Tripoli, Libya: The United Nations sanctions that went into effect against Libya last April are turning out to be more than a symbolic gesture. While they have not yet accomplished their purpose of compelling Libya to turn over two suspects wanted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, they have been politically damaging to the mercurial Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Libyan military is struggling with serious shortages. Many Libyans openly call for Colonel Qaddafi's removal and the official information media now admit that the Arab solidarity that was the cornerstone of Colonel Qaddafi's foreign policy was `a mirage.'
The sanctions have succeeded in banning flights in and out of Libya and in prohibiting the sale of military equipment. They have also brought a reduction in the diplomatic staff Libya maintains abroad. Western diplomats say the departure of 1,700 Russian advisers and technicians has devastated the military's infrastructure, rendering the air defense system ineffective while much of Libya's hardware rests idle.
One result is that the littered streets and back alleys in Tripoli, where young men once shied away from foreigners because they feared the pervasive security apparatus, are seething with open resentment.
If Colonel Qaddafi were to turn the suspects over, a subsequent lifting of the embargo might permit him to halt the deterioration of his popular support. But Arab and Western diplomats say the extradition of the two men is unacceptable to his security apparatus--the organization that has held him in power for 23 years.
These diplomats also believe that if Libya was involved in an operation of the magnitude of the Lockerbie bombing, it could not have been carried out without Colonel Qaddafi's approval. `Colonel Qaddafi has no desire to see two of his intelligence agents describe the inner workings of his regime to the West and directly tie him to state terrorism,' one Arab ambassador said.
The Libyan leader appears to be hoping to bargain his way out of his predicament; he has been trying to meet the sanctions requirements half-way by giving the West some satisfaction in hopes it will drop its demand for the two men. `The Libyans know little about how the outside world works,' a senior diplomat said, `and so they are vainly trying to work out a compromise.'
The United Nations, in addition to the extradition of the two suspects, has called on Libya to end support for international terrorism and assist in the investigation into the bombing of a French airliner over Africa in 1989. The two bombings killed 441 people. In response, Libyan officials have turned over information about the Irish Republican Army, for which they provided training and
funds, to British officials. They have expelled the Palestinian terrorists Abu Nidal and Abul Abbas, and have closed several Palestinian training camps.
The Libyans are hoping that these actions will at least stave off the imposition of stiffer sanctions when the United Nations reviews the measures in August.
Diplomats say this tactic may work; a senior Egyptian official who travels frequently to Libya said that if Colonel Qadhafi can avoid further sanctions he will probably retain power. The Egyptians believe that despite the erosion of Colonel Qadhafi's grip on the country he does not yet have any serious rivals.
When Libyan officials are questioned about the extradition demand, they appear to be stalling for time. In a letter sent last month to the United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Foreign Minister Ibrahim M. al-Bishari promised that the Libyan parliament would `take an appropriate stand regarding the matter as soon as possible.' But the 631-member body, which met for 10 days that ended last Tuesday, skirted the issue for most of the meeting. And at the conclusion, it reiterated the standard Libyan demand that the two suspects be turned over to the Arab League or the United Nations, rather than the United States or Britain. Similar offers were rejected before the sanctions went into place.
Within Libya, the sanctions have become a catalyst for popular outrage. After two decades in which efforts to follow bizarre economic and political theories have left many Libyans without basic services such as water or garbage collection, even some Libyan officials admit that they are in trouble.
The problems are evident in one of Colonel Qadhafi's most lavish schemes, a $25 billion effort called `the Great Man Made River Project.' After spending $6 billion to channel water from aquifers to reservoirs built for the project, the Libyans have discovered that the desert heat is evaporating the stored water. Many Libyans, watching as planners scramble to build roofs over the reservoirs, have begun calling it `the Great Mad Man River Project.'
Such feelings do not sit well with the older bureaucrats who dominated the recent session of the parliament. Most spent much of the nationally televised debate attacking the younger generation for advocating change. But younger delegates, while making sure never to attack Colonel Qadhafi by name, complained of shortages in everything from school desks to electricity.
While the sanctions have eroded Colonel Qadhafi's hold on power, his decision to hold onto the suspects while trying to give the West enough to keep the United Nations from imposing tougher measures might just work. `He has been weakened,' said an Arab ambassador, `but if he can maintain the status quo, he might survive.'