Cracks in Qaddafi's 'popular' state leads to a crackdown

Crackdown at home. Relative restraint abroad. These have been the early watchwords of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's bid to head off any replay of the coup attempt his forces foiled in the heart of his capital, Tripoli, two months ago.

The uprising, though almost laughably small in scale, was the most audacious visible bid to unseat Colonel Qaddafi since he toppled a pro-Western monarchy 15 years ago. It followed reports of other unrest, notably of a dissident attack on a Libyan military base and ammunition depot near the Egyptian border in late March.

The concern among Western officials - cemented by Qaddafi's own recent remarks - is that the next stage in his counter-strategy will involve violence against political opponents living abroad.

One target, Western officials assume, is likely to be Libyans in Europe. But Qaddafi has also accused the United States of complicity with the ''stray dogs'' who attempted the coup. In a mid-June speech, he suggested this kind of ''terrorism'' could be met only in kind. He said: ''We are capable of exporting terrorism to the heart of America. We are also capable of physical liquidation and destruction and arson inside America.''

How literally this was meant will become clear only in the days or weeks ahead.

So far, the coup and its aftermath have served to highlight key aspects of Colonel Qaddafi's rule, and of the challenges he may face at home.

In the short run, Qaddafi looks determined, ready, and eminently able to reply to the uprising with a security crackdown.

Since the Tripoli unrest - in which barely two dozen armed insurgents reportedly assaulted the colonel's fortress-like residential barracks - Libyan media have announced the hangings of various alleged conspirators.

Western reports, meanwhile, speak of a major purge of Qaddafi's East German-supported internal security apparatus.

Most Mideast analysts feel any successful bid to unseat Qaddafi could come only from this security force, or the military, in the wildly diffuse ''state of the masses'' he has constructed in the past few years.

But there can be little doubt that the abortive uprising has brought home the potential threat that long-term economic and political problems could sufficiently damage Qaddafi's once impregnable shield of charisma to make such a challenge more likely.

What Egypt's late Anwar Sadat liked to ridicule as Qaddafi's ''madness'' - a serious, if also mercurial, campaign to create a truly ''popular'' state - long seemed to cement the colonel's position at home.

The Army and security police had their perks, and were kept happy. The Islamic tint to Qaddafi's published political credo - the so-called Green Book - minimized the danger of overly alienating traditional voices of influence. The ''people'' - or a great many of them - saw their standard of living radically improve.

But gushing oil revenues, at least as much as Qaddafi's precepts of ''mass democracy,'' were what kept people happy. And in the past two years a country almost totally dependent on oil for its export revenue, has watched the world oil boom thud to a halt.

Too, Libya's ''mass democracy'' has begun to clash with tradition in what was a backward, largely illiterate, deeply Islamic place before Qaddafi and oil came along.

And, finally, Qaddafi's revolutionary credo and the long privileged position of his constituency in the Army have on occasion proven less than perfectly compatible.

Some examples, culled from Qaddafi speeches, Tripoli media reports, and from recent travelers to Libya, include the following:

* With onetime annual oil earnings of some $22 billion slashed to less than half that figure, ambitious development plans have been trimmed. And there have been serious supply lapses in Tripoli's ''people's supermarkets'' of late. Generally, imports of once plentiful foreign consumer goods are being cut back.

* On the Islamic front, there's been friction between Qaddafi and traditionalists over the issue of women's serving in the Army. So strong was opposition to the idea that even the ''people's conferences'' to which Qaddafi has nominally turned over power, came out against women's military service. In a major speech this spring, Qaddafi addressed this opposition head on, saying that ''if there is a fault in the popular conferences, it must be corrected . . . .''

It was. After the speech, pro-Qaddafi demonstrators obligingly backed the idea of women's Army service and Qaddafi, in turn, bowed to this popular outpouring.

* Similarly, ''rule by the masses'' has, on one recent occasion, brought Qaddafi into at least potential opposition to his own military. At issue was possession of luxury cars, something Qaddafi - and the official newspaper, Green March - made clear was a bad idea in a ''people's'' democracy.

The result was, briefly, the burning of a number of such cars - in at least some cases, according to diplomats, believed to belong to well-placed military officers. The burning campaign seems to have stopped for now, but visitors to Tripoli report that there generally seem less and less Mercedes or BMW's on the city's streets.

Against this background, Libyan foreign policy since May's coup attempt has been marked by relative restraint.

With the exception of hints of armed ''reprisal'' against Libyan dissidents abroad, Colonel Qaddafi has eased off a bit in public assaults on those fellow Arab states he has long accused of blocking his main regional goal: workable ''Arab unity'' against Israel.

He made up last week with neighboring Tunisia over a border incident that occurred on the eve of the coup attempt.

He has dropped public hints offered before the coup bid of extending naval-base rights to the Soviet Union.

As for other Arab states, he has continued familiar criticism of those generally pro-Western regimes ''hostile to Libya.'' But in a mid-June speech he added that he was giving ''those regimes an opportunity which will remain open to them until Sept. 1'' - the 15th anniversary of his own rise to power.

If they miss the deadline - and fail convincingly to move ''toward Arab unity'' - then ''the revolution will start,'' said Qaddafi. But he suggested - as in recent remarks about internal trouble next door, in pro-Western Sudan - that Libya would not be taking a direct role in prosecuting ''the revolution.''

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