Proud Libyans seek no mercy from the West

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The Independent Online
"LOCK-ERR-BIE" they say here, with an "r" to out-roll any Scot. Among stallkeepers in Rashid Street market, the word is synonymous with isolation and frustration, but not hardship.

"The Americans dislike us because we are the best businessmen in the world. The Tunisians and Egyptians, who are all Ali Babas [thieves], do not like us for the same reason. It will be so nice to travel from our own airport again," said Nader, 24 , selling shirts from the Far East marked "Nike Authentic Replica".

America is bad, said Nader, because it is stupid. England is good, he said, because Gehad al-Mantasar was on the books at Arsenal.

"Seriously, England is OK. It is not their fault that the [Pan Am] plane blew up over Scotland. The Scottish judges will be fair to our boys," said Nader, who gets his information from Al-Arab, published daily in London. "The newspaper arrives a day late but that will change next week," he said.

The relief is palpable in the Libyan capital, just a few days after the two suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were flown to the Netherlands for trial.

Under the deal, which took years of negotiations, the United Nations air embargo, in force since 1992, has been suspended. Egyptair and Tunisair have flown here already. Libyan Arab Airlines is already shopping for spares for its aircraft, as well as a fleet of Airbuses.

"Those boys are heroes as far as I am concerned," said Mohamed, 26, selling sunglasses. "The case against them is weak but they have sacrificed themselves so that Libya can be a normal country in the world again."

Ramadana, 51, selling loaves from a basket the size of a bath, disagreed. "Libya did fine for seven years. We are not in need. Our children are well educated, there is health care for all and many people have cars. Lockerbie did not change anything," she said.

Looking around her in the city centre it is easy to agree. The white blocks of flats with bright blue or green shutters and doors are run down, but only in a Mediterranean kind of way. In Tripoli, Muslims who want to pray can easily find East thanks to thousands of television dishes facing the Indian Ocean satellite.

The cars are new and numerous. In the market, the Tommy Hilfiger brand of clothes and George Michael recordings mingle with traditional robes and Egyptian pop.

Fresh fruit, vegetables and spices bring explosive colours to archways lining picturesque, narrow streets. Tripoli looks like a holiday destination; in fact it is just a matter of time before Libya - with its unparalleled Greek, Roman and Phoenician ruins - becomes a top tourist destination.

In the region, this oil producer with business savvy is already a land of opportunity, said Fatima, 50, from Morocco. She was selling bread next to Ramadana but had worked as a housekeeper in Spain and in Saudi Arabia.

"My knees are bad now so this is all I can do. But living is cheap and comfortable here. It is a good country for well- behaved people," said Fatima, one of an estimated 1 million immigrants who make up a fifth of the population.

Her comment was a first hint of the harsh realities that are said to govern life in the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah, the alcohol- free republic that will be 30 years old in September.

Billboards of an amiable and relaxed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi - bearing turban, in open-necked shirt and sunglasses - are everywhere in Tripoli. They are a reminder that, were it not for this 54-year-old revolutionary, Libya might be little more than what it looks on the map: a sandy beach three times the size of France.

But Amnesty International condemns disappearances, imprisonment without trial, executions and threats of hand amputation for thieves. The United States still considers Libya a terrorist country and the United Nations has not yet formally lifted its air embargo.

On Rashid Street, the Guide, as Colonel Gaddafi is known, gets approval from most. "He brought us water and he made us confident through the Lockerbie period when America chose us as its enemy. The way we are living is nothing to be ashamed of. Just imagine how much better we are going to become," said Nader.