Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 17:53 UK

Libyans adjust to changing times

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Tripoli

Libyans pass a construction site in Tripoli, 4 September 2008
Much of Tripoli is a building site as billions of dollars pour into the country

In the Ben al Shur district of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Ibrahim Berbash sits in his open courtyard drinking sweet black tea.

He has lived in this residential neighbourhood for all his 52 years, and well remembers the night it was bombed by the US in April 1986, as former President Ronald Reagan retaliated for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's alleged sponsorship of terrorism.

His parents' house was destroyed, his mother was injured and his neighbour was killed.

"When I was young I used to play with him almost every day," he recalled.

"What did he do? Why did the Americans kill him? At that time everybody thought Gaddafi was [involved] in terrorism, but that night the opposite - Reagan [was] the terrorist because he killed people who were sleeping in their beds."


While Ibrahim cannot forget that night, he, like most Libyans, believes it time to move on.

Ibrahim Berbesh
Ibrahim Berbash believes it is time to move on

Wander round the streets of Tripoli, which come alive at night as people digest their Ramadan post-fast meal by playing dominoes or draughts and drinking coffee, and you get an overwhelming sense of optimism about the country.

People are friendly though slightly suspicious of foreigners, a throwback to the days when few visitors came here.

But Said Laswad, the editor-in-chief of the Tripoli Post newspaper, says the country was never as isolated as many in the West imagined.

"Libya was part of the continent of Africa, the Arab world and also the East. Its oil was needed through all those decades and so it didn't feel isolated."

Subsidised petrol

Oil and gas have fuelled Libya's reappraisal by Western governments.

Tripoli is, in essence, one large construction site, as billions of dollars pour into the economy from international companies keen to build hotels, office blocks and luxurious shopping centres.

All that money is allowing the authorities to reduce the state's role in the economy.

The Libyans will change Libya, not the Americans or the British

Tripoli resident

Petrol remains subsidised - you can get seven litres for $1 (0.56).

And it remains the case that it is cheaper to buy bread than to phone home to find out if it is needed.

But other basic foodstuffs - sugar, rice and tomatoes, for instance - are now at the mercy of the market.

And while those with the skills and languages to attract jobs with multi-national companies have seen their salaries soar, government employees - the biggest single economic group - have not seen their pay rise fast enough to keep up with the price increases.

"They didn't think about it very well." said one shopper, "they did it suddenly and people are complaining."


Many of the economic changes have been pushed and piloted by the Gaddafi Foundation, a quasi-governmental organisation run by Col Gaddafi's son, Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi.

He has also opened some private media outlets and talked about the importance of respecting human rights.

Tripoli's old town
People are friendly in Tripoli, but slightly suspicious of foreigners

Some of his speeches have been interpreted as somewhat challenging the orthodox view, but Yousef Sawani, the executive director of the foundation, says Sayf is trying to revitalise rather than repudiate his father's revolution.

"I see the relationship as Sayf being the example of the young Gaddafi, representing the aspirations and the ideals that make up what we may call the Gaddafi project.

"Libyans wholeheartedly support Sayf al-Islam in rejuvenating and re-inventing the Gaddafi ideal and giving it a new lease of life."

In Tripoli's shisha cafes, getting people to engage about the political future of the country is extremely difficult, and no-one seems willing to criticise either the colonel or his son openly.

They are, however, pleased that their country has rebuilt its standing in the international community, though they firmly believe their future is in their own hands.

As one young coffee drinker put it to me: "The Libyans will change Libya, not the Americans or the British."

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific