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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.