TRIPOLI, Libya — Not far from Revolution Square, a vast expanse of lime-green asphalt that has become the symbolic stage for Col. Moammar Kadafi's Libyan drama, a young Algerian named Ali Mahmoud stood under a Moorish arch selling Marlboros, cassette tapes and electrical appliances from a stall fashioned out of a cardboard box.
"Business is mumtaz --wonderful," said Mahmoud, as fellow vendors sold heaps of blue jeans, perfumes and wedding dresses from under beach umbrellas that shielded them from the glare of a November sun.
The area known as the Turkish market was formerly a decrepit zone of barren shops and old men in baggy white trousers and embroidered vests who eked out a living mending clothing. But in the last few months, the market--indeed, much of Libya--has been outwardly transformed by a wave of changes being implemented by Kadafi.
The changes, all within the last six months, have come so quickly and have been so numerous that one Western diplomat humorously dubbed them "Green \o7 Perestroika\f7 ," a combination of Kadafi's eccentric revolutionary philosophy, as set down in his "Green Book," and the fundamental change of course being pursued in the Soviet Union.
Whatever the name, the reforms appear to have saved the country from the state of near collapse that prevailed only a year ago.
In recent weeks, Kadafi's government has opened the country to imports from neighboring states such as Tunisia. It ordered 90,000 cars from Japan, enough to give a new vehicle to one in four households in the country. The black market, the only reliable source of goods and services for the past decade, is now an official market, Kadafi decreed, because it is a "people's market."
"All Libyans are called upon to become bourgeois. Do not be afraid or ashamed," Kadafi--who snuffed out private enterprise in his country in 1975--exhorted on Libyan television recently. "Produce and become a bourgeois. Create a farm, breed sheep and be their shepherd. Set up a cooperative. Become rich. That is all right."
Along with sweeping economic changes, Kadafi has taken steps to ameliorate the harsh living conditions experienced by Libya's 3 million people over the last few years.
The so-called Revolutionary Committees, a political vanguard that became a vigilante force with sweeping powers of arrest and trial, have been sharply curtailed.
"People feel free again," said one Western diplomat. "I would say 99% of the oppression is gone."
Restrictions on travel abroad have been removed, and Kadafi publicly tore up his notorious "black list," which denied passports to many Libyans.
The Libyan leader has attempted to appear more accommodating in foreign policy as well, making peace with Chad after years of disastrous warfare with his southern neighbor, tearing down his border posts with Tunisia in the west and restoring diplomatic ties with moderate, pro-Western governments in Zaire, Gabon and Liberia.
Beneath the changes, Kadafi remains as quirky as ever, remarking at one point last month that all of the great prophets of modern times had come from the desert and were uneducated: "Mohammed, Jesus and myself."
More importantly, the changes have not been accompanied by any change in ideology, raising the question of whether they are merely window dressing or fundamental reforms.
"The key question is whether Kadafi really wants to change things or wants only to keep people quiet," said one Western diplomat here. "Something had to change. There was increasing grumbling. Kadafi acted before things got out of hand."
Indeed, to a visitor, Tripoli still seems as run-down as a town in Romania or Burma, hardly the capital of a petroleum producer with annual earnings of $6 billion. Libya's per capita income is by far the highest in Africa, yet that is barely reflected in the living standards of the country, where such commodities as toilet paper and light bulbs are still in short supply.
"In the past four years, Libya has been sliding downhill for 3 1/2 years, and six months ago it stopped sliding down," said one Western diplomat. "It is not going uphill, but it's not going down any more either. I suppose you could call that an improvement."
While diplomats debate whether the recent changes really constitute a basic reform, conversations with Libyans suggest that they are a welcome relief from the austere past. During a recent tour of a market, even a "guide" from the Information Bureau could not resist shopping for new trousers.
The changes implemented recently seem all the more significant because for the first time, Kadafi appears to be dismantling the Alice-in-Wonderland system of governance he himself designed and imposed on the country.
In the years since taking power in 1969, Kadafi pursued a revolutionary philosophy composed largely of slogans such as "Partners, not wage slaves." All business was nationalized. Factories were turned over to people's committees. Foreign ownership was banned.