THE Libyan government rarely allows foreign journalists to visit the country, but it invited some 200 - and paid for their stay - for the 25th anniversary of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's revolution on Sept. 1.
Colonel Qaddafi put on a brave face for the party. He remained defiantly opposed to the United Nations Resolution 748 that orders him to release two intelligence officers implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. The UN imposed an air embargo in April 1992 and has introduced progressively tougher sanctions since.
``Two million Libyan people are ready for combat,'' he told a crowd gathered in Tripoli's sports stadium the night before the anniversary. ``If the Americans attack us, we will defend ourselves. They have badly evaluated the will of the Libyan people.''
In truth, Qaddafi is unlikely to hand over the two men for fear of internal protest. One, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, is a member of the powerful Megrahi tribe on which Qaddafi's position depends. ``I don't see any way that Qaddafi can let them go,'' says one Western expatriate worker in Tripoli. ``It would give him serious political and tribal problems. Besides, if he did let them go, where would they point their fingers?''
Qaddafi says he believes that the UN, with American prodding, has backed him into a corner. ``We have made many efforts to solve this dispute,'' he said at a news conference in Tripoli, ``but the United States is asking the impossible. America doesn't accept Libyan justice; Libya doesn't accept American justice. How can a Libyan face trial in a court he doesn't recognize?''
So far, international sanctions on Libya - on air travel, foreign accounts, technical equipment, and US trade - have been comparatively light. A limited asset freeze was imposed last December, but the Libyan government had months in which to shift its deposits into gold or to countries unlikely to be zealous enforcers of the UN writ.
Embargo is problematic
Libyan businessmen complain that the UN air embargo, imposed in April 1992, has disrupted their ability to do business. They dislike the five-hour drive through the desert to the nearest airport on the island of Djerba in neighboring Tunisia. Yet, the more enterprising have experienced little difficulty in ferrying in supplies from Malta, and Tripoli's shops appear to be fully stocked.
``Of course, it's awkward going from Djerba,'' says Murad Belhaj, a young Libyan businessman who imports consumer goods from Turkey, ``but I have managed to make 15 trips so far this year. I've raised my prices as well.''
Frustrated that Libya still refuses to hand over the two suspects, the US government has threatened to push for a complete UN embargo of Libyan oil. At present, Libya earns 95 percent of its hard currency from oil sales, and its loss could cause severe hardship to the Libyan population. Italy and Germany, which together buy 750,000 barrels per day of high-quality Libyan oil, oppose the ban.
``If they impose oil sanctions, the Libyan people are going to suffer,'' Qaddafi says. ``But we will not surrender. We may lose our oil, but we will not lose our independence.''
Qaddafi's talk is brave, but his country's economy is ailing. Libya's economic performance has slumped since the heady days of the 1970s, when high world prices for crude oil brought in up to $21 billion a year in oil sales. A slump in growth in the late 1980s forced Qaddafi to permit limited privatization in 1992, and, this year, he abandoned a three-year development plan only months into its existence.
Libya still derives more than 90 percent of its export income from oil; fluctuations in world crude prices have played havoc with Libya's ability to plan. Export income dropped to $10 billion in 1990 and sank further still to under $8 billion in 1993. The country's oil reserves - 22.8 billion barrels in 1992 - should sustain output for 44 years at the present rate of production, but Western expatriates working in the oil industry doubt that Libya can sustain present output.
``The Libyans are taking drastic steps to ensure that production does not flag,'' says John Kirkpatrick, a managing partner of consultants Ernst & Young's Tripoli office.
``They're moving into tertiary recovery - water floods, gas injection - and really pressing for maximum extraction. But there's very little exploration work being done, and maintenance is being ignored,'' he says.
The government refuses to publish full data on the economy. ``There is a budget published, but it's meaningless,'' Mr. Kirkpatrick says.
Libyan officials are coy about giving detailed economic information. ``We are going through a very bad phase in the economy,'' confirmed an information ministry official, but he refused to be more specific.
One project that has cost the Libyan government billions of dollars is the Great Man-made River.
The scheme, led by the British subsidiary of American engineers Brown & Root, involves laying a 2,500-mile pipeline to bring water from underground aquifers beneath the Sahara to the Mediterranean Coast. It has cost some $23 billion so far, and just a trickle of water has reached Benghazi.
``Where does all Libya's money go?'' Kirkpatrick asks. ``That's a question that is asked many times each month. The Great Man-made River takes a share, the oil industry, the military. No one really knows exactly.''
As yet, the economy is not the primary focus of discontent for the Libyan people. Rather, they are tired of Libya's pariah status and weary of Qaddafi's whims - and those of the ministry officials who seek to emulate him. Few will criticize openly, but many weave elaborate stories hinting at their frustration.
``I love Qaddafi, believe me,'' said one, ``but the problem is those around him. Sooner or later, they forget about the people.''
Yet, Qaddafi has also had his accomplishments during 25 years in power.
He has resisted the influence of the militant Islam that is causing such carnage in Algeria and neighboring Sudan. He has championed women's rights to a level rarely seen in the Middle East - indeed, in the patriarchal Arab world, Qaddafi is known as something of a feminist.
He has also helped keep Libya free from a population explosion, through extended free education for men and women.
The country's population remains less than 5 million, so an average gross national product of $30 billion gives the country a healthy $6,000 GNP per capita. Generous state salaries have attracted millions of migrant workers, including many Arabs who come to Libya to work on the building sites or to take other manual jobs.
Yet, even they are vulnerable to Qaddafi's whim. Early this month, Qaddafi announced that all 70,000 Palestinians working in Libya would have to leave the country. And what was their crime? The Palestinians' leader, Yasser Arafat, had missed Qaddafi's anniversary.