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Goods Scarce, Discontent Widespread : With Oil in a Slump, Libya Has Fallen on Hard Times

April 06, 1986|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

TRIPOLI, Libya — It was Saturday night at Sinbad's, Tripoli's premier state-owned restaurant, and the menu boasted a rare treat--meat.

At a corner table, a group of Russians wearing dour expressions and imitation leather jackets were washing down the last of their meal with Jamahiriya Cola, the local version of Coca-Cola. Smiling down on them from the wall was a larger-than-life portrait of a man whose jowls were creased with sinuous lines that called to mind the dunes of the desert where he was born.

The smile, at once hard and serene, was lighted by a little green lamp that was intended to move in graceful circles around the portrait. Instead, it made palsied jerks, flickering across the face of Col. Moammar Kadafi--leader, teacher and self-proclaimed spiritual guide of Libya's so-called Green Revolution.

The smile is everywhere in Tripoli--in bakeries, where sweaty men in dirty aprons make bread while long queues of people wait outside; in the supermarkets, where there are long rows of empty shelves; at the city's few shabby movie houses, where patrons shuffle in to see kung fu movies and melodramas made in India; in the few small shops that are still open in the once-bustling souk.

'It's All We've Got'

At Sinbad's, Kadafi smiles down on a waiter serving the daily special--watery soup, cold French fries and thin strips of gray, overcooked beef--to a group of foreigners. Seeing their looks of disappointment, the waiter leans over and says softly: "Look, I know it's terrible, but you must understand the situation. It's all we've got. I'm sorry."

Sixteen years after Kadafi overthrew King Idris, nine years after he undertook his Green Revolution and two years after the bottom began falling out of oil prices, Libya under the mercurial colonel has fallen on exceedingly hard times.

Essential commodities are nonexistent or at best scarce. Long lines form for everything from meat and bread to soap and diapers. Construction cranes stand idle against the stubby skyline; once signposts of progress, they serve as grave markers for dozens of construction projects that have been postponed or canceled.

Widespread Discontent

Although Libya is still better off than many of its neighbors--it is still the richest country per capita in Africa--the sudden decline in the standard of living has fanned widespread discontent with Kadafi's regime, according to more than a score of diplomats, foreign businessmen and Libyans interviewed during the course of a weeklong visit to Tripoli.

Western businessmen with access to high-level Libyan officials say these officials complain that their efforts to cope with declining oil revenues have been hamstrung by Kadafi's determination to run Libya according to his eclectic Green Book philosophy, described by one observer as "part Maoism, part Nasserism and part the world according to Daffy Duck."

The Green Book, which Kadafi published in three volumes in 1977, is basically a collection of ideas and slogans on everything from women's rights to revolution. It presents what Kadafi calls his third theory of government, which reflects neither capitalism nor communism. Kadafi picked the color green to symbolize his revolution because it is the honored color of Islam.

One businessman who meets regularly with senior Libyan officials said, "Everyone I talk to nowadays admits that the system doesn't work and that they are fed up."

Diplomats say the unrest has become evident--in the streets, on university campuses and, more significant, in the ranks of the armed forces, 76,000 strong. In the last six months, there have been at least two food riots, several campus demonstrations and a reported coup attempt that ended in the death of Col. Hassan Ishkal, a Kadafi cousin. Some reports suggest that Ishkal was shot by Kadafi himself.

Programs Slashed

The drastic decline in oil earnings--from $22 billion in 1980 down to $8 billion last year and perhaps no more than $5 billion this year--has forced the government to slash imports, suspend work on all but a few high-priority projects and delay payments to nervous Western and East Bloc creditors who collectively are owed an estimated $8 billion.

"Virtually their entire budget, 98% of it, is provided by oil, so the drop in prices has had a tremendous impact on them," a Western diplomat said.

Faced with difficulties in selling their oil, the Libyans have been trying to barter it. Western diplomats estimate that nearly half of Libya's estimated production of 900,000 barrels a day has been earmarked for barter deals, mostly with East Bloc countries. But efforts to get major creditors like Italy, which is owed $650 million, and South Korea, which is owed at least $400 million, to accept oil as payment against debts have stalled over Libya's insistence that the oil be valued at $23 to $28 a barrel--more than twice the spot market price.

Italy Suspends Pact

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