Three decades after Moammar Gadhafi toppled the Libyan monarchy and installed a government deeply mistrustful of outside mores, journalists are being allowed to roam freely around the cities and countryside, tourists are trickling to the Roman ruins and international investors are being asked to return.
The rhetoric of revolution is still rife: Gadhafi's urge to proffer himself as author of a new, anti-colonialist world order is proving more durable than colonialism itself. But behind the sloganeering has come a shift of Libyan policy away from championing liberation armies and toward taming the country's outlaw image.
Gadhafi addressed a conference of foreign investors here recently. While he used the platform to blame foreign speculators for many of the world's ills, the very fact that the conference was held marked a significant change in a country that nationalized its oil industry, closed American bases and, for a spell, even banned the teaching of English.
"We are not pirates or rebels or terrorists," he told the audience.
Although apparently eager to rebuild an aging oil infrastructure, diversify an economy dependent on petroleum and perhaps even join a Euro-Mediterranean trade bloc, Gadhafi has not subdued his bark: His world view still revolves around the colonized vs. the colonizers. But his bite, at least outside Libya's tightly controlled political system, has softened considerably, and the influence of people around him who want to end Libya's isolation is apparently on the increase.
"Gadhafi will remain an unhappy person, but I don't think Libya will go back to its ways," said one Western diplomat here, noting that many of the causes Gadhafi helped underwrite have been resolved, leaving him with a stagnant economy and few ideological battles to fight. "What is there? Zimbabwe is free. Namibia is free. South Africa is free."
Libyans tried last week to put what they call their new intentions on display for the world, hosting a summit meeting of African heads of state at Gadhafi's instigation. Organized ostensibly to discuss his idea for a United States of Africa, a political and economic grouping the Libyan leader says is needed for the continent to catch up with North America and the European Union, it was also a step toward international normality after a decade of isolation.
Under a U.N. travel embargo for its refusal to relinquish two suspects in the 1988 bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, Libya this year not only turned over those suspects but also reached agreement with France on compensation for victims of another airplane attack. In addition, it indicated a willingness to cooperate with Britain in its investigation of the 1984 shooting of a police officer by someone inside the Libyan Embassy in London.
That newly pragmatic stance effectively ended the travel ban and gave Libya a chance to begin selling itself to the world again--an opportunity it seized with a month-long cleanup of its major city and a lavish display for the African leaders.
Dozens of Mercedes-Benzes whisked officials around town last week, and Libya even dispatched planes across the continent to help shuttle heads of state, their delegations and contingents in a pan-African military parade into Tripoli for a celebration of Gadhafi's 30 years in power. They then headed to the village of Sirte where they convened in the country's swanky new conference center. Hundreds of journalists from around the world were given visas to cover the event, many flown here and housed at the government's expense.
While Libyan volunteers encouraged them to follow the official program, there were surprisingly few formal restrictions. Writers and photographers traveled freely in Tripoli and beyond, largely without interference from security officials.
The sense of relief at the end of the air embargo is palpable here after years during which a trip out of the country meant a grueling car ride to Egypt or Tunisia, or hours on a ferry to Malta. Airport workers, pilots and others said they are happy to stop wondering when their careers might resume. There is already a healthy schedule of flights from Tripoli to places such as Malta, Amman, Rome and London.
"It has been a frustrating time," said Mohammed Ali, a pilot for the Libyan airline who spent the 1990s working as a flight instructor and now hopes to fly an international route.
Business negotiations also are accelerating. Talks are underway for a $4 billion engineering contract that will link two large Libyan gas fields to Europe through a Mediterranean pipeline. And diplomats say that regardless of the high-profile attention Gadhafi is giving Africa, the more aggressive work behind the scenes is toward Libya joining discussions on a possible Euro-Mediterranean trade group--a highly sensitive political issue because it would entail Libya recognizing Israel.
In addition, recent Libyan-American contacts have raised expectations that the two countries will resume some form of diplomatic connection after years of enmity that included sparring over Libya's role in international terrorism, suspicions about "Libyan hit squads" dispatched to the United States and a U.S. bombing raid that targeted the Libyan leader's headquarters in 1986.
An initial contingent of representatives from U.S. oil companies is expected to visit the country soon to begin surveying assets left behind when diplomatic relations were frozen in the mid-1980s--a development one analyst said the Libyans "desperately" hope will lead to U.S. reengagement and deals for the technology needed to modernize its oil industry.
"We are ready for dialogue with the United States," said former foreign minister Ali Treiki. "There have been some talks, and at any level . . . we are ready."
CAPTION: From left, Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali, Congo President Laurent Kabila, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Zambian President Frederick Chiluba convened in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, to attend the Organization of African Unity summit meeting hosted by Moammar Gadhafi.
CAPTION: Libya's Moammar Gadhafi presided over last week's summit, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of his coup, but his governing style has changed dramatically since his revolutionary days.
CAPTION: For Libyans, like this woman drinking a locally made soft drink, the softening of policies could lead to greater economic opportunities at home.