Gaddafi makes the Libyans' lot a relatively happy one

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EIGHTY miles east of Tripoli the ruins of Leptis Magna, the finest remains of Imperial Rome in the Mediterranean, bear witness to the impermanence of man's endeavours. Man and nature conspired to destroy them. Two great earthquakes brought the huge columns of 29 different kinds of marble and stone crashing to the ground. Invasion, wars, and internecine strife obliterated the remainder of the city.

Eighteen hundred years later, a son of nearby Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi, has celebrated his first 25 years as Leader of the Revolution - a revolution which has transformed Libya from a poor, backward desert state into - what, exactly?

Buffeted by Colonel Gaddafi's potty pronouncements on world affairs and his wacky experiments in social engineering, Libyans have learnt to survive and keep their lips buttoned. 'Write the truth,' I was implored by one man I met in an office waiting room. 'Speak to people and hear what Libyans really feel.'

'I'm listening,' I replied. 'Oh no. I can't (speak),' he said. 'It's too dangerous.'

In truth, the story of Colonel Gaddafi's first 25 years is not entirely bad. For most Libyans, the revolution was a great leveller. Before, education was reserved for a few; now all Libyans go to schools. Many have been sent abroad, often to Britain, to further their studies. The majority come back, drawn by the benign climate and the opportunities to prosper.

A well-built network of roads criss-crosses the country; many Libyans have the means to buy cars. All Libyans are eligible for government housing. Thanks to Colonel Gaddafi's indifference to self-enrichment and to his ideological commitment to improving the lot of his people - but chiefly because of the discovery of oil just before he seized power - Libyans are materially wealthier than ever. At one point, revenues from oil hit dollars 23bn ( pounds 15bn) a year. Now they are between dollars 7bn and dollars 9bn, for a population of 3.7 million.

Although not covered by the Lockerbie-inspired trade embargo, oil revenues have been hit by the fall in world prices and the lack of investment in the Libyan industry. The international embargo includes a ban on air travel to and from Libya and a freeze on assets which has disrupted life in Libya. The embargo is more an irritant than a serious pressure on Colonel Gaddafi to mend his ways. To date, he appears to have turned the embargo to his own advantage by playing on his countrymen's obsessive belief in a world conspiracy against Libya.

Fear of the mukhabarat security police usually thwarts discourse. Legions are employed as enforcers and informants. The state sector acts as the employer of first and last resort for the majority of the population.

Recreation for Libyan men is endless hours in coffeee shops, and on Fridays going to the mosque before taking the family to the beach. Most manual and skilled work is done by foreigners: Egyptian farmers, Malian construction workers, Sudanese cooks, Moroccan waiters, British oil engineers, South Korean steel welders.

Colonel Gaddafi - through his people's congresses - has modified some of the more ludicrous attempts to build a Utopian socialist society. In the Eighties he abolished all shops and trading. Goods never managed to get to the state-run shops. Now the souk is thriving, and farmers sell their watermelons and jars of honey by the roadside.

Despite the all-pervasive mukhabarat and the absurdly fawning local press and media, Libyans can easily keep abreast of developments. Many have satellite dishes and receive all the major European TV stations. All can receive fax and phone messages from outside the country. There are few if any restrictions on travel, if Libyans can put up with the overland haul to Tunisia or the ferry to Malta before they get a plane.

Colonel Gaddafi's Leptis Magna that he will bequeath to future generations is the Great Man Made River, the massive dollars 25bn undertaking to tap underground water in the Sahara and carry it to the coastal plain to render it fertile again. Whatever the cost, and however the money could have been spent, by the standards of the follies of absolute rulers it could at least have some benefit.

Some have noticed a disintegration of authority and with it administration of municipal and other services over the past years. Rubbish remains on the streets of the once- clean capital. One explanation is that the popular committees that have assumed responsibility for cleaning the streets are rowing among themselves. But the most common explanation offered this paranoid people is outside forces. The embargo, one hears, is to blame. They cannot get the dustcarts.

(Photograph omitted)