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The New York Times

Tuesday, 4 January, 2005

Looking Upon Qaddafi's Works, Half-Sunk in the Sands


The New York Times

Published: January 4, 2005

TRIPOLI, Libya - Tucked away in a whitewashed, Italian-colonial building set in a quiet compound on the edge of Tripoli, the largely forgotten World Center for Green Book Studies is looking for a little respect.

The center was established more than two decades ago to propagate the ideas of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, which are contained in a slim volume bound in green, the color of Islam and of Colonel Qaddafi's 35-year-old revolution. The center has turned out more than 140 serious studies on the book's 21,000 words.

But few people outside the country - and a dwindling number in Libya itself - take the book seriously anymore, so, like many other things here, the center is trying to change.

"Some of the center's ruling board, during its first years, maybe by enthusiasm, didn't understand enough what they had to do," said Miloud Mehadbi, the center's director of foreign affairs, picking his words like steps through a minefield. "Now, the center is a real scientific research institution."

The book, still heralded on billboards here like the latest best seller, lays out Colonel Qaddafi's "Third Universal Theory," covering governance, economics and society. It is padded with observations that vary from the obvious - "The man does not get pregnant," states one passage on the differences between the sexes - to the bigoted, as when he claims that the world's blacks have more children than other races because they "are sluggish in a climate which is always hot."

It also tends toward the incoherent or, perhaps, the counterintuitive: "Political struggle that results in the victory of a candidate with 51 percent of the votes leads to a dictatorial governing body disguised as a false democracy, since 49 percent of the electorate is ruled by an instrument of governing they did not vote for, but had imposed upon them. This is dictatorship."

The semiofficial Web site claims the book has been actively repressed in the West because political leaders there "know that were the Green Book to become general knowledge amongst Western peoples, then they might one day find themselves out of a job."

At its peak in the late 1980's, the World Center for Green Book Studies had a multimillion-dollar budget with branches around the world. The book was translated into more than 30 languages, including Serbian and Swahili, and Colonel Qaddafi's theories were debated at international conferences, paid for by Libya.

Government officials tried desperately to carry out the book's tenets, twisting Libyan society to fit Colonel Qaddafi's utopian, quasi-socialist vision. For years, team sports were banned in favor of "mass games," like communal tugs of war, because of the book's declaration that "sport is a public activity that must be practiced rather than watched."

Mr. Mehadbi is not about to defend the excesses. "We have had mistakes in the application of the Green Book due to the misunderstandings of some people," he said.

With international sanctions pinching Libya's budget and the Soviet Union's former satellite states no longer interested in seminars on Qaddafian thought, the Libyan government stopped underwriting the center five years ago.

Mr. Mehadbi said he had been summoned home from his job as Libya's legal adviser to the Arab League in Cairo to help update the center and "to give a new impression to the outside world that the Green Book is not just a Libyan experience, it is something that comes from the whole of human history."

"Outside Libya," he noted, "the institute was understood as an instrument for propaganda."

In a stringent belt-tightening campaign, about 70 people, or two-thirds of the staff, were dismissed. The center now survives on the income it receives from a string of investments, including a small hotel, a printing company, two bookstores and various publications.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mehadbi and a group of other scholars began the tedious work of reviewing the past 20 years of Green Book studies. When experts finish their evaluation of one of the studies, they present it to the institute's "scientific committee," whose five members decide whether to reissue the work, revise it or discard it altogether.

More than 30 works have been analyzed so far. Some are hopelessly stilted or out of date, "written in the spirit of propaganda," Mr. Mehadbi said, or focused, for example, on cold war geopolitics. Still, he estimated that about two-thirds of the 140 studies would be reissued.

But Mr. Mehadbi, a formal man in a tight collar and narrow tie, bristled at suggestions that the Green Book itself is an irrelevant novelty.

"The Western mass media and even some politicians consider Arab states simply as oil-exporting countries that import everything," Mr. Mehadbi said archly. "They cannot accept that Libya could export ideas."

He says master's and doctoral students at Libyan universities still write dissertations on various aspects of the Green Book - the role of women in society, for example, or the impact of what the book describes as "direct democracy," a system of governance ostensibly practiced in Libya.

But the center is a lonely place these days, with its library of green-bound books gathering dust and few visitors to pore over the publications laid out with portraits of Colonel Qaddafi in the exhibition hall. Even the colonel seems to have lost interest in the center.

"He came often at the beginning," Mr. Mehadbi said, " but he doesn't come anymore."

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