What I wrote about a visit to Libya 24 years ago

In the interest of transparency here is a report on a visit to Libya I wrote for the old Direct Action #612, May 27, 1987. With hindsight, I should developed and expanded of some of my criticisms of the Gaddafi regime. But that’s the thing about hindsight — you only get it later!

Giant images of Gaddafi in sunglasses and military uniform were visible on the side of a few buildings. All pics taken by Peter Boyle in 1987.


Libya: Modernisation without poverty

TRIPOLI — Most Westerners visiting Libya for the first time probably feel a little nervous because the media have painted such a terrible picture of this country and its revolutionary leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. But once n the land Ronald Reagan callsthe “home of international terrorism” and the Libyans call Jamahariya (Land of the Masses), the carefully crafted international image crumbles in the face of reality.

Most of the members of the small Australian delegation that attended the recent conference of Asia-Pacific peace and liberation groups probably didn’t know what to expect.

On the way our group had been delayed in Pakistan for a day. Our passports had been seized by immigration officials and we had been subjected to countless body searches as we were shuttled from one part of Karachi airport to another.

Every plane in the airport had been surrounded by soldiers bearing submachine guns, which were trained on the passengers.

To add to the drama, the Libyan Arab Airline ject that was to fly us to Tripoli was unmarked. Was this a precaution against attack by United States or Israeli warplanes? Everything suggested we were about to enter a beseiged land that would be bristling with military forces.

But when we landed in Tripoli the airport was near-deserted because it was early in the morning. Not one uniformed or armed person was to be seen. Sleepy officials greeted us, and without so much as a cursory baggage check we were through the formalities.

As we bussed some 200 kilometres to the conference venue, in a coastal town called Mesrata, we saw a peaceful, surprisingly green, landscape. Children were on their way to school, and farmers were at their work on tractors.

This was big change from Pakistan where soldiers bearing automatic rifles with fixed bayonets were posted every 300 metres on major roads. The only uniformed officials visible in the streets of Mesrata and Tripoli were traffic police.

Libya’s armed forces were not deployed against the civilian population, as is the norm in many Third World countries today. Under seige it may be, but this is nevertheless a very relaxed society.

We were free to move around without guides. In two weeks of roaming the streets of Mesrata and Tripoli, I was challenged only twice.

On the first occasion. only a day after arrival in Libya, I had wandered with three other Australian delegates about three kilometres from the conference site in Mesrata. We had begun talking to some people in a block of flats.

In geneneral, people wre quite happy to talk speak to us — to the extent that our modest lingusitic skills permitted — though most women would turn away from men. Some of us had been taking photographs and perhaps some neighbours had complained.

A car pulled up and an official-looking man in plainclothes called us over. He appeared to indicate that we should not take photographs, and told us to accompany him.

We were taken to a building that served as a neighbourhood security office. here too there were no uniformed or armed officials. While we waited for our identities to be checked, we were offered tea and bread rolls.

Eventually, the official who had stopped us returned, apologising profusely, and drove us back to the conference site. When we asked the conference organisers for an explanation of this incident we were told that as the conference had only just begun, the local police had not been briefed and they had reacted to seeing a group of foreigners taking pictures.

We were told that it was generally considered offensive to photograph Libyan women. While we were free to take photographs, we should be sensitive tolocal customs.

The only other time I was prevented from taking photographs was at the Tripoli Suq (taditional market). I was approached by another official who said I needed a permit to take photographs there. At no time was my film confiscated.

These experiences indicated that an effective system of neighbourhood security was in place. According to our hosts, neighbourhood organisations are responsible for local security, and each neighbourhood is potentially an armed unit. In case of emergency anyone knows where to go to to be issued with arms.

A majority of Libyans have some form of military training. High school students — male and female — do one day of military training a week. University students go on three-week training courses at regular intervals.

Students are responsible for security in their schools and campuses. The only other visible security measure in Tripoli consisted of a couple of police roadblocks set up after 11pm to check the identification of drivers. Pedestrians were not stopped. This measure had been adopted after last year’s US bombing raid.

Personal freedom

Most Libyans I spoke to insisted that they felt more free in their country than in any other they had visited. One young doctor, who had studied in the Soviet Union, said ordinary people had more freedom in Libya than in the Soviet Union, and he raised countless examples to prove this.

In capitalist countries, on the other hand, the richer you are the more freedom you have, noted a Libyan postgraduate physics student named Mehdi.

This point is difficult for Western visitors to ignore. In the capitalist Third World, an apartheid of wealth is enforced. The poor are banned from expensive hotels unless they are there to provide obseqious service to the rich. Police and private security guards enforce this caste system.

But in Libya, people felt free to move where they liked. Groups of Libyan youths wandered casually through the most expensive hotels, stopping occasionally for a cup of coffee or a meal.

Privately, some young Libyan men admitted that if they felt restricted in any way it was because of the traditional cultural norms. They missed the discos and neightclubs and freer interaction with women that they had experienced overseas.

A couple of young Libyan men told us that in the two biggest cities, Tripoli and benghazi, some young people lived a more modern lifestyle, though they had to be careful not to offend their families.

Alcohol is banned in Libyan, but some Libyans are reportedly partial to a potet home brew, made from fermented figs and consumed in the privacy of their own homes.


The second striking feature of Libya was its egalitarianism. I saw no shantytowns, no bedraggled beggars, and no obviously privileged people in chauffeur-driven limousines. There were expensive cars on the street — BMWs, Mercedes, and even the odd Chevrolet — but these were usually as dusty and roughed up as the other, more modest, vehicles.

The only opulent homes seemed to be those left by the Italian colonialists. These now served as public institutions of one kind or another. Even Colonel Gaddafi’s former Tripoli residence, bombed by US warplanes just over a year ago, was no more than a two-storey, four-bedroom house crowded among older Arab-style dwellings.

Its furnishings were far from extravagant. Gaddafi, it is said, preferred to live in a tent outside his home.

Monument erected outside Gaddafi family home bombed by US in 1986.

Libya’s egalitarianism is not one of shared poverty. It is an oil-rich country with a small population (three million), and this shows. The roads are crowded with private cars and in general the people display a very easy-going attitude to life. It is fairly easy to own a house or a flat and a car, and have more than enough to eat.

“Unless you own your own home, you are not free,” one Libyan said to me. Interest-free home loans are freely available, and buyers can choose between having a home built or moving into a ready-made flat. There is a waiting list of a few months for homes.

Before the 1969 revolution that brought Gaddafi to power, Tripoli was a shantytown, infested with beggars and thieves. Today it is a modern city surrounded by suburbs of flats and houses. Modern highways connect it to other parts of the country, and a bustling port is being extensively renovated.

One feels safe in the streets as the desperate poverty that fuels petty crime is absent.

Salaries range from 150-600 dinar monthly (one dinar equals $3). Pay varies according to skill, time and risk involved in the job.

There are also increments for people with dependants. A system of progressive taxation evens out incomes. Housing costs take up about 25 per cent of most incomes, while it costs a family of two adults and three children about 140 dinar a month to live.

As most Libyans live in extended family groups, households usually have more than one income, and more than enough money to spend. This excess income is often spent on cars and on overseas travel, several Libyans told me.

There is an extensive social security system. After retirement, people are paid their full salary until they die. Widows are entitled to the equivalent of their late husband’s salary until their children are able to support them.

Health care is totally free, and around Tripoli and Mesrata I saw many modern polyclinics. One doctor told me there are actually too many hospitals, and some will not be opened until the population increases.

Remote communities are serviced by a large flying doctor fleet. Strong attention to prventative health care has rid Libya of all the serious communicable disease. In the past leprosy and other skin diseases had posed serious problems.

This prosperous egalitarianism is not simply a product of Libya’s oil wealth. Other Third World countries have small populations and large oil resources , but are marked by great inequality and sometimes by very poor social services.


When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and a group of fellow army officers seized power in 1969, a revolutionary process began. Sonce then there has been a major redistribution of wealth, and considerable investment in agricultural and industrial development.

The Libyan revolution has imposed important restrictions on capitalism, and calls itself socialist.

Unlike other socialist countries, this social transformation has not been carried out under the influence of Marxist views.

Gaddafi’s revolutionary theory, outlined in his Green Book, does not call for the abolition of private property. Rather it seeks to idealise a society of small producers, all of whom own their own land, machinery and plant.

The sector of the Libyan economy that appears to fit this ideal most closely is agriculture. Small private farms appear to be thriving in the narrow belt of arable land. There is no apparent tendency of concentration of privately owned land in a few hands.

A fairly equitable redistribution of resources that was made relatively easy by the fact that until 1969 most of the plantations, and the few industries, that existed, were owned by foreigners (mostly Italians).

After 1969, the plantations were divided into thousands of small farms and sold to Libyans. The buyers were given long-term loans and generous subsidies. Agricultural college graduates were given priority. To prevent reconcentration of the land in a few hands, strict restrictions were placed on the rights of property owners. Land and industrial plant may be bought and sold by individuals, but private owners are generally prohibited from employing people.

Most farmers rely on family members for labour, though special permits are available for temporary employment arrangements. I also heard unconfirmed reports that in some areas illegal migrants from neighbouring countries were employed illegally.

Private farmers are allowed to sell some of their produce on the open market. Along roadsides there are numerous stalls at which poultry, fruit and vegetables, and sometimes fish may be bought directly from the producers.

Nearly 40 per cent of Tripoli’s residents belong to families that own small farms growing dates, figs, citrus fruits, vegetables and some coffee.

In general, older men and women work the farms, while the educated young tend to concentrate in state jobs in the city.

While operating subsidies to private farmers are small, most farming families generate enough income to permit purchase of modern machinery and irrigation systems.

Profit illegal

Private land may not be leased out, and private merchandising is also prohibited. Unused land reverts to the state. These prohibitions prevent the exploitation of one individual by another, say supporters of the Green Book. Profit has been abolished and individuals are only paid for their own labour.

There are strict taxation provisions, and private capital appears to be tightly controlled. In the cities, private businesses mostly involve artisan trades: tailoring, jewelry making, carpet weaving, food and handicraft manufacture. As a result of such restrictions, only one in six shops in Tripoli’s markets are open.

There is apparently some illegal trading with a small blackmarket in imported goods and foreign currency. US dollars reportedly sell for twice the official rate.

In the first nine years of the Libyan revolution, there were major efforts to encourage development of a private industrial sector. Loans and subsidies were offered, but a combination of cultural, economic and political factors resulted in little progress on this front.

Most of the industry that has developed is in the public sector, mainly in food processing, spinning and weaving, clothing and leatherwork, woodwork and building materials.

In 1978, Gaddafi a movement effectively to nationalize all the larger private industries, under the slogan: “Partners not wageworkers.” Many of the restrictions on capital originate from this period.

Only in Benghazi, an old city in the east of the country, does it appear that there has been major dissatisfaction as a result of these restrictions.

In colonial times there had been a greater development of indigenous capital in that city, and hence a class of wealthier merchants and farmers.

According to an Australia who visited Benghazi last year, there was some deployment of the military in that city at that time. Benghazi is said to be the centre of what dissidence there is against the government.
Today, while some disruptions to supply are evident in the big state-owned department stores and supermarkets, these are mostly shortages of foreign goods, due to the US-organised trade embargo.

The Jamahariya Supermarkets, which are scattered around the suburbs of Tripoli, are well-stocked in all the basic requirements of everyday life, and food appeared to be abundant.

In the agricultural sector, there are development programs designed to give Libya self-sufficiency in food grains. Libyan officials say wheat production on large, modern state farms is rising rapidly.

These large farms are either state-owned or cooperatives. They include major irrigation schemes and experimental desert farms. Private fruit and vegetable production is already sufficient for local consumption, and the main food import is now meat.

Heavy industry

The government has begun an attempt to break away from dependence on oil exports through massive investment in heavy industrial plant.

One major project we visited was the Mesrata steel manufacturing complex, a nearly completed US 5 billion project. Construction by leading Japanese, South Korean, Austrian and West German companies began seven years ago. Next year, the first stage should come into production.

The complex has six furnaces, each with a 90-tonne capacity, making it the biggest such plant in Africa.
It is designed to handle an input comprising 20 per cent scrap iron and the rest in ore. It will produce all forms of steel, and it is hoped it will feed future machine and vehicle industries. Already, Libya has a large bus manufacturing plant.

Industry suffers from the fact that Libya as yet has only a small supply of skilled labour. Half of the Mesrata steel complex workforce will be drawn from migrant labour. All the major contruction projects are carried out by contracted foreign firms, using foreign workers.

According to a Libyan engineer working in the Mesrata complex, operational management will be substantially Libyan after two years of foreign technical assistance.

Labour shortage

The labour shortage is one of the most obvious features of Libyan society. The visitor notices it immediately. There is insufficient labour to even maintainthe large amount of plant and construction invested in ongoing development.

Buildings, machinery, and even public housing, appear to be in need of greater care and maintenance. Public tidiness and landscaping are paid scant attention. Few Libyans are prepared to undertake “demeaning” cleaning jobs when well-paid office jobs are available.

Mesrata suburbs.

But the shortage of skilled labour is more critical, if not so obvious. This is one problem Libya shares with other Third World nations.

To redress the neglect of education and other services under colonial rule, the Libyan government has spent huge amounts building schools and campuses, and providing generous allowances to students.

Tripoli’s Al Fateh university is a sprawling, modern campus that is turning out thousands of students with sorely needed skills. It is one of two universities. The other is Qar Younnis in Benghazi.

Education was a major priority of the 1969 revolution. By converting homes into temporary schools, the revolution trebled the number of school students in a year, while modern schools are under construction.

Tens of thousands of students went on to do teacher training. To supplement the local tertiary colleges, many students were sent overseas to study. In 1968, there were only 178 Libyan teachers in training locally.

Like most Third World states, Libya suffers from an ongoing brain drain to the West. The revolution’s critics say this is due to political repression, but I found that most students who had studied abroad had more basic motives for being reluctant to return. The main attraction of the West, for quite a few Libyan men, was its nightclubs and discos.

The priority Libya is forced to place on scientific training is having an effect on the political process. The ideology of the Green Book is inevitably being challenged as the overwhelmingly young and better-educated people running the country confront practical problems.


The contradiction between reality and the Green Book’s theory is very obvious in therole of women in Libya.
In the Green Book, Gaddafi argues that social organization should not be based on “man-made” rules but on “natural” cultural base. In Libya, this is expressed in the teachings of Islam.

With this comes an insistence on the traditional division of labour between men and women. Capitalist society, argues Gaddafi, turns women into commodities and forces them to work. This is oppressive. To be free, he concludes, women must play their “natural” role in life.

While women are promised (and by all accounts given) equal rights to education and property, they are expected to treat childrearing as their primary duty, and many older women remain virtual prisoners in the home, venturing out only totally veiled and chaperoned.

High school students at anti-imperialist rally in Mesrata.

But the younger generation has moved rapidly away from the old customs. Despite the official stance on the role of women, the labour shortage is pushing more and more women into the workforce, and with work comes new ideas and greater independence.

Before the revolution, few women had access to education. In 1968, there were only about 96,000 female school students in the whole country. After a year of revolution this figure had quadrupled.

The priority of education over sexual segregation is another example. Generally, high schools are segregated by sex. But in some remote areas, some schools are out of necessity coeducational.

So are the universities, though I noticed that cafeterias appeared to be either formally or informally divided into women’s and men’s areas. At Al Fateh university, the women students spoke confidently and frankly of their career ambitions.

In some ways, the Libyan revolution has resulted in a more rapid modernization of relations between the sexes, without the degradation of women that has accompanied modernization in capitalist Third World countries. For example, women are not being forced into prostitution in droves as they are in the Philippines and Thailand.

Nevertheless, Libya remains a country dominated by men. The people in power are overwhelmingly men, and only a few women seem to have penetrated political circles.

The atmosphere of sexual repression weighs heavily on many young Libyans, and has predictably fostered a double standard (favouring men) with regard to sexual mores.


Among the most politicized people we met in Libya were those heavily involved in the health and education fields. Some appeared to accept a more scientific revolutionary theory than is evident in the Green Book. They were prepared to look at other socialist countries, and to learn from their experiences.

One of the conference organizers, a fulltime surgeon, told Direct Action that the greatest problem facing the Libyan revolution was a shortage of cadre.

“There are just not enough people who have a clear vision of the political process we are going through,” he said.

Ironically, the ideology expressed in the Green Book, while successfully uniting the country in a national liberation struggle, may be inadequate to train the cadres of this revolution.

The Green Book rejects parties and theories of class, and insists that the revolutionary cadre be collected in loose revolutionary committees with no formal leadership.

This leaves the committees under the leadership of informal leaders, not all of whom are necessarily committed to the revolution. It leaves the revolution blind to the potential class conflicts that threaten it.

Gaddafi’s ideas are expressed in absolute rather than scientific terms, and the political forms he suggests are often presented as a final, perfect form, rather than an experimental model.

Participatory democracy

For example, Gaddafi claims to have discovered the perfect model of participatory democracy. And to be fair the system of people’s congresses does allow a degree of control over the government not seen in parliamentary systems.

People’s congresses have sacked ministers and altered Libya’s diplomatic links. Independent observers of congress sessions have noted that the debate is often lovely and heated, and apparently free.

The Green Book insists that this system of participatory democracy means that government no longer exists in Libya, and that the people rule. But this happy assertion can also hide a multitude of problems – for example the problem of bureaucracy that obviously plagues the supposedly nonexistent government.

It also masks an apparent power struggle that is going on within the government between forces that want to shed some of Libya’s revolutionary stances and those who want to continue the revolution.

Most Libyans concede that Gaddafi does not lead the country on a day-to-day basis. His leadership tends to be more of a moral kind. He reputedly has no executive power.

The problems of bureaucracy in Libya are evident both internally and externally. The country’s international isolation is not just the work of Washington.

US imperialism’s task has been made easier by the numerous alliances the Libyan governmenthas made with dubious political groups, governments and factions within other national liberation organizations. Often these links are the work of corrupt and inefficient foreign affairs officials.

Internally, the massive waste of human and material resources attests to the problem of bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy is a problem confronting all socialist societies, and a variety for solutions are being tried in different countries.

It would seem that the survival of and future development of the Libyan revolution couold depend to a great extent on the outcome of the experiments in this area in the socialist countries, and the willingness of Libya’s revolutionaries to learn from them.

In the face of the concerted campaign by the Reagan administration and its allies to destroy the Libyan revolution, this presents a major challenge to the small core of Libyan revolutionaries. END

6 Responses to “What I wrote about a visit to Libya 24 years ago”

  1. Hey Peter, tell us about the source of funds for your trip and the travel agent you went through. Then no one will think you’re hiding anything.

  2. I was there in 86. I left on my 16th birthday with the Nation of Islam Delegation. I do not remember seeing you, but I do remember those images you captured.

  3. Sorry, I meant ’87.

  4. Libya sounds like the ideal place to live if you are not a party animal.What went wrong.Adrian.
    I was a friend of Paul Madigan many years ago.


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