Qaddafi's Libya; Libya tries to stay afloat on tide of oil

In the desert town of Garian two hours south of Tripoli is one of Libya's ''showcases,'' a sprawling concrete building that houses a chinaware factory. The government likes to display it to visitors as an indication of the country's progress since the 1969 revolution.

The factory is, in fact, misnamed, since it produces basically porcelain lavatory equipment and highly chippable plates, many of which are junked in a corner. And foreign help - Romanians and Italians - have had to be imported to supervise the undertrained local population.

But what lies around the hamlet's main industry is, indeed, impressive: brand new four-story apartment buildings trimmed with massive television antennas and finely furnished; a series of steel and glass shops; and an as-yet-unneeded four-lane highway used by cars, none of which is more than two years old.

A decade ago Garian was but a shantytown camp of poor Bedouins, with no utilities or clinics, no educational or social services. Residents barely scraped by on subsistence herding. Now everyone is employed, and Garian is self-sufficient and part of the 20th century.

Diplomats claim the area is typical of the vast majority of Libya's desert towns and coastal cities - and perhaps the strongest indication of why there is not as much internal opposition to the quixotic rule of Col. Muammar Qaddafi as there seems to be from abroad.

So far the only significant opposition has surfaced in the military, which has become a giant proportionately, with regular forces of some 55,000 plus a ''people's militia'' - including young teens, women, and grandfathers - of another several thousand.

In the past the rebellions have been swiftly and easily dealt with, although one Western diplomat speculated that the colonel may have dispatched his forces to Chad in part to keep them occupied.

However, another European envoy noted: ''Libyans live splendidly compared with the hardships most of them endured under (former King) Idris. The money from oil really does trickle all the way down the ladder.''

Another Western diplomat based in Tripoli added: ''Basic needs are met to a greater extent than in any other country.''

That is reflected in the per capita income, which has soared from $1,700 to almost $9,000 in the 12 years Qaddafi has been in power - making it one of the world's highest.

The government propaganda machinery goes to great trouble to point out the achievements of Libya's unusual brand of Islamic Socialism: construction of 200, 000 homes, planting of 400 million trees, expanded and free education all the way through university, and the rather curious statistic of importing nine transistor radios per person.

Yet there are not abundant signs of overwhelming enthusiasm for the Jamahiriya, or state of the masses. While the average Libyans live well materially and appear relatively content with the present, there is an undertone of caution about what their untitled leader's unpredictable next ''vision'' might lead to. For Libya is still in the middle of a most awkward and radical transition.

Qaddafi's overhaul of the North African state has drawn on two extremes of the Arab world: the religious austerity of Saudi Arabia and the political militancy of Syria.

The combination has produced a host of changes from the loose and and indulgent days of the monarchy: There are now few outlets for public entertainment, and most traces of Western culture have been eliminated in an attempt to ''authenticize popular expression.''

There are also limitations on incentive resulting from the stiff brand of socialism, which has included the nationalization of saving accounts above 1,000 Libyan dinars ($3,410), of all houses not lived in by owners, and the closing down of private enterprise in favor of standardized prices and goods.

Factories, stores, and businesses are increasingly run by ''people's economic committees,'' a form of collective management that so far has carried with it inefficiency and confusion as well as democracy.

Qaddafi's aides like to describe their boss - the son of a shepherd - as a kind of Arab Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

In the past, the colonel has been able to afford the improvements that make him relatively popular, or at least tolerated, since oil revenues were easily and generously spread among the small population of some 3 million.

But that is now endangered because of the world oil glut that economists believe will mean a production and revenue loss of up to one-third from last year's output. This may create a serious cash flow problem just as his government has undertaken its most ambitious five-year development plan. The budget of $62.5 billion was based on a steady or rising oil income.

It will also cramp expensive exploration efforts, and Libya is believed to have depleted one-third of its known reserves since production began in 1961.

A similar crisis hit in 1975, which led to a political crisis and a partial breakup of the revolutionary command council that had ruled since the Qaddafi-led coup d'etat.

Should the standard of life for people like those in Garian - after a decade of enjoying the fruits of the nation's natural resources - be seriously cut back , then Qaddafi might have to begin worrying about the ''peoples' will'' - and his own future.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.