Eggs are in short supply. On dusty, almost deserted streets in Libyan towns, many shops are closed or empty. New cars are hard to buy. Black marketeers are busy. Libyan farm families don't hire extra help. They farm only crops they can raise and harvest themselves. No one starves, but there's little to buy.
The middle class, the source of needed skills, feels alienated and resentful. ``Don't you know anything?'' hissed one Libyan in disbelief when asked about living conditions during a chance encounter. ``No one wants to do business with Libya any more. We are isolated in the world....'' Eyes darting in search of police, he disappeared when he saw someone approaching.
This is the unhappy state of Libya today.
It is almost friendless because of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's ambitious and largely unsuccessful policies abroad, and it has a lackluster economy that no longer works efficiently.
On the positive side, Colonel Qaddafi has used oil wealth to build houses, roads, hospitals, and schools. Education is free through university. Tripoli's skyline shows new construction. Since Qaddafi led the oil-producers' charge toward higher prices in the early 1970s, Libya has altered vastly from the post-World-War II days when its biggest export was scrap metal from desert tank battles.
But austerity has followed a drastic drop in annual oil revenues from $22 billion in 1980 to $5 billion in 1986.
Housing and road-construction projects have been canceled. Libya's debt to the Soviet Union for arms purchases is said to be $5 to $10 billion. The one major scheme still going ahead is the ``Great Man-made River,'' a billion-dollar plan to pump water from an underground lake in the southern desert region to dry coastal areas.
Unlike their leader, Libya's 4 million people are what one US analyst calls ``wistfully peaceful'' and ``largely apolitical ... with little taste for fighting....''
Almost 18 years after Qaddafi and a group of young Army officers overthrew the aging, British-installed King Idris I in 1969, distribution and management remain poor.
``Take eggs,'' said one non-Libyan source in Tripoli, ``you can't find many of them. Funds are allocated to import chicks from the Netherlands, but there's a lack of barley for fodder and so the chickens are killed. Lots of poultry. No eggs.''
His explanation: Qaddafi's ``Green Book.'' This part-Islamic, part-Bedouin Arab, part-socialist theory of government forbids Libyans to hire other Libyans. That would be ``exploitation.''
Under the slogan ``partners not wage-workers,'' a family must make any hired worker a ``partner'' by giving him a share in the family shop or land - a step most families don't take. Once, Libyans could employ foreign workers - mainly Tunisians and Moroccans. But Qaddafi has quarreled with all his neighbors and ordered their nationals out.
So Libyan farm families raise only what they can manage themselves. Little is left over for city markets.
Per capita income is comparatively high, stemming from an estimated per capita gross national product of $8,510 (1982). The social welfare system is said to be extensive, helped by workers' contributions. One man who said he earned 250 dinars a month ($880 at the inflated official exchange rate), said 69 dinars were deducted from each salary payment for his apartment and other benefits.
But Libya's major difficulty is that Qaddafi's unique form of government doesn't seem to work very well.
One of Qaddafi's visions is that his people are an extended tribe, with himself as its father figure. Democracy, he argues in his Green Book, is people governing themselves. Parliaments and political parties are anathema to him.
In 1977 he formed basic People's Congresses, or local district councils. Each met annually, discussed an agenda set by Qaddafi, passed resolutions, and sent one delegate to a national General Congress whose decisions were, in theory, law.
By 1983, about 200 such congresses existed. Then Qaddafi tried two policy moves which were not entirely popular: He tried to draft women into the armed forces, and he wanted all children to be educated at home until the age of 10.
Local congresses, unprecedentedly, said no to the new policies. Qaddafi created 2,000 more with the aim of increasing his own support and diluting the opposition. He also strengthened Revolutionary Committees - young zealots who keep the Army and the rest of society under constant surveillance.
``The Green Book theory had in effect started to work,'' commented one Tripoli resident. ``The colonel didn't like it.''
Today Qaddafi keeps emancipation of women off the public agenda. Women do serve in the Army, but children under 10 still attend primary schools.
Yet, for all his setbacks, frustrations, and clashes with the US and his Arab neighbors over the years, real power still seems to belong to the colonel.
Despite a number of coup attempts over the years, and the opposition of some military officers and orthodox Islamic figures who claim he disobeys Islamic teachings in a number of ways, he appears to be in command: He is seen in public; he left Libya for a week last fall to visit Zimbabwe and Sudan; he has taken steps to discipline his second-in-command, Abdul Salam Jalloud (said to be in at least temporary exile in Syria) and his own top military brass.
There is some opposition to Qaddafi's maintenance of an armed presence in Chad, to the south. ``None of us likes the war in Chad,'' one Libyan said. ``No one wants to go and fight there.''
Libya occupied parts of mineral-rich northern Chad in the mid-1970s, and later actively backed Chadian rebels. In 1984, Qaddafi agreed to recall ``Libyan support elements'' but it is estimated he still has some 10,000 to 12,000 troops in Chad. Several thousand support ground and air forces on the Libyan side of the border.
The writer recently spent eight days in Libya. An account of his interview with Colonel Qaddafi appeared Feb. 6.