits and subsidies.

He notes that Saif al-Islam, Gadhafi's son, once said the government's aim was to create a Dubai-like state in Libya.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: However, without understanding that in order to do that, you need to provide all kinds of mechanisms that Dubai, for example, provided -property rights, accountability, transparency, all the things that a modern economy needs. And that, of course, Gadhafi, in order to keep himself in power, simply was not willing to provide for Libya.

FLINTOFF: Gadhafi supporters contend that eastern Libya did get a fair share of the country's oil bounty, especially for construction, but that corrupt local leaders stole much of the money. And they say those corrupt leaders are now among those promoting the rebellion against Gadhafi.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Tripoli.

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