Discontent in the Middle East

The current state of Libya, from oil to the people

Marketplace Staff Feb 28, 2011
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Discontent in the Middle East

The current state of Libya, from oil to the people

Marketplace Staff Feb 28, 2011
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Here’s an interesting economic fact about Libya and Muammar Gaddafi, and where a lot of the country’s oil money has gone. The Treasury Department announced today it’s frozen at lease $30 billion in Libyan assets. $30 billion. The entire Libyan economy? About $90 billion or so.

The Treasury Department didn’t give any details as to how much was in Gaddafi’s name personally, and how much was in Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, but either way you figure it, it’s about a third of the entire Libyan economy. As of right now, the only real pressure Western governments can bring to bear on Gaddafi is economic, and we’ll have more on that in a minute.

First, we’ve reached New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick in Tripoli. David, good to talk to you.

David Kirkpatrick: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: First of all, what’s it like out there, day-to-day? Are people out and about, or as the streets, as you wrote about in the paper today, still pretty much empty?

Kirkpatrick: The streets are pretty deserted. Out on the highways, they’re crowded — they’re crowded because people are leaving. People by the thousands are trying to make their way to the border with Tunisia, which is not so far from Tripoli. You called, actually, at a pretty newsy moment: We’ve just learned that the government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is reporting 10 casualties in a battle with the rebels at a city about 30 miles from here, called Zawia. They’ve got a number of defecting army forces leaving their perimeter, about 2,000 defecting police officers with their guns, and when we saw them yesterday, they were sort of celebrating and dancing and looking kind of warily at the Gaddafi forces building up on the outside.

Ryssdal: All these people are leaving, and one assumes in Zawia as well they will soon be leaving, if the army’s on the move. They are effectively refugees, taking with them what they have.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, they are. Now the people who get through the border are foreign workers, because the Libyans don’t seem to let the Libyans out, and on occasion, don’t seem to let the Libyans in. But there are a lot of foreign workers here, a lot, a lot of Chinese folks working in oil fields, as well as Egyptians and a few Tunisians. All of whom are now getting out as fast as they can, because the climate has turned ugly for foreigners. There’s a kind of xenophobia that’s kicked in.

Ryssdal: What do you know about the oil industry there? Is it under the control of the anti-Gaddafi forces or does the government still have some control?

Kirkpatrick: The anti-Gaddafi forces report that they have control over 80 percent of it, or so. Which seems reasonable given where their footprint is, including Zawia. That’s one of the places where the Gaddafi forces appear to be making a concerted effort itself tonight. That’s obviously where it’s at here. I mean, because oil is the life blood of the economy; whoever controls the oil resources is in a commanding position to decide the future of the country.

Ryssdal: And from the people, the ones you’ve been able to talk to, and I gather that your movements are a little bit restricted, the ones who are getting the $400 from the government to basically be friendly — what are they saying to you, the people?

Kirkpatrick: You know, I’ll tell you about an interesting experience I had today: I was out in a town where we were surrounded by quite boisterous, if not aggressive, pro-Gaddafi revelers, who really seemed extremely motivated to get in our face and tell us just how much they loved Gaddafi and kissing his picture and so forth. And I let one of these gentlemen go on and deliver his whole rant, which was part one, Gaddafi’s great; part two, the problem here is Al-Jazeera and the Arabic cable channels. And he finished his rant, and by that time, the crowd had drifted away and it was just the two of us and I leaned in and I said to him, ‘You know, they have been killing a lot of people in nearby cities. I think actually they’re paying you to say this.’ And he said, ‘Yes. Believe me sir, we will get our freedom.’ So there he was, talking out both sides of his mouth. Several other people came and said the same thing to me. So there’s kind of an undercurrent even in the pro-Gaddafi crowd.

Ryssdal: David Kirkpatrick with the New York Times from Tripoli. David, thanks a lot.

Kirkpatrick: It’s a pleasure to be here. Talk to you later.

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