A Glimpse of Life Under Libyan Leader Gadhafi

On this day in 1969, a young army officer named Muammar Gadhafi overthrew the king of Libya. On the anniversary of Gadhafi's ascent to power, the Libyan leader seems to be making peace with the West, but his reform efforts have faltered.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

On September 1, 1969, a 27-year-old army officer named Moammar Gaddafi overthrew the king of Libya and took power in a military coup. Thirty-eight years later, Gaddafi is celebrating the anniversary of what he calls his revolution.

It's difficult for American and other foreign correspondents to report from Libya, but NPR's Ivan Watson did get a visa for the anniversary. He finds that although Libya has made peace with the West, its future is unclear.

Here's his report from Tripoli.

(Soundbite of celebration)

IVAN WATSON: Downtown Tripoli's Green Square was lit up brightest day last night says the Libyan government, who put on a show. A military marching band performed beneath a huge banner, which showed the smiling face of Moammar Gaddafi next to the golden number 38.

(Soundbite of announcement)

As an official read the pronouncement celebrating the glories of the Libyan revolution, a parade of police vehicles with sirens blaring rolled past the grandstand filled with Libyan officials and foreign diplomats, including a representative from the U.S. embassy.

Jamaah Abdul Hare(ph) runs the Libyan Foreign Media Department. He says the revolution transformed his country.

Mr. JAMAAH ABDUL HARE (Head, Foreign Media Department): There are great achievements for the people, lots of construction, lots of development, lots of education, health, everything. I mean, all the necessary need for the Libyan society has been achieved, I think.

WATSON: About a thousand people gathered to watch the spectacle, some of them holding patriotic signs and flags. But there was clearly little enthusiasm here. Many more people ignored the spectacle and instead wandered around the Green Square, as Libyans seemed to do most every night relaxing with family members, picnicking on the grass, and chatting with friends.

Dr. DIRK VANDEWALLE (Professor, Government, Dartmouth College; Author, "A History of Modern Libya"): I think the overwhelming feeling in Libya is simply one of apathy.

WATSON: Dirk Vandewalle of Dartmouth College is the author of "A History of Modern Libya." He says after two decades of international isolation, the country is at a crossroads.

Dr. VANDEWALLE: The regime, on the one hand, wants to open up, at least, economically and is trying to figure out how it can do so, how it can really reintegrate Libya into the international community making sure, at the same time, that the regime at home can stay in power.

WATSON: Over the years, Libyans have had little choice but to follow their leaders utopian and sometimes erratic vision for the future.

Vandewalle remembers visiting Libya in the 1980s when Gaddafi banned all private property, including retail shops on the grounds that they exploited people.

Dr. VANDEWALLE: To come into that country, as I was doing at the time, there were, first of all, no facilities, whatsoever. There were no restaurants. All private trade had been abolished.

WATSON: Political parties are banned here, and public criticism is not tolerated. But behind closed doors, one Libyan intellectual conceded that over the years the country's leaders have made a mess of things.

Today, Libya earns billions of dollars in oil revenues and yet most hotels in Tripoli still don't accept credit cards. Things were at their worst, one government employee admits in a private conversation, about five years ago when many university graduates couldn't hook(ph) to find a job.

That got better, the government employee says, after Libya halted its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 and agreed to pay compensation for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103. The U.N. lifted sanctions, and Libya began easing some state controls over the economy.

Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi's sons, has carried the banner of a reform though he holds no government position. Saif al-Islam hired an American consulting company to help modernize the economy.

Rajeev Singh-Morales of the Boston-based Monitor Group proposed, among other things, developing the tourism industry.

Mr. RAJEEV SINGH-MORALES (Director, Monitor Group): Libya has an extraordinary coastline. It's pristine and undeveloped. It has beautiful, very Greek and Roman ruins and a desert, the Sahara Desert.

WATSON: But Singh-Morales says there has been significant internal opposition.

Mr. SINGH-MORALES: There are many entrenched interests that are fighting the reforms that we have suggested for their own reason. In some cases, it's political; in other cases, it's economic; and in other cases, it's philosophical.

WATSON: Experts on Libya say though Saif al-Islam appears to have his father's support, a power struggle is still underway within the regime over the future of the country. As for the Libyan people, they have little say in this debate. So on the 38th anniversary of the revolution, many Libyans took advantage of the holiday and went to the beach.

(Soundbite of water)

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tripoli.

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