End of Libya's purdah to test Gaddafi's grip

WEARING open-necked shirts, his head thrown back in laughter, Muammar Gaddafi towers above the people of Libya, on hand-painted billboards across Tripoli. The message to the capital's consumers seems to be that, in the sanctions war, the Leader had the last laugh.

Yet, a week after United Nations sanctions against Libya were suspended in return for the handover of two men suspected of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Colonel Gaddafi is facing the toughest challenge of his 30 years in power.

When air and arms sanctions against the north African country, in force since 1992, are finally fully lifted - probably within three months - Libya will reveal itself to the world as a modern Muslim country.

Alcohol is banned but women drive cars and walk arm-in-arm with their boyfriends. Mobile phones are heard ringing as often as muezzin calls to prayer. In cities, everyone has electricity and water. Health care and schools are free.

This thriftily managed oil-producing country did not suffer materially from the imposition of UN sanctions after the 1988 Lockerbie disaster in which 270 people died - land links were never cut. But the five million people of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah were psychologically cut off from the world, leaving their leader to rule by personality cult, intimidation, executions and fear.

Whatever did go wrong could be blamed on the Americans. Yesterday, at Tripoli Hospital a young casualty ward doctor bemoaned the lack of equipment and medicines. In a spacious white room with four patients on trolleys, he said: "The hospital, which is one of the biggest in Africa, is only four years old. It is very modern and we have staff from all over the world. But we are short of equipment and drugs, because of the embargo."

Most Libyans who meet foreigners are friendly but shy, and nervous of speaking. "The Leader is good as long as you are a well-behaved person," a woman in the market said. "We accept the situation because prices are cheap and education is free," a teacher said, "but there is a lot of treachery; you cannot trust your neighbour."

Seven years ago, when sanctions were imposed on the former Italian colony, the world was emerging from the Cold War. For years, Colonel Gaddafi had played the United States and the Soviet Union off against each other. Now aged 57 and seen by the Western world as the leader of a terrorist state, he can no longer do that; neither can he blame sanctions for everything.

Since 1973 when he first published his Green Book - explaining how to attain pure, Muslim socialism- Colonel Gaddafi has changed some of his views. Libya is a consumer society and he looks to Africa, not pan-Arabism, for solidarity.

But despite ruling by "people's congresses", he represses dissent, calls for thieves' hands to be cut off and executes treasonous military.