Libya wants to restore its place in the world, but can it?
By Nic Robertson
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
Four U.S. State Department officials met with Libyan officials on Sunday, March 26, on the first announced U.S. visit to Libya since 1981. Washington said its officials went to explore whether it is now safe to lift the ban on American travel there. Robertson was in Libya and filed observations about the man-in-the-street attitude on the long-isolated country's new attempts to reintegrate with the world community.
TRIPOLI, Libya (CNN) -- Outside the deserted U.S. Embassy, Mohammed sits with his back to the wall, a sheepskin rug between him and the dusty concrete. His shabby bicycle casts a cool shadow over his aging face.
As two blond, blue-eyed men approach, his one good eye rises to greet them in salute.
For nearly 20 years, Mohammed says, he has been on guard. His self-assigned watch has seen the once-proud structure surrender to the scorching North African sun. Over one balcony is draped a U.S. flag, its once-vibrant stars and stripes faded under layers of fine desert dust.
Mohammed lives across the road, and his wife lowers tea for him on a tray from a balcony two floors up. He says he must remain vigilant so the Americans -- who he is sure will return soon -- will not find something missing from the building they closed in 1981. The two countries cut official diplomatic ties amid Washington's allegations of Tripoli-sponsored terrorism.
"They work with us like our sons," he recalls. "We like the American people and friendship, and there are no problems with Americans. This is only between leaders."
Here in Tripoli, behind the isolating walls of U.S. sanctions, Americans are widely thought of as old friends, not political enemies, and they are no less dear for their long absence.
Lockerbie long ago and far away from here
To hear some Libyan government officials reminisce about their college days in the United States, one wonders why they ever left to come back to Libya. There seems to these officials to be no gulf between the nations.
Asking Col. Moammar Gadhafi about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland is off limits, I am told. We had submitted a list of questions, hoping for an interview, and didn't get it. But surely the Great Leader, as he is known here, has not forgotten the attack on a U.S. plane that left 270 people dead.
Two Libyans accused in the bombing will stand trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands in May. With U.N. economic sanctions suspended in response to the surrender of the suspects in 1999, ordinary Libyans are pushing to make up for lost time.
For many here the Pan Am bombing seems behind them, hardly a thing to hamper business. And business is what many of them seem to be all about now.
New laws in Libya lay out new ways to woo overseas investors. Europeans, Africans and Asians, we are told, bustle through glossy new offices. And, no doubt, fight for elevator space in the hotels now brimming with international tourists. Japanese and German visitors jockey to lead the rush to breakfast.
It does sound like a brave new world. And that is what Libyans today want to build, with jobs for all and -- considering that about half the estimated 5 million population is under age 18 -- with the latest and greatest international technology available.
There is money to be made by all sides, the Libyan businessmen insist. At the same time, they worry aloud about preserving their national culture amid an influx of Western consumerism. It is a delicate balance against fears that business now returning can't be relied on to stay, but are subject to what some Libyans perceive as the whims of international politics.
"He [Gadhafi] has to do the kind of things which, say, his neighbor Egypt has done or even Tunisia and Algeria, in terms of opening up the Libyan economy," says David Butter of the Middle East Economic Review.
Warm Mediterranean undercurrents
Amid the mix of capitalism and competing interests is Gadhafi's adventurism of old. Gadhafi still plays the international stage. His country's economic revival is reinvigorating his role as regional power broker. And his sights appear now to be set on wielding African influence.
"He [Gadhafi] does have ambitions to be a big player," Butter said. "He can't do much in the Arab world. Perhaps he thinks he can do a bit in the African continent."
But it appears the need to strengthen his own economy at home is helping to temper his approach, a shift recognized by new invitations for him abroad.
And despite years of frozen trade and chilly political words, the undercurrent was warm last weekend during the U.S. delegation's visit.
"We consider that the negative chapter in our relations is over," Hassouna Chaouch, Libya's deputy minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, was quoted in a Reuters dispatch as saying a couple of days before the U.S. delegation arrived.
At the U.S. Embassy a brick sits below one window to afford a peek within. The sill is brushed clear of dust by fingertips. Inside, a calendar still decorates the wall, its counting days over. Mohammed has faith that his old friends will soon bring to an end his counting of the days until their return.
CNN Interactive: World
U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies: Libya
CIA World Factbook 1999: Libya
U.S. State Department
U.S. Iran-Libya Sanctions Act 1996
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
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