Libya Opens Up

By Murphy, Edward | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Libya Opens Up


Murphy, Edward, Harvard International Review


A Thaw in Political Relations with the West

In 1986, Ronald Reagan, citing instances of terrorist activity, called Libya's de facto dictator Muammar Qaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East."

In 1999, Alastair King-Smith, charge d'affaires at the recently reopened British embassy in Libya, said that Qaddafi's government wants "to see Libya as an African gateway to Europe--a major center for tourism, a sort of international route for trade and investment." This optimism has grown out of a number of recent compromises in which Libya has capitulated to Western demands about past support of terrorist activity. These cases have convinced observers like King-Smith that the economic hardships in Libya engendered by Western sanctions have forced Qaddafi to soften his hard-line policies. Libya's recent willingness to compromise gives hope for an improved relationship between the West and Libya, but progress will only be made, as it has in recent cases, if the two sides manage to avoid threatening each other's political interests.

The strained relationship between Libya and the West began in 1969, when Qaddafi seized power in a coup d'etat. In the following years, Libya supported revolutionary movements across the world, escalating its own terrorist activity against the West during the 1980s. Several smaller attacks in 1984 and 1986 preceded two airline bombings linked to Libya, one over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and one over Niger the next year, which together killed 440 people. The United Kingdom severed diplomatic relations with Libya shortly before the United States did so in 1986. In 1992, after a UN tribunal named the suspects in the Lockerbie bombing, the United Nations imposed its own sanctions against Libya, including a travel embargo.

Recently, there have been signs of a detente. Following the July 1999 conviction in absentia of six Libyans, including Qaddafi's brother-in-law, for the airline bombing over Niger, the Libyan government paid US$33 million in compensation to comply with the court ruling. French President Jacques Chirac subsequently announced that Libyan cooperation "allows us to turn a dark page." The United Kingdom also re-opened diplomatic ties with Tripoli in July 1999, after Libya accepted responsibility and paid compensation for the 1984 murder of a policewoman outside the Libyan embassy in London. Another major breakthrough came in 1999, when Libya handed over the suspects in the Lockerbie bombing to stand trial in the Netherlands before Scottish judges. Following this compromise, the United Nations voted to suspend its sanctions.

Libya has strong economic motivations for making conciliatory gestures toward the rest of the world. The country has lost over US$40 million in oil revenues, crippling government spending and the economy as a whole. Unemployment is at 30 percent, inflation at 25 percent, and the bloated state sector employs 700,000 of the country's five million citizens. Sanctions have also prevented Libya from procuring new oiling equipment, causing oil refineries to fall into disrepair and produce far below their potential output.

Libya is hoping to raise living standards by opening its economy. The government envisions its Mediterranean beaches and the historic sites of ancient Carthage as major travel destinations. Through a tourism campaign run by the national government, Libya is making an effort to change Western perceptions of its government. …

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