Sunday, April 23, 2006

Libya: Change is in the air but happens slowly on the ground

Libya | Change is in the air but happens slowly on the ground |

Under its still-eccentric leader, could Libya ever loosen up?

THREE years ago, Libya stunned the world. Its famously erratic leader, Muammar Qaddafi, announced a series of dramatic policy reversals. Bullied and beguiled by the British and American intelligence services, he gave up research into chemical and nuclear weapons, paid generous compensation to the relatives of passengers in an American airliner blown up over Lockerbie in 1988, and championed economic reform. Liberalisation was the key to prosperity, he declared in one speech, and stable institutions were vital for Libya's credibility in the world.

Mr Qaddafi has delivered on many of these scores. Not only did he scrap an extensive and secret nuclear-weapons programme, he squealed on its shady suppliers. His intelligence services, long better-known for skulduggery, became useful allies in the global campaign against radical Islamist groups. They lightened their hand at home a little, too, most recently by freeing some 130 of the country's 500 or so political prisoners, most of them Islamists. From 2003 until his removal this week, a respected American-trained economist, Shukri Ghanem strove, as prime minister, to shift policy towards free trade, privatisation and greater openness.

As a result of all this, shoppers in Tripoli, the capital, no longer queue for rations in state-owned stores, but choose what they like from well-stocked private markets. Since the end of UN sanctions, imposed in 1992 over the Lockerbie affair, they can fly abroad on holiday. They can even visit the United States, now that diplomatic ties have been partially restored after a 23-year break.

Americans are swarming the other way. Along with a clutch of congressmen, oilmen have been sniffing around a country whose huge energy resources remain largely unexploited. President Bush has boosted trade prospects by unblocking export credits. The Libyan police have bought Ford cars. European businessmen are coming in too. Italians are selling helicopters. France was poised this week to sign a deal to co-operate over nuclear power for civil purposes.

Yet despite having accumulated a foreign-exchange hoard worth $45 billion on annual oil sales now running at $20 billion, Libya has much the same drab, shambolic air as when diplomatic isolation, trade sanctions and centrally planned socialism prevailed. With 5.7m people, it has just one world-class hotel and only 20 cashpoint machines. No road signs, even in Arabic, show the way to Leptis Magna, a ruined Roman seaport that is but one of many ancient sites whose scale and magnificence point to a past more glorious than the present. “I met a guy who spent 15 years abroad, and he said he recognised the same potholes as when he left,” chuckles a Tripoli taxi driver, snarled in one of the rubbish-strewn capital's daily jams.

Money in, muddle out
State wages, the main income for two-thirds of the workforce, have been frozen since 1981. They average $3,000 a year, in a country with a purported GDP per head (at purchasing-power parity) of $12,000. Subsidies make up part of the shortfall: water is sold for 5% of what it costs to pipe it, petrol at 11 cents a litre, and 40% of Libyans don't bother to pay for their state-supplied electricity at all. But the meagre wages crimp disposable incomes and kill incentives to work harder. “My father never got a raise in 30 years,” claims a café waiter. “Now he's retired, he gets the same pension as his former salary.”

Huddles of Egyptian and black African labourers lurk at roadsides, hoping for clients who pay $10 a day. Yet while some 2m foreigners toil here, a fifth of the native workforce is jobless. Underemployment is an even bigger problem. A top official has reckoned that the state would function better if it shed two-thirds of its payroll.

This lack of activity hampers even the crucial energy sector. Oil production is now 1.7m barrels a day, little more than half the peak reached a year after Mr Qaddafi seized power, in 1969. The plan is to crank this up to 3m within ten years. Perfectly possible, say oil experts, except that not enough is being invested to maintain old fields, and decisions on the new ones are being taken too slowly.

Recent bidding rounds have attracted lucrative offers from scores of foreign firms, not surprising since Libyan oil tends to be high-grade and cheap to produce, and only a quarter of the country has been explored. But some firms are still haggling over details of contracts signed five years ago. In spite of huge gas reserves, Libya's power plants mostly run on diesel fuel.

In fact, it is hard to identify any institution that works well, aside from the ubiquitous security services, which have handily blocked at least a dozen coup attempts. The peculiar structure of the state lends itself to bumbling. Officials declare that their form of government is unique, reflecting the theory of direct but non-representative democracy expressed in Mr Qaddafi's 120-page “Green Book”. Every citizen is expected to join in taking decisions via “popular committees” at local, regional and national level, with powers over such things as business and building permits. But these compete with a raft of other bodies, such as “revolutionary committees” and multiple shadowy security agencies.

An annual general congress of people's committees is meant to exercise oversight. Among other things, it hires and fires both the prime minister and his cabinet, as Mr Ghanem has just found to his cost. But this proto-parliament meets for only a week a year, issuing abrupt decrees that reflect its underlying role as a sort of trade union representing entrenched bureaucratic interests. Favouritism towards Mr Qaddafi's own family, clan and tribe also complicates things. Given that laws and policies must negotiate this thicket, it is no surprise that so few get made, let alone carried out.

There are darker stories, too, of rampant corruption and other abuses. A well-known case is that of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death on the monstrous charge of deliberately injecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus. They have now been reprieved, and appear likely to be freed under a complicated face-saving deal. Hundreds of Libyan dissidents have got less foreign attention, and remain in prison or exile. Last month, police in Benghazi killed a dozen protesters whose march against cartoons mocking the Prophet (an issue deliberately stoked by inflammatory coverage in the state press) turned into a riot targeting government property. Draconian laws still bar Libyans from speaking openly with foreigners, criticising the leader or setting up political parties. All foreign publications are effectively banned. But the isolation that lasted for two decades has begun to crack. Satellite dishes and the internet open windows on the world. Mr Qaddafi's second-eldest son, Seif-ul-Islam, provides a further impetus for change. Among other liberalising moves, he has hired a team of international consultants, led by Michael Porter, an economist from America's Harvard University, to detect symptoms and suggest cures. The group's hard-hitting preliminary report, out last month, got an encouragingly warm welcome.

Yet reform remains an uphill battle. It struck a new obstacle this week, when the just-concluded people's congress not only replaced Mr Ghanem with his more timid deputy but also elevated a team of grey apparatchiks to other ministries. Mr Ghanem may be happier, however, in his new post as energy boss. Even Mr Qaddafi, with all his dangerous capriciousness, must know it is only because of oil that Libya has been able to afford decades of damaging social experimentation.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A mother's voice

"the so-called free world is afraid of the Muslim womb."

No, these words were not spoken by a Muslim. Nurit Peled-Elhanan is an Israeli woman whose child was killed at the age of 13 by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem (September 1997). She spoke these words to the European Parliament on International Women's Day in Strasbourg on March 18, 2006--International Women's Day.

She speaks as a mother to the world and to mothers world-wide...and she speaks like only a mother could. Taking the opportunity to speak on her own grievances, she instead drew attention to the plight of those who were not invited--Muslim women.

by Nurit Peled-Elhanan; March 27, 2005

Thank you for inviting me to this day.

It is always an honour and a pleasure to be here, among you.

However, I must admit I believe you should have invited a Palestinian woman at my stead, because the women who suffer most from violence in my county are the Palestinian women.

And I would like to dedicate my speech to Miriam R'aban and her husband Kamal, from Bet Lahiya in the Gaza strip, whose five small children were killed by Israeli soldiers while picking strawberries at the family's strawberry field.

No one will ever stand trial for this murder.

When I asked the people who invited me here why wouldn’t they invite a Palestinian woman the answer was that it would make the discussion too localized.

I don’t know what is non-localized violence. Racism and discrimination may be theoretical concepts and universal phenomena but their impact is always local, and real. Pain is local, humiliation, sexual abuse, torture and death, are all very local, and so are the scars.

It is true unfortunately, that the local violence inflicted on Palestinian women by the government of Israel and the Israeli army, has expanded around the globe. In fact state violence and army violence, individual and collective violence, are the lot of Muslim women today, not only in Palestine but wherever the enlightened western world is setting its big imperialistic foot.

It is violence which is hardly ever addressed and which is halfheartedly condoned by most people in Europe and in the USA.

This is because the so-called free world is afraid of the Muslim womb.

Great France of la liberte l'egalite et la fraternite is scared of little girls with head scarfs, Great Jewish Israel is afraid of the Muslim womb which its ministers call a demographic threat. Almighty America and Great Britain are infecting their respective citizens with blind fear of the Muslims, who are depicted as vile, primitive and blood-thirsty, apart from their being non-democratic, chauvinistic and mass producers of future terrorists. This in spite of the fact that the people who are destroying the world today are not muslim. One of themis a devout Christian, one is Anglican and one is a non devout Jew.

I have never experienced the suffering Palestinian women undergo every day, every hour. I don’t know the kind of violence that turn a woman's life into constant hell. This daily physical and mental torture of women who are deprived of their basic human rights and needs of privacy and dignity, women whose homes are broken in at any moment of day and night, who are ordered at a gun-point to strip naked in front of strangers and their own children, whose houses are demolished , who are deprived of their livelihood and of any normal family life. This is not part of my personal ordeal. But I am a victim of violence against women insofar as violence against children is actually violence against mothers. Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan women are my sisters because we are all at the grip of the same unscrupulous criminals who call themselves leaders of the free enlightened world and in the name of this freedom and enlightment rob us of our children. Furthermore, Israeli, American, Italian and British mothers have been for the most part violently blinded and brainwashed to such a degree that they cannot realize their only sisters, their only allies in the world are the muslim

Palestinian, Iraqi or Afghani mothers, whose children are killed by our children or who blow themselves to pieces with our sons and daughters. They are all mind-infected by the same viruses engendered by politicians. And the viruses , though they may have various illustrious names such as Democracy. Patriotism. God. Homeland, are all the same. They are all part of false and fake ideologies that are meant to enrich the rich and to empower the powerful.

We are all the victims of mental, psychological and cultural violence that turn us to one homogenic group of bereaved or potentially bereaved mothers. Western mothers who are taught to believe their uterus is a national asset just like they are taught to believe that the Muslim uterus is an international threat. They are educated not to cry out: "I gave him birth, I breast fed him, he is mine, and I will not let him be the one whose life is cheaper than oil, whose future is less worthy than a piece of land."

All of us are terrorized by mind-infecting education to believe all we can do is either pray for our sons to come back home or be proud of their dead bodies.

And all of us were brought up to bear all this silently, to contain our fear and frustration, to take prozac for anxiety, but never hail Mama Courage in public. Never be real Jewish or Italian or Irish mothers.

I am a victim of state violence. My natural and civil rights as a mother have been violated and are violated because I have to fear the day my son would reach his 18th birthday and be taken away from me to be the game tool of criminals such as Sharon, Bush, Blair and their clan of blood-thirsty, oil-thirsty, land thirsty generals.

Living in the world I live in, in the state I live in, in the regime I live in, I don’t dare to offer Muslim women any ideas how to change their lives. I don’t want them to take off their scarves, or educate their children differently, and I will not urge them to constitute Democracies in the image of Western democracies that despise them and their kind. I just want to ask them humbly to be my sisters, to express my admiration for their perseverance and for their courage to carry on, to have children and to maintain a dignified family life in spite of the impossible conditions my world is putting them in. I want to tell them we are all bonded by the same pain, we all the victims of the same sort of violence even though they suffer much more, for they are the ones who are mistreated by my government and its army, sponsored by my taxes.

Islam in itself, like Judaism in itself and Christianity in itself, is not a threat to me or to anyone. American imperialism is, European indifference and co-operation is and Israeli racist and cruel regime of occupation is. It is racism, educational propaganda and inculcated xenophobia that convince Israeli soldiers to order Palestinian women at gun-point to strip in front of their children for security reasons, it is the deepest disrespect for the other that allow American soldiers to rape Iraqi women, that give license to Israeli jailers to keep young women in inhuman conditions, without necessary hygienic aids, without electricity in the winter, without clean water or clean mattresses and to separate them from their breast-fed babies and toddlers. To bar their way to hospitals, to block their way to education, to confiscate their lands, to uproot their trees and prevent them from cultivating their fields.

I cannot completely understand Palestinian women or their suffering. I don’t know how I would have survived such humiliation, such disrespect from the whole world. All I know is that the voice of mothers has been suffocated for too long in this war-stricken planet.

Mothers' cry is not heard because mothers are not invited to international forums such as this one. This I know and it is very little. But it is enough for me to remember these women are my sisters, and that they deserve that I should cry for them, and fight for them. And when they lose their children in strawberry fields or in on filthy roads by the checkpoints , when their children are shot on their way to school by Israeli children who were educated to believe that love and compassion are race and religion dependent, the only thing I can do is stand by them and their betrayed babies, and ask what Anna Akhmatova, another mother who lived in a regime of violence against women and children, had asked:

Why does that streak of blood, rip the petal of you cheek?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mood down, weight up? Blame rain

"More rain? We can't take any more rain."

Just a glimpse into what's been effecting my life lately:

This is what the last month has been like: rain in the morning, rain at lunch, rain at night, rain in the middle of the night, and in the early morning--you guessed it--more freakin' rain.

Colds are going around the third time, some people have more of a flu, and people are generally grumpy lately. It's been raining everyday for the last 31 days in the Bay Area, from the beginning to the end of March and starting out April with even heavier drops.

Thank goodness this article gives us an actual excuse to be SAD!

Today the sun came out from behind the clouds and I wasn't quite sure how to respond. I'm sure I got no tan, but I think I managed to get a little Vitamin D!

The local weather report is turning into a Russian novel -- endless, dark and depressing. When a recent headline in our paper read, "Two More Weeks of Rain,'' the mood of the entire Bay Area sagged.

More rain? We can't take any more rain.

This isn't rain -- the sky has sprung a slow leak. We saw at least 22 lousy days in March -- some places saw 25 -- and April's been just as lousy.

Not only has all that rain canceled sporting events, ruined outdoor wedding plans and generally made it impossible to enjoy doing anything at all outdoors, it's turned nearly everyone cranky and irritable. I called Steve Schroeder, general manager of Harding Park Golf Course to see whether the regulars were getting grumpy.

"We don't have any grumpy golfers,'' Schroeder said.

Just as I suspected. True golfers will tee off in monsoons that would have ducks wearing life vests. I was about to tell Schroeder that it would take more than a little rain to stop dedicated hackers, when he continued, "We don't have any golfers at all.''

"I was born and bred on the Peninsula," he said Monday. "I've been in the area since 1960, and I have never seen anything like this. When I got here this morning, I was almost in shock. There are always a few cars in the parking lot, but today it was just employees. I thought, 'You know what? We ought to be closed today.' ''

Because, well, what's the point? We could probably go do something, slog through a few holes of golf or break out the tire chains and drive up into the mountains, but that would take so much effort. Maybe we'll just sit here, look out the window and sigh for a while.

"Oh my God,'' Oakland's Andy Hess said in an e-mail. "The weather is making me crazy and depressed and I want to drink too much. I'm not feeling cozy at all in my fleeces and blankets and dog. I'm just cold.''

We hear you, Andy. And not just here in the Bay Area. Spring has been put on hold across the country, from floods in the Midwest to tornadoes in Tennessee. Things aren't that bad around here, but it has been no day at the beach -- unless you want to wear your rain slicker while looking for seashells.

The locals are well aware of the long, wet run. Evie Groch of El Cerrito insists she's "becoming scaly and my fingers and toes are starting to web. I notice friends of mine are going stir-crazy as well.''

Well no wonder. This steady drip, drip, drip could give a Zen master cabin fever. And here's the real news: You know that little dip in your mood? It isn't just your imagination. The rain really is getting you down.

Dr. Michael Terman, director of the Winter Depression Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, says there are psychological reasons for why sustained bad weather makes some people blue. He's been studying the phenomenon for 25 years and is a top expert in his field.

"To one degree or another,'' he says, "half of the population is affected by seasonal change.''

Three percent of the population will actually develop a major depressive disorder, Terman says. It's called "seasonal affective disorder," or SAD -- and boy isn't that an appropriate acronym. Although medical researchers scoffed at SAD at first, it has become a legitimate diagnosis in psychiatric circles.

Another 12 percent of the population will fight the winter doldrums, a general malaise that makes it hard to get anything done, encourages overeating and leaves people listless.

And then there is what Terman calls "the largest faction,'' the 35 percent of us who may gain five pounds during the winter and need an extra jolt of coffee to get our work done.

The culprit, Terman says, is a lack of sunlight. Our bodies are set up to calibrate our inner clock with a dose of morning sunshine.

"The brain needs this signal to be well,'' says Terman.

To keep SAD from making you sad, Terman recommends an early morning walk. Another option is light-source therapy, in which a patient is exposed to fluorescent light meant to simulate what you'd find during "a walk on the beach 40 minutes after sunrise,'' he said.

You say you aren't worried about rain on the brain? OK, how about your finances?

Two finance professors, David Hirshleifer of Ohio State and Tyler Shumway at the University of Michigan, studied 26 stock exchanges around the world in 2001. Studies have shown that suicide rates go down and tips for waiters go up on sunny days, so they wondered what effect sunshine had on stocks, Hirshleifer says.

"Our evidence suggests that when it is sunnier, the stock market will go up,'' Hirshleifer says. "In fact, on sunny days, the mean return is 25 percent. On overcast days, it is 9 percent.''

So, do we have to draw you a picture? We need some sun. But what are the chances?

"Well the 10-day outlook is very, very wet,'' says KTVU weatherman Steve Paulson. "But you know, things can turn in a day, and it can suddenly be bright and sunny.''

And what are the chances of that?

"We have nothing that shows that,'' Paulson says. "Zero.''

C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesday and Saturday in the Bay Area section. His blog, C.W., runs daily on E-mail him at