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Libya: Mobile Phones, Gucci Bags ... and Subsidized Macaroni

June 8, 1996

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) _ Her blue maid’s uniform torn at the sleeve, Jamila Abdel-Hafiz pushes a cart full of cleaners along the hall of the five-star hotel and talks about her jealousy toward some Libyan women she sees.

``I wish I could be like other girls,″ she says. ``They are every day at the hairdressers and have many dresses.″

She recalls admiring a simple Italian dress that cost 240 dinars, or about $80. Buying it was out of the question, she says, her voice rising in frustration. Her monthly salary at the al-Mahari Hotel is just 114 dinars.

The 21-year-old woman is not alone. Many Libyans feel pangs of envy when they watch the ``biznassa″ _ owners of private businesses _ toting $1,000 mobile phones and $300 designer leather bags.

Resentment at showy wealth is new in Libya’s traditional society, where family pride once counted more than money _ and where Col. Moammar Gadhafi promised all would be equal under his regime’s brand of socialism.

But Gadhafi’s plans did not work out. The income gap is growing between average Libyans and those who have turned the system to their advantage by opening supermarkets, travel agencies and the restaurants that are starting to crop up in Tripoli.

``People are sad because they look at the goods they cannot afford,″ said Abdel-Hafiz, the hotel maid.

Part of Libya’s problem is the drop in world prices for its oil. In 1978, when Gadhafi shut all private businesses as ``nonproductive parasites,″ oil was selling at near record highs.

Private businesses were replaced with ``people’s souks,″ state-owned supermarkets _ some the size of soccer fields _ that sold everything from imported shampoos to washing machines to cars at subsidized prices.

All Libyans would be ``partners, not wage-earners,″ Gadhafi declared in ``The Green Book,″ which outlined his social and political philosophy.

But after oil prices plunged in the early 1980s, Gadhafi could not afford to keep the people’s souks stocked. By the early ’90s, he was forced to let merchants import goods on their own to alleviate shortages.

Merchants also prospered trading dollars in the illegal black market, while officialdom looked the other way because dollars were needed to pay for imported goods.

Today, the remnants of Gadhafi’s socialism and private business exist side by side, increasing the feelings of jealousy.

In government stores, Libyans line up for subsidized goods like cooking oil, sold for 40 piasters (14 cents) a can, compared to 65 cents in private shops. The average family of six can get a month’s ration of flour, cooking oil, sugar, macaroni, tea and tomato paste for the equivalent of $24.

Meanwhile, the rich shop in the Girgaresh area, where the main street is lined with brightly lighted markets displaying high-tech kitchen appliances, crystal vases, Mercedes cars and stuffed toys.

Girgaresh groceries are well-stocked with foreign foods. A small package of a Swiss cream cheese sells for $1 _ equal to seven cans of subsidized cooking oil.

The well-off send their children to private schools _ once banned by Gadhafi _ and summer in Egypt, Tunisia and Europe. They live in villas along the Mediterranean coast topped with $700 satellite dishes.

Average Libyans are caught in a bind. The value of the dinar is being eroded by inflation estimated at 7 percent to 8 percent a year, making imported goods a dream.

The official exchange rate remains $3 to the dinar, but purchases of imported goods are at the black market rate of 33 cents for a dinar. At that rate, the average monthly salary of 250 dinars is $83 _ not much to spend on imported goods.

Ihab Abdallah, 15, complained that a pair of jeans now costs 65 dinars when five years ago it was 15 dinars. Amira Mohamed, a housewife, said 2 1/4 pounds of meat has risen to 8 dinars from about 5 in the same period.

Most Libyans are unwilling to publicly blame Gadhafi for the economic troubles.

Instead, they say Libya is being hurt by U.N. sanctions imposed in 1992 after Gadhafi refused to surrender two Libyan men sought in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. The sanctions ban international air travel to Libya and the sale of some oil-drilling equipment.

Still, people complain about government proposals to raise taxes, and many families worry about their children’s education since teachers do not show up for classes to protest not being paid in months.

In Tripoli, beggars are on the streets for the first time in years, and many women are said to be selling gold from their precious dowries to supplement husbands’ shrinking incomes.

A businessman, who gave his name only as Essam and whose family owns two restaurants, conceded that life is turning worse for the average Libyan.

``For the rich there is everything,″ he said. ``For the poor there is nothing.″

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