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The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"Political life in Libya remains as tightly controlled as ever"
 real 28k

Saturday, 18 December, 1999, 06:32 GMT
Libya comes in from the cold

Tripoli's Hall of the People: Stage for Gaddafi


By Caroline Hawley in Tripoli

The call came late in the evening. The Libyan Government was flying journalists from Cairo to Tripoli the following day.

It was, we were told, something to do with Libya's southern neighbour, Chad. Even as we took off on a special Russian-crewed flight, neither we, nor the Libyan officials with us, were much the wiser.

We arrived late at night. A light drizzle fell on the almost deserted runway of Tripoli International Airport, slowly returning to life now after seven years of sanctions.

We were asked to congregate early the next morning. But there was a long wait before we were finally bussed to Tripoli's Hall of the People, which was packed with military officers, Libyan tribal elders, and Chadian women, all waiting.


Gaddafi: Restoring relations with the West
It was clear then that we had been flown in to witness some kind of celebration of friendship between Libya and Chad. What we didn't know was when it would start, or whether it would be attended by Libya's famously unpredictable leader.

But finally the moment came. Colonel Gaddafi emerged onto the podium, resplendent in long pink robes with a matching hat.

He was holding hands with the Chadian President, Idriss Deby. In the other hand was a crutch, the result, officials say, of a hip injury he gave himself last year while doing his daily exercises. Diplomats say they have no evidence to substantiate rumours he had actually been the victim of an assassination attempt.

Revolutionary rhetoric

Despite the crutch, the Libyan leader seemed on good form. He spoke at length on Libya's relationship with Chad, and how it should be a building block towards a united Africa - his favourite new theme. He promised to do all he could to help end the continent's wars.

Peacemaker, maybe, but time has not dimmed the Libyan leader's revolutionary rhetoric. There were still references to imperialism and Colonel Gaddafi boasted that there was no liberation movement in the world that Libya had not supported and that it would do so again if the need arose.

Much has changed in Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, as he pursues his new policy of co-operation with the West. With the embargo now suspended, Libyans no longer feel isolated.

It is good to make contact with the outside world again, one Libyan told me, as he prepared to fly off to Saudi Arabia. He said he hoped that tourists would now come and enjoy Libya's 2000km-long coastline.

Much remains the same

But much remains the same. And the smart Mahari hotel in central Tripoli came earlier this month to symbolise both the new and the old.

The Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema stayed there on the first visit to Libya by a Western head of government since 1992, a major sign of change.

But the hotel was also hosting an international colloquium on Colonel Gaddafi's Green Book, a three-part volume of his views on political, economic and social matters, penned back in the 1970s. Two hundred academics and researchers had been invited to discuss its relevance to the new millennium.


Gaddafi: Man's work obscures women's beautiful features
I leafed through the copy I had been given and began reading his chapter on women, clearly a major concern to the Libyan leader.

The East regards her as a commodity, he writes, while the West does not recognise her femininity. Man's work, he goes on, obscures women's beautiful features, which are created for female roles.

I couldn't help but wonder about his legendary contingent of women bodyguards and whether he considered that to be a specifically female role.

I also wondered what Libyans actually think of their eccentric leader. Unfortunately, there was little hope of finding out. Minders still accompany foreign journalists.

Colonel Gaddafi's new foreign policy has not been matched by any opening-up at home. There is no legal opposition and the media is all government-controlled.

The proceedings of the Greek Book conference were being broadcast on Libyan television. I couldn't help but wonder whether many people were watching or whether they may have tuned instead to satellite television, whose dishes sprout liberally from Tripoli's rooftops.

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See also:
11 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Libya seeks new beginning
02 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Italian premier meets Gaddafi
07 Jul 99 |  UK Politics
UK restores Libya links
05 Apr 99 |  World
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