Frontline: TRIPOLI - The Col Gaddafi guide to women and wrestling

IT WAS the moment we had all been waiting for. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, resplendent in pink, stepped on to the podium of Tripoli's Hall of the People, a crutch in one hand and the hand of the Chadian President, Idriss Deby, in the other.

Journalists had been flown from Cairo at Libya's expense for an "historic" celebration of Libya's friendship with its southern neighbour, although, in true Libyan style, we only found out the reason for our visit when we arrived. Officials with us seemed as much in the dark as we were.

Despite the crutch - the result, officials say, of a hip injury sustained while doing his daily exercises last year - the colonel looked well. It was not our first sighting of him. Portraits adorn the streets: Gaddafi gazing out from in front of a picture of a Libyan plane, now allowed to fly again after the suspension of sanctions; Gaddafi in a hard hat outside an oil depot; Gaddafi in green sunglasses in front of a map of Africa, to which he has switched allegiance after years of championing Arab nationalism. Libyan television shows the country bright green, surrounded by a gold halo on a vast black map of Africa.

Perhaps it deserves the halo. After what a diplomat called Libya's former "mischief-making" in Africa, it has become a peacemaker, sponsoring several mediation efforts to solve the continent's conflicts.

It is also co-operating with the West. UN sanctions were suspended in April after Libya handed over the two men suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing. Even the United States, which continues to maintain its own embargo against Tripoli, grudgingly concedes the change. "Libya has taken a number of important steps to reduce its support for terrorist groups and activities" an official said recently.

But as Libya revamps its foreign policy and opens up to foreign business, there is little indication of political change at home. The "Republic of the Masses" retains tight control over the masses. "People's committees" fill the place of political parties or professional associations.

"There is no scope for opposition activities in Libya at all," says a researcher for Amnesty International in London. "Opposition is actually illegal and there are very strict penalties for trying to set up a political party or a non- governmental organisation." Minders still accompany foreign journalists and the media is all government controlled.

Hardly surprising then that Libyans do not venture their political views openly. "It is still a very secretive society," says a diplomat. Libya's eccentric leader remains the subject of a "certain amount of hero-worship", the diplomat says. But he also has his critics. "There's a lot of suppressed opposition here," says a businessman who travels regularly to Libya. "But you would have to be either very brave or foolhardy to do anything."

An Islamic insurgency in the mountains in the east of the country in 1996 was forcefully crushed, although diplomats say there are still stories of arms caches being discovered, and undercurrents of dissent. Amnesty believes Libyan prisons hold hundreds of political prisoners, most of them moderate Islamists.

But the fact that most Libyans enjoy a relatively good standard of living probably helps to lessen opposition. Medical care and education are free and there are subsidies on basic foodstuffs. Seven years of sanctions took more of a psychological than an economic toll. The Yves Saint Laurent counter of the local perfume store remained stocked, as goods were shipped in by sea. Now they can again be flown in with foreign visitors.

This month the Mahari Hotel in central Tripoli became a symbol of the new Libya and the old. It hosted, at the same time, the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, on the first visit to Libya by a Western head of government since 1992, and an "international colloquium" on Colonel Gaddafi's Green Book.

Written in the 1970s, it expounds the colonel's views on a wide range of subjects, from parliaments ("Representation is falsification"), to the press ("Democracy means popular rule, not popular expression"), sport ("Boxing and wrestling are evidence that Mankind has not rid itself of all savage behaviour"), and women ("Men's work obscures woman's beautiful features, which are created for female roles").

Two hundred researchers and academics had been invited to discuss the relevance of the Libyan leader's views to "the international social crisis on the eve of the 21st century". The event was televised, although, judging by the number of satellite dishes sprouting from Tripoli roof-tops, many Libyans may well have been tuned in to something else.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions