Libya: Young Men in a Hurry

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Until the overthrow of King Idris last September, Libya was an oasis of Western opportunity between Egypt and Algeria. But in the four months since a group of young army officers seized power, much of that has changed. Last week U.S. Ambassador Joseph Palmer acceded to the wishes of Strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who demanded that the U.S. withdraw entirely from Wheelus airbase outside the city. The base was used for bombing and gunnery training for NATO-assigned U.S. fighter squadrons. In similar sessions, the British also agreed to give up smaller bases at Tobruk and El Adem.

The U.S. had no option except to give up a base whose lease would have expired in 1971 anyway. "The sky over Arab Libya," charged Colonel Gaddafi, "is being polluted by foreign planes." Whipping up popular sentiment against the American and British military presence, Gaddafi asserted that Libyans were being "terrified" by colonialist soldiers. Unless Britain and the U.S. agreed to give up their bases, he threatened to take them by force.

Changing the System. Gaddafi and the members of his nine-man Revolutionary Command Council were virtually unknown in Libya before the September coup. Gaddafi, for example, was a poor boy who grew up in a tent. Now, while Arab boys hawk his pictures in Tripoli's Ninth of August Square (named for Libya's Army Day), Gaddafi leads a campaign to wipe out the graft and privilege that depressed the country during the monarchy. About 600 ranking officers, politicians, civil servants and wealthy businessmen have been jailed. The 25,000 Italians, 7,000 Americans and 5,000 Britons, who previously enjoyed special status in a backward Arab society, are uncertain about their future in Libya.

Libya's new rulers are stressing their allegiance to the stern precepts of Islam. One of the junta's first decrees was to outlaw beer and whisky. In Tripoli TIME Correspondent Gavin Scott discovered that "up" and "down" elevator buttons had been covered by tape to obscure the offending English words. All foreign-language street signs were removed. Because the menus must be printed only in Arabic, waiters in hotels must translate aloud the list of dishes to non-Arabic-speaking diners. To their great embarrassment, hotel guests are confusing the Arabic equivalents of "ladies" and "gents."

Reason to Get Along. The Libyan junta plays up its dedication to the Arab cause. It warmly received Al-Fatah Leader Yasser Arafat and presented him with $240,000 for the guerrillas. But the U.S. and Britain are trying to get along with the new rulers, and the main reason is Libyan oil. Since the '67 closure of Suez, Libyan exports have doubled because high-grade Libyan oil lies closer to Europe without the canal than most Arabian oil. Thirty-eight companies, mostly American and British, presently pump about 3.7 million barrels a day. Libya now ranks as the third largest oil exporter (after Venezuela and Iran). Since the government receives $1 on each barrel, oil accounts for 80% of Libya's national income.

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