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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 10:37 GMT
Loose talk in Libya
By Mike Thompson
BBC News, Tripoli

The face of Colonel Gaddafi stares down at you from billboards wherever you go in Tripoli. But 34 years on, is he still the man in charge as his nation undergoes a new revolution?

Poster of Colonel Gaddafi
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's ways are as mysterious to his own people as to outsiders
Libyan TV has been covering the latest in a series of visits by international weapons inspectors. Yet just six months ago their presence would have been hardly imaginable.

In a souk café I asked local people what they thought of this latest revolution in Libyan politics.

"We've been waiting for this for decades. It's wonderful. It will help us avoid starvation, to avoid a war," said one man.

Although hardly visible through the pipe smoke, customers in this bustling café in Tripoli's old town had clear views on one thing. It is best to make friends with the West.

"Libya should have done this five years ago, make friends with famous countries like America and Britain. Though it's important that we don't become colonies of these countries," another customer told me.

Colonel Gaddafi is a mentor, a person who gives advice
Ali Farfer
But when I asked whether Colonel Gaddafi was right to give up weapons of mass destruction, the answer became as unclear as the café atmosphere.

"I don't believe there were ever any WMD's to give up. It's impossible that they could have existed."

Ever since Colonel Gaddafi came to power in 1969 it has been almost as hard for locals to guess what's really going on as for the world outside.

According to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the country has been secretly meddling with sinister weaponry since the early 1980's.

Now, just as mysteriously, we learn that it is giving them all up.

Libya's mentor

Has the Colonel lost his revolutionary zeal or was this latest u-turn in policy more a case of losing his grip on the reins of power?

Ali Farfer, goes by the weighty title of Secretary of the People's Committee for the General Institution of the Mass Media.

Dr Ali Farfer
Ali Farfer: 'Gaddafi does not make decisions for the Libyan people'
He has a big say in how and when the Colonel is seen by the world.

He insists that, contrary to popular belief, the Colonel is merely the Guide to the Peoples Revolution. And is more adviser than dictator.

"He's a mentor, a person who gives advice, and teaches people about certain things. He can alert people, but he's not in a position to take decisions for people."

So it must have been the people not their guide, who closed down a Tripoli newspaper for a week recently after it dared to criticise their mentor's policies.

Here, there is no opposition party to complain, because this is democracy, Gaddafi style.

Pragmatic decision

So finding out what ordinary people on the streets of Tripoli really think or know about their leaders' role in shaping their future is hard.

Mainly because freedom of speech here, especially when it is critical of the government, can prove very costly.

But some people, like one shopkeeper I met, are prepared to speak out.

UK Ambassador Anthony Layden
Ambassador Layden: Libya's openness is all about pragmatism

"Things are very slow, I have to admit it's not good. There are people here who have not been paid for six months.

"The problem is the Colonel. This is the third largest country with oil reserves, and yet we have been begging in the streets."

But he was happy to tell me all this, so had things improved?

"Four years ago, if I had publicly said this, the consequences would be very bad. I wouldn't have gone to prison, I would simply have disappeared.

"It's a little better now, but we're still not free to publicly criticise the government."

A short taxi ride away, in a quieter more leafy area of central Tripoli lays the freshly renovated British Embassy.

Ambassador Anthony Layden believes the Colonel's decision on WMD has more to do with pragmatism and his own survival as Libya's leader than any war in Iraq, or new found friends in the West.

"Thirty-five years of total state control of the economy has left them in a situation where they're simply not generating enough economic activity to give employment to the young people who are streaming through their successful education system."

"I think this dilemma goes to the heart of Colonel Gaddafi's decision, that he needed a radical change of direction."


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