The band of young army officers which took over this country in a unexpected military coup last September is finding that it is much more difficult to run the Libyan government than it was to seize it.
The September take-over worked because of excellent planning and thorough organization. No more than five hundred officers and men in Libya’s 6500-man army were involved. “But it was the right five hundred,”says one Western diplomat. “it caught everybody -with his pants down, the royal family, the police, everybody. It’s the kind of planning operation that would have got a double-A-plus at Fort Leavenworth.” But their grade for governmental administration would be considerably lower, a barely passing mark.
On the surface, Libya is pretty much back to normal today. The soldiers are off the streets, except for guards with machine pistols who stand watch at the entrances of airports, communication facilities, and government offices. The shops are open and crammed with consumer goods. The shelves of the Americanstyle supermarkets are filled with Alphabits and Campbell’s soups, with Skippy peanut butter and Ritz crackers. Westerners walk the streets without fear.
But there are differences. The young army officers in charge of things (their average age is twentyseven) are conservative, and they are distinctly conscious and proud of their Arab heritage. Tripoli’s gambling casinos are closed, their tables hooded; no longer clicks the roulette wheel, no more do lucky Texan oil engineers yell, “Hot dawg!” The consumption of alcohol is forbidden. The bars and cocktail lounges remain open, but serve only coffee and soft drinks. There is no wine to be had with dinner. And customs officers at the airports dig through every incoming suitcase; inside the customs office at the Tripoli airport there is enough confiscated booze to celebrate the marriage of an heiress: hundreds of bottles of dark brown bourbon and light tan scotch, fine white wines, and brandies and liqueurs.
Farts of life
If you don’t read Arabic, you will find it hard to get around in Libya. Every sign written in English or Italian has been torn down or painted over. The names of banks, the Pepsi-Cola signs, the hotel marquees, the bilingual road signs, even the lettering on the ashtrays in hotel lobbies have all been painted over, taken down, or scratched out. Waiters and hotel registration clerks will speak to you in English or Italian only with the greatest reluctance, espedally when others are around. “Signs aren’t written in Arabic for our benefit in New York City,” say the young men who run things. “Why should we accommodate you with English signs here in Libya?”
Despite Libya’s abrupt Arabization, the presence of the West remains a strong factor, and the military regime has displayed a remarkable capacity to accommodate itself to certain facts of life, the way a man does when he is getting a friendly divorce while preparing to marry another woman.
One of the first demands of the new military regime was that the United States immediately vacate Wheelus Air Base, which is located just outside Tripoli. Wheelus is not an important base strategically—jet bombers of the Strategic Air Command operated from there once, but moved out long ago—but it is (or, was) convenient as a training center, with its long runways, clear Libyan skies, and with the Mediterranean on one side and the vast expanses of the Sahara on the other.
Until the coup, every U.S. Air Force combat pilot stationed in Western Europe got his refresher training at Wheelus. Squadrons of fi-j Phantoms and F-ioo Supersabres came flying down from Spain and West Germany, and pilots sharpened their skills by firing at racliocon trolled target-planes over the sea and dropping bombs at sites in the desert.
After extended negotiations between the new government leaders and the U.S. ambassador, Joseph Palmer, the United States agreed to get out of Wheelus by June 30.
There were several reasons for the U.S. decision: the lease was due to expire in 1971; the Air Force training could be done elsewhere; the base is extremely vulnerable to mortar attack; and repossession is a matter of intense national pride to the Libyans. Most of all, American diplomats viewed Wheelus as a diplomatic pawn which could be given up with, no great loss and with tremendous potential gain—the firm establishment of a quiet understanding, a viable working relationship with the new military leaders.
Tin’s spring the Americans were busy getting out of Wheelus. Chartered 707 jets were arriving every two weeks to carry officers and men, their wives and children, away to new duty stations all over the world. Carpenters and packers were working seven days a week, crating the gear for C-141 cargo jets to ferry out. Except for the young, homesick bachelors, most of the Americans at Wheelus find life pleasant and hate to leave. But the pullout is coming along on schedule, and U.S. officials expect it to be completed well before the June 30 deadline.
As for the Libyans, they have not harassed the Air Force. Before the coup, the Americans were training Libyan pilots, and their friendly relationship continues. Libyan military police and customs officers guard the gates at Wheelus today and decide who and what goes in and out. Libyan customs officers do search through the suitcases of Air Force wives as household goods are being packed and stand beside the C-141 jets and check off the base equipment as it is loaded inside. But the Americans have displayed great tolerance, the Libyans have not been all that pushy, and so the pullout has proceeded with a noticeable lack of tension or conflict.
“We have an excellent relationship with the Libyan air force,” said Colonel Daniel (“Chappie”) James, the jet fighter ace who was in command at Wheelus this spring. “We understand their revolution and their desire to take their base over again, so there’s no angry outcry here. We’re just trying to close it up with the dignity and respect for each other that is necessary in these things.”
Some of the equipment at Wheelus has been sold to the Libyans. They would like to buy more, because it is here that they will base the new Mirage jets they have bought from France and train the pilots to fly them. But the United States has been careful to pack up all of the sophisticated electronic gear which the Libyans covet, and fly it out.
American officials in Libya do not believe that France’s sale of the Mirage jets will upset the balance of power in the Middle East. Judging from the problems the Americans had training Libyans to fly F-4’s, it will be years before Libyan pilots fly the Mirages.
It is Libya’s huge oil reserves which make the country so important. Oil was discovered here in 1957. Today, Libya is the fourth largest and the fastest growing oilproducing country in the wTorld. American companies produce 88 percent of Libya’s oil, and Western Europe buys 92 percent of it. Current production is about three and one half million barrels per day.
Libya’s new leaders quickly made it clear that they would be making no attempt to nationalize the oil industry. Not that they had any choice in the matter, because they do not have the native technicians and engineers needed to keep the wells flowing, and without the $1.2 billion the nation collects yearly in oil revenue, Libya would be a poor country. So the Texans are still in Libya, the big, rawboned boys from Midland and Odessa who know how to keep the pumps nodding, and they are going to be around for a long time.
On the other hand, the specter of future nationalization of the oil industry remains in the minds of many a banker back in Houston, so there has been virtually no new capital investment since the military coup. Oil exploration has come to a halt, and every indication is that the oil companies will get the maximum from their current investments before laying out another dollar.
Libya’s income from its oil production makes it one of the richest nations in the Mideast. There are only 1.9 million people in this country, and if Huey Long, instead of Colonel Muammar Kadaffi, had taken over and started sharing the wealth, oil revenue alone would provide an income of six hundred dollars a year to every man, woman, and child in Libya.
That money has been pouring in without a halt since the military coup. But no one knows what is happening to it. Libya’s ambitious national development program has come to a standstill. All construction of medical clinics, schools, and new roads has stopped. The economy has slowed down.
There are those who say this has happened because the old government was so corrupt that it left the national treasury empty. But others say the new regime is so inexperienced it just doesn’t know how to get things moving again.
Until last September, Libya was one of the most conservative countries in the world, governed by a handful of old men who knew nothing of modern ways, and who ran things the way their grandfathers had before them. A handful of families—perhaps two hundred people in all—controlled Libya, and they were the heirs of the same families which always had controlled Libya.
For one brief, ten-month period during 1968, there was a promising sign of change and progress. A bright, young lawyer named Bakkuusk was appointed prime minister by King Idris, and began a program of social reform. But he was abruptly fired because of pressure from the old establishment, and replaced by a drab, colorless civil servant called Qadhaafi, who ended the reforms and reinstituted old ways.
Not everyone who desired social change in Libya was satisfied with Bakkuusk. Many complained that his government was not moving far enough or fast enough. But there was agreement that the Bakkuusk government was a step forward, that some progress was better than none, that this, at least, was a beginning.
Bakkuusk s dismissal persuaded these progressives that reform would never be possible through the existing political structure. Concurrently, Libya’s younger generation was becoming frustrated over the establishment’s visible lack of enthusiasm for the Arab cause. For them, the 1967 war and Israel’s effortless victory were shocking. There were demonstrations in the streets and stronger demands that the Libyan government take a more active stand against the Jews. The establishment’s reaction to this was predictable: Shut up, kid. We’ve got a good thing going with this oil revenue.
One year after the fall of the Bakkuusk government, the young military men made their move. The take-over was swift and total. Those who were ousted from power remain out of power today. King Idris lives in exile in Egypt, the Crown Prince remains under permanent house arrest, and all the royal lands and estates have been taken over by the revolutionary government.
All former cabinet members and ambassadors were arrested, and most remain under house arrest. Over two hundred of Libya’s leading businessmen were arrested and held while their books were audited. Most of them have since been released, and a few have even been allowed to go back to work. The army was purged, too. Forty colonels, seventy-five lieutenant colonels, and one hundred fifty majors were arrested. Most of them have since been released and retired or given harmless military attache posts overseas.
The young officers who took over came to power obviously trusting no one, knowing nothing about the dayby-day conduct of affairs of state, and determined to do everything themselves. All middle-level government officials, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and senior civil servants were given their walking papers. And those minor functionaries who were allowed to remain on the job were so frozen by uncertainty that they were afraid to sign their names on a motor pool gasoline chit.
The inevitable result was that Libya’s government came to a standstill, and stayed that way for months while members of the Revolutionary Command Council underwent their on-the-job training program. They had to learn the hard way, but these are bright young men, and by this spring there were noticeable signs of improvement. Many of the bureaucrats who were dismissed are back on the job. The lower-level government workers are regaining their confidence and their offices are beginning to function again. And some members of the Bakkuusk reform regime, at first denied any participation in the government, now are being placed in posts of considerable responsibility.
But it is the Revolutionary Command Council, led by twenty-sevenyear-old Colonel Kadaffi, which controls Libya. Libya was never a democracy, Now it is slowly becoming a military police state. Permits are required for everything, and inevitably, after shuttling from ministry to bureau to department, one finds that it is the military which issues the permit. Innocent tourists have been picked up for taking snapshots in the Tripoli bazaars. Hotel telephones are tapped. And various watchdog committees and special investigating offices are popping up like daffodils in April. In February the government officially announced the creation of a new secret police department whose responsibility is to investigate “the activities of foreigners and local organizations with subversive ideas dangerous to the state security.”
The “foreigners” who are the most apprehensive about this latest development are the 35,000 Italian expatriates who have made their homes in Libya for years. They controlled the national commerce, they provided most of Libya’s technical and professional manpower, and now they are getting out. The government forces them to leave most of their money and their possessions behind, but still they are getting out. The daily flights from Tripoli to Rome are booked solid, weeks in advance. The Italian departure, and the vacuum it leaves, are factors in j the French effort to establish themselves in Libya, as dramatized by the Mirage deal. French trade missions are in and out of the country constantly these days. The French want a safe, guaranteed supply of oil close at hand, but they also want markets for their manufactured goods.
The few Jews who were living in Libya took off when they heard the first rattle of machine-gun fire last September, and the government subsequently has confiscated all their property. Now the Italians think they see the writing on the wall, too, and these days when an elevator goes out of commission in a Benghazi hotel, it stays out of commission, because the Italian who used to repair elevators there has packed up and moved to Milan.
Libya’s young military leaders have made no move to stop this exodus; to the contrary, they are encouraging it, because it is commensurate with their dream of Arabizing Libya. They are, all of them, pan-Arab zealots. They worship Nasser and trust him totally. After their successful revolution they immediately turned to Nasser for political guidance and inspiration. It was, above all else, for him and for his cause that they overthrew their government (some members of the Revolutionary Command Council had served prison terms for their passionate protests against the old regime’s refusal to take a more active stand against Israel). “He’s the great god,”says one Western diplomat today. “He can walk on water.”
Nasser has not disappointed them.
Today he is providing Libya all the technical and professional help he can spare. Hundreds of Egyptian doctors and nurses are serving in Libyan hospitals. Egyptian financial experts run the foreign banks Libya has nationalized. The chief justice of the Libyan supreme court is an Egyptian, and so are many of the security policemen on patrol in the major Libyan towns and cities. To guard against counterrevolution, Egyptian troops are stationed outside Tripoli and Benghazi.
Reliable sources at the American Embassy in Tripoli say that “tales of an Egyptian take-over in Libya are wild and unrealistic,” however. They say the technicians and the professional people, plus their families, total no more than four thousand. And they estimate that there are from two to four battalions of Egyptian troops—around two thousand soldiers—on duty in the country.
Furthermore, the Americans think the Egyptians will end up making more enemies than friends in Libya. “The Egyptians are generally resented and mistrusted by other Arabs,” says one U.S. Embassy officer. “They’re their own worst enemies. They don’t travel well. They’re arrogant, intolerant, and impatient, and they regard all other Arabs as their social and intellectual inferiors.” And he may have a point. Shortly after the Egyptians started moving in, posters wryly proclaiming “Welcome Egyptian conquerors” were slapped on walls all over Tripoli. Libyan soldiers tore them down.
Posters proclaiming the virtues of the Palestine Liberation Organization are another matter. You see them everywhere. Libya’s new regime immediately proclaimed its total support of the PLO after the revolution. A1 Fatah’s Yasir Arafat is a big, official hero today in Libya. The new government already has contributed $250,000 to the PLO and is promising more. In addition, the government is encouraging contributions by private citizens; recently, when a village barber donated a day’s income to the guerrillas, it was front-page news in the government-supported newspapers.
Where does Libya go now?
Into the welcoming arms of Nasser, it would seem. Colonel Kadaffi (who recently proclaimed himself Prime Minister) appears to be an enthusiastic advocate of a new “West of Suez” alliance with Egypt and the Sudan, with resulting economic, political, and military unity in the future. “Since the Arab nation is trying to improve conditions in all Arab lands, this can best be achieved through true Arab unity,” he said in a private interview in late February. “It must be realized that Arab unity is a good thing, not only for the Arabs but for the world as a whole. If the Arabs were enjoying strength and stability, it would mean that a great portion of the world was in a state of stability.”
Such a commitment by Libya has aroused fears in many places because it obviously would give Nasser a new, important source of money and arms with which to pursue his war against Israel. Libya is getting approximately one hundred of the Mirage jets from France and is still interested in buying 188 Chieftain tanks from England. Israel is the target. In a recent press conference, Kadaffi even said he would cut. olf Libyan oil to Western markets if he were convinced such a move would cause Israel’s downfall.
But, despite all their emotional vows of allegiance and support, Libya’s military leaders are displaying a great deal of caution in their actions, and this may indicate some indecision on their part.
The new jets and the tanks will be coming from France and England, not from the Soviet Union, and diplomatic relations with Western nations remain generally good. With such fantastic oil revenue coming in, Libya’s financial support for the A1 Fatah guerrillas has not been all that great. There are no Libyan soldiers along the Suez, and apparently there are no immediate plans to take a more active military role in the fight with Israel anytime soon. The Libyan army is getting lots of shiny new weapons, but it is not being noticeably enlarged. And so far, all that potential financial aid to Egypt has not been forthcoming. This doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Elizabeth B. Drew is the Atlantic’s Washington editor. Douglas Kiker, a frequent contributOr, is currently based in Rome for NBC News