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Reference ID: 08TRIPOLI896
Created: 2008-11-18 12:12
Released: 2011-02-05 00:12
Origin: Embassy Tripoli
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FM AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4145
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 0926
RUEHMD/AMEMBASSY MADRID PRIORITY 0029
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RHEHAAA/NSC WASHINGTON DC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
RUEHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI 4667
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TRIPOLI 000896
DEPT FOR NEA/MAG (JOHNSON) AND INR/NESA (HOFSTATTER)
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/18/2018
SUBJECT: AL-QADHAFI AND THE REFORM “VISION THING”
REF: A) TRIPOLI 227, B) TRIPOLI 842, C) TRIPOLI 699 TRIPOLI 00000896 001.2 OF 003
CLASSIFIED BY: John T. Godfrey, CDA, Embassy Tripoli, U.S. Dept of State. REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
1. (C) Summary: In a meeting broadcast on state-owned television, senior Government of Libya (GOL) officials disagreed with Muammar al-Qadhafi about plans to implement dramatic government restructuring and privatization he proposed last March. Al-Qadhafi blasted the officials, accusing them of wanting to maintain the status quo to continue profiting from corruption, and insisted that plans to restructure the government and directly distribute shares of oil revenues to the Libyan people be implemented. International media have touted the show as a rare glimpse into the opaque Jamahiriya system; however, local observers believe the meeting was a staged piece of political theater designed to give public cover to an expected scaling back of the proposed reforms. Senior GOL officials have told us privately that serious risks (inflation, currency devaluation, etc.) posed by Leader’s vision, together with a lack of consensus about how to implement it, mean the project will be delayed until at least the second quarter of 2009. The personal, albeit unpublicized, involvement of Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, son of Muammar al-Qadhafi, in implementing the initiative has thrown into stark relief disagreements between the regime’s old guard and would-be reformers. More cynical contacts have speculated that al-Qadhafi’s intent all along was to raise the specter of privatization and government restructuring to make the increasingly creaky Jamahiriya system seem favorable by comparison and temper calls for more sweeping change. End summary.
GOL LEADERS DISPUTE REFORM PLAN
2. (SBU) In a development picked up by Reuters, AFP and the Financial Times, Libya’s state-owned Jamahiriya News Agency (JANA) televised a meeting between Muammar al-Qadhafi and senior government officials on November 11 in which several GPC secretaries (minister-equivalents) openly disagreed with the Leader about plans to implement dramatic government restructuring and privatization he first proposed in an address to the General People’s Congress in March (ref A). In the meeting, Central Bank Governor Farhat Bengadara warned that implementing plans to directly disburse monthly shares of Libya’s oil revenues to the Libyan people would fuel undisciplined consumption (an idea al-Qadhafi specifically refuted in March), spark inflation, precipitate devaluation of the dinar, create a balance of payments deficit and cause a decline in real incomes. Minister of Economy and Trade Ali Essawi cautioned that the combination of direct cash payments and dismantling much of the government structure would not prompt greater production or investment, and would adversely impact long-term economic growth and social development. Instead of direct cash payments, Secretary of the General People’s Committee (Prime Minister-equivalent) al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi advocated an ill-defined scheme to give Libyans shares in banks and companies through portfolios that would be managed by financial institutions. Pointing to the recent decline in oil prices, several senior GOL officials noted that plan would be more tenable with higher oil prices, but was too risky given the dramatic fluctuations recently seen.
AL-QADHAFI (PUBLICLY) INSISTS ON GOING FORWARD
3. (SBU) Striking a populist note, al-Qadhafi blasted the officials, insisting that they wanted to maintain the status quo to keep their positions and continue profiting from corruption. (Note: Al-Qadhafi criticized PM al-Mahmoudi by name in his Revolution Day speech and accused him of being corrupt; his exchange with him in the televised meeting has reinforced widespread expectation that al-Mahmoudi will be sacked in connection with an expected Cabinet shuffle during the March 2009 General People’s Congress. End note.) Reprising themes he touched on in March, he said that since multiple efforts to address corruption and mismanagement in the popular committees (ministry-equivalents) had failed, Libyans should instead receive a direct share of oil revenues from which to underwrite health care, education, utilities and investments. Responding to concerns about implementation of the reforms, he stressed that ” … the decision to distribute oil revenues, their sole source of wealth, directly to the people is not negotiable”. He conceded that it was “bad luck” that the wealth distribution proposal coincided with declining oil prices, but stressed that the result of the regime’s 40-year effort to manage Libya’s resources on behalf of its people had been “very bad”. He reiterated the argument made in March that once oil revenues were directly distributed, it would no longer be necessary to maintain subsidies or government services (to include health care and education), since people could afford to buy whatever TRIPOLI 00000896 002.2 OF 003 they needed directly.
MEDIA BREATHLESS ABOUT OSTENSIBLE VIEW INTO JAMAHIRIYA POLICY DEBATE …
4. (SBU) International media reaction – JANA broadcast the show, but state-owned media has otherwise not dwelled on it – has largely focused on the unusual spectacle of the ostensible policy debate that took place. Libya watcher and Dartmouth University professor Dirk Vandewalle opined that the meeting reflected the fact that top-down decision-making in Libya was being increasingly questioned and that the power of technocrats had increased. Reuters characterized it as “a rare glimpse into decision-making in the North African country”.
… BUT LOCAL OBSERVERS REMAIN UNCONVINCED
5. (C) Observers closer to the scene have been less sanguine, and several senior GOL officials – including those involved in the meeting – had previewed for us in earlier meeetings that lack of agreement about how to implement government restructuring and privatization meant that implementation would be delayed and the scope likely reduced. As reported ref B, CB Governor Bengadara told a visiting U.S. trade specialist in October that while he favored a more aggressive “shock therapy” approach to economic reform than many other senior GOL leaders, he expected the wealth distribution program to take several years to implement and was frankly skeptical about the extent of government restructuring. Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, who heads the Economic Development Board (EDB) and National Planning Council and also leads the five committees tasked with implementing al-Qadhafi’s vision, told visiting NEA/MAG Director Stephanie Williams on November 5 that nothing had been firmly decided with respect to government restructuring or privatization of education and healthcare (further details on the Williams-Jibril meeting septel). Conceding that the implementing committees had made little progress in agreeing on a plan, he suggested that change would be unlikely until after the first quarter of 2009. (Note: The General People’s Congress typically meets in March; we’ve been told that they would have to formally bless any restructuring or privatization plans before they could be implemented. End note.) Similarly, Secretary of the General People’s Committee for Manpower, Employment and Training (minister-equivalent) Matuq Matuq told us on November 13 that GOL leaders had encountered difficulty in trying to develop plans to implement al-Qadhafi’s vision, and flatly told us that privatization and government restructuring would be delayed considerably.
SAIF AL-ISLAM’S BEHIND-THE-SCENES ROLE A MIXED BLESSING
6. (C) Part of the issue appears to be that the restructuring and privatization initiatives have become lightning rods for the struggle between the old guard and would-be reformers. Over the summer, contacts told us the five implementing committees had been unable to achieve consensus on whether and how to implement the reforms. A supra-committee under Dr. Jibril was formed to coordinate the implementing committees’ work; however, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi – who had formed shadow committees composed of staff from his Qadhafi Development Foundation – has played a powerful and at times leading role in shaping implementation plans. A contact at the EDB told us that Saif al-Islam’s involvement was a blessing and a curse. His personal status allowed him to advocate more forcefully than most GOL officials; however, the fact that he is at odds with influential members of the regime’s old guard raised the stakes in the debate about restructuring and privatization.
7. (SBU) Implementation of the Leader’s vision has already been delayed. When he outlined his vision in March, al-Qadhafi called for the five committees to submit plans for implementing the project by September 1, with the idea that he would detail the plan in his annual Revolution Day speech on/about September 1 and that the changes would be initiated before year’s end. He disappointed those hopes, instead shifting the goalposts in his Revolution Day speech by saying the committees would submit implementation plans by year’s end, and that changes would begin early in the new year (ref C).
8. (C) Comment: While the televised meeting was noteworthy for the fact that it offered the unusual spectacle of ostensible dissent in the sterile Libyan political environment, the fact that a number of the participants raised their hands to publicly dispute the reforms, together with al-Qadhafi’s strident insistence on implementing the original plan, smacks of staged TRIPOLI 00000896 003.2 OF 003 political theater. Local observers have expected for some time that al-Qadhafi would in the end – as he’s done before – significantly scale back the scope of the reform agenda he announced in March. By explicitly linking the reforms to the populist issue of anti-corruption, al-Qadhafi has seized the moral high ground on an issue of genuine public concern, which would allow him to blame venal GOL officials for failing to execute his vision if the original plan is modified. Doing so would allow him to limit real reform, and would mitigate to a certain extent criticism of the Jamahiriya system that is his brainchild. More cynical contacts have speculated that al-Qadhafi’s intent all along was to raise the specter of privatization – particularly of education and healthcare – and government restructuring to make the increasingly creaky Jamahiriya system seem favorable by comparison in the eyes of a largely conservative, risk-averse Libyan public. According to that line of thinking, al-Qadhafi – concerned that Libya’s economic opening was creating pressure for political reform – floated the privatization and government restructuring policy balloon largely as a means by which to muddy the waters and create an atmosphere of “constructive chaos” in which to effect limited (vice sweeping) change. It’s a tactic he has used before: Libyan contacts are fond of telling the fable of a race in which participants have to carry a sack of rats a certain distance before they chew through the bag. Al-Qadhafi wins because he figures out that by constantly shaking the bag, the rats are too disoriented to make their way out. End comment. GODFREY