On the last day of May 1993, some 200 Libyan pilgrims alighted from buses that had just crossed from Egypt into the Israeli-occupied Gaza. Strip on the way to Jerusalem. None of the rhetoric in the statement the pilgrims issued at the end of their stay, duly broadcast by the Libyan “Voice of the Great Arab Homeland,” could alter the fact that the visit constituted a de facto Libyan recognition of the state of Israel, and an implicit message to the region and the world that the regime of Muammar Qaddafi no longer threatened to disrupt any eventual political settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. [1]

For the Libyan leader, the road to Jerusalem had been a long one. For years, revolutionary Libya had insisted that the first responsibility of every Arab was to fight to liberate all of Palestine from Israeli occupation. Other Arab states were branded as traitors on this question. Even the PLO was banished for some years from Libya for softening its attitude toward the “Zionist entity.”

The change of heart grew out of a new sense of realism that has been seeping into Libyan foreign policy ever since the US bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986. The key factor was the failure of the Soviets to react in any significant manner to the US attack, or to guarantee Libya against further attacks, which made it amply clear to the Libyans that they were on their own. This new reality was further driven home in December 1989, when George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev held their summit to end the Cold War on the island of Malta, a couple of hundred miles off the Libyan coast.

After the US attack, Libya embarked on its own program of infitah (opening). The revolutionary committees relaxed their control over the election process to the General People’s Congress and Basic Popular Congresses. [2] In the annual meeting of the congresses, criticism of ministers and other senior officials became the rule rather than the exception. Qaddafi released hundreds of prisoners, and lifted travel restrictions on a large number of Libyans. [3]

Strict controls over the economy were relaxed, gradually at first but then at a rapid rate. New laws on private investment, currency exchange, tourism and private banking have been enacted during the last five years, and if foreign investors are still wary, their Libyan counterparts are not. Thousands of new shops, trading companies, small manufacturing concerns and travel agencies have sprung up, particularly in Tripoli and Benghazi. The system is still fairly archaic. A foreigner walking the streets of Tripoli is likely to be accosted not by beggars, as in other large North African cities, but by people seeking foreign commercial links. On the open borders between Libya and Egypt and Tunisia, small merchants are not waiting for Arab unity. In the absence of a realistic official currency exchange mechanism, dealers openly exchange money on the Tripoli-Tunis road, quoting the rate down to three decimal points and offering their latest predictions of currency fluctuation. Once the dust settles, Libya, with its oil revenues, has the potential to be a very interesting business proposition.

In foreign relations, the first priority after the US attack was to patch up relations with the neighboring Arab states, especially Tunisia and Egypt. The overthrow of the Numayri government in the Sudan meant not only a friendly government in Khartoum, but also an end to the war in Chad. The present Chadian government is friendly toward Libya and the two countries have agreed to refer their border dispute to the International Court of Justice.

There was a distinct improvement in relations with a number of European countries, especially Spain, France and Italy. Libya was actively engaged in the “five plus five” talks bringing together the Arab Maghrib Union (Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia and Libya) and the five southwestern European states (Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Malta). [4]

Official feelers to normalize relations with Britain and the US received a chilly response in both London and Washington. The desire to normalize relations with the US and its allies became even more clear during the Persian Gulf crisis and war. While the majority of Libyans were vocally sympathetic to the Iraqis, Qaddafi himself received the Kuwaiti foreign minister during the crisis and his speeches at the time were unusually restrained.

The Lockerbie Agenda

The Lockerbie crisis, which erupted publicly in November 1991, threatened to destroy these initiatives. After the US and British governments requested the extradition of two Libyans accused of involvement in the bombing of Pam Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988, Libya’s isolation, until then self-imposed, was now mandated by the UN Security Council. After the initial panic, when Libyans looked to the sky every night waiting for US bombs or marines, Libya launched an intensive effort to contain the crisis and forestall UN-imposed sanctions. Security Council Resolution 748 authorized sanctions that are tough but not lethal. There seems to be no stomach in the UN to embargo oil sales, despite rumblings to this effect from Washington every time the sanctions come up for renewal. [5]

There is more to the Lockerbie crisis than meets the eye. The Libyans have tried to follow international law to the letter on this, but no one believed that Washington was going to be satisfied with mere adherence to international agreements such as the Montreal Convention on Crimes against Civil Aviation. [6] The Libyans have even indicated that they were ready to consider other options, short of extradition of the two suspects to Britain or the US. [7] But it took the US many years to articulate a position toward Libya that would have a broad consensus of the Washington bureaucracy, and many more to get the endorsement of the Western allies. [8] With the sanctions in place and biting, the US is in no hurry to find a solution.

The hidden agenda of Lockerbie has somehow also to be tackled. It was obvious from the beginning that the US wanted more than the extradition of these two suspects. Washington’s primary objectives were twofold: a guarantee that Libya would no longer threaten US interests anywhere in the world, and that it would not destabilize any eventual Arab-Israeli settlement.

Libya has taken steps to accommodate the US in its first objective. The World Mathaba, the Islamic Call Society and the Jihad Fund were disbanded in June 1992. The Tripoli offices of several violent Third World liberation groups were closed down at the same time. These were not simply temporary measures, but fit with the new sense of Libyan nationalism that has slowly been building since 1986.

The second US objective is clearly more problematic, as it strikes at the very heart of the legitimacy of the regime, whose revolutionary code at the point of seizing power in September 1969 was “Palestine is ours.” The pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the regime’s way of indicating a change of course. Not surprisingly, it will take some time for the political rhetoric to catch up.

What may once have been a third American objective, the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, may no longer be essential, even if still desirable. After 24 years, US analysts seem finally to have come to terms with the fact that Libya’s revolutionary leadership is well entrenched. The widespread grumbling in Libya that once fueled Washington’s hopes is more akin to political discontent expressed in Western countries than to a society on the verge of counterrevolution.

Perhaps more significantly, in a North Africa gripped by a wave of Islamist revivalism, rooted in poverty and a lack of legitimacy of existing regimes, Libya looks stable and prosperous. Its economy can still absorb hundreds of thousands of workers from neighboring countries, in addition to the hundreds of thousands already there. Its ability to absorb the Islamist political discourse may also offer an interesting example to its neighbors.

Washington, though, is apparently not ready to let the colonel in from the cold. After Abraham Sofaer, the former State Department legal adviser who wrote the briefs justifying the 1986 military raid and trade embargo, and who is known for his strong support of Israel, agreed to represent Libya in trying to resolve criminal and civil cases stemming from the Lockerbie bombing, his law firm announced it would drop the case, citing “the reaction of government authorities” as well as “public perception.” [9] And when Clinton policymakers Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk visited Israel in July they reportedly cautioned Foreign Minister Shimon Peres against undercutting the policy of diplomatic isolation. [10]


[1] The Israeli government understood the message best. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Voice of Israel that “Qaddafi wanted to make an gesture that would reverberate positively in the world, especially in the US.” (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, June 3, 1993). For another take, see Inside Israel (July 1993).
[2] Libya is administered by the General People’s Congress, a body bringing together the delegates of the Basic People’s Congresses, which gather all adult persons at commune level. The regime keeps an eye on the work of the Congresses through the Revolutionary Committees Movement. In the first years there were many complaints that the revolutionary committees were manipulating the discussions in the Congresses. In recent years the powers of the revolutionary committees has decreased substantially after Qaddafi himself criticized them for their excesses.
[3] Libyan television showed pictures of Qaddafi on a bulldozer knocking down the walls of a notorious Tripoli prison, and in the Ministry of Interior throwing immigration records out of a window to a chanting crowd.
[4] The “five plus five” talks were the first victims of the Lockerbie crisis and have remained suspended since November 1991.
[5] One reason why an oil embargo has so far been resisted is that a number of European countries are customers for Libyan oil, which is considered of high quality and cheap to transport. Libyan oil and gas exports to Europe averaged 1.18 million barrels a day (b/d) in both 1991 and 1992, while petroleum products averaged 150,000 b/d in 1991 and around 200,000 b/d in 1992. See Middle East Economic Survey, May 10, 1993.
[6] The 1971 Montreal Convention requires that the suspects be tried in their country of origin.
[7] One suggestion was to have the two men tried by an international tribunal set up by the UN or the Arab League.
[8] As far back as November 1969, Nixon aide Henry Kissinger advocated covert operations against Libya but the State Department resisted. (See his Years of Upheaval [London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 858-866.) Libya was on the agenda of the first National Security Council meeting of the Reagan administration; the NSC was annoyed at the hesitation of the career diplomats to deal with Qaddafi as an enemy rather than a nuisance. See P. Edward Haley, Qadhafi and the United States Since 1969, pp. 247-8. Haley also talks of the us frustration at the lack of European enthusiasm for a tough US stand against Qadhafi.
[9] Washington Post, July 17, 1993. See also New York Times, July 15, 1993, and Washington Post, July 14, 1993.
[10] Washington Post, July 23, 1993.

How to cite this article:

Dennis Sammut "Letting the Colonel In from the Cold," Middle East Report 184 (September/October 1993).

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