I first went to Libya in 1968 as a young civil engineer to work for a construction company. I was stationed first in Beida working on maintenance and minor works contracts and then was transferred to Benghazi to be in charge of a number of building construction projects dotted around the city. The workshops and accommodation camp was in in Gwarishah some 15 km west of Benghazi.
Libya at that time was a peaceful place. Benghazi was an important business city with first class hotels, banks, restaurants and good shops. Libya was liberated from the Italians in 1951 when King Idris declared it a Kingdom. However the Italian influence was everywhere and an abundance of fashion outlets were doing good business. If Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East then Benghazi was Milano. All religious places of worship were permitted and a good number of European Schools were serving the expat community.
On the morning of 1st September 1969, I went to the staff mess for breakfast thinking about the recent landing on the moon by the Americans. A directive on the radio instructed us all to stay indoors and wait for an important announcement. The workforce had already left for work and arrangements needed to bring them back to the camp. A lot of road blocks were set up but we managed to get the men back through country tracks.
By mid-day a radio announcement declared a military coup headed by Colonel Gaddafi had ousted King Idris. It was a textbook swift bloodless coup.
Our office in Benghazi downtown was opened for a few hours for next day and business soon returned to normal but there was an atmosphere of tension especially as there was a curfew from sunset to sunrise for quite a while. A number of military checkpoints would wave foreigners through while checks and car searches were carried out on Libyan citizens.
A couple of days later I had a phone call from the wife of the (ex) Chief of Staff. I had met him a few months earlier when he turned up unexpectedly with King Idris at a garrison I was building near Beida. They were happy with the progress and the quality of work and had a pleasant banter with the King and Senousi, his Army chief, about furniture and kitchen equipment. The wife was under house arrest. She had run out of food for herself and four children. I went to their home with some groceries but the guard would not allow me access. The captain in charge came and I explained that understandably the husband was perhaps detained but a woman and four children just needed something to feed themselves with. As mentioned, the country was very civilised and for several days I delivered provisions until the family was moved on.
The great majority of the country is desert and the shores are fertile with beautiful beaches. They are typical Mediterranean without the crowds!
Under Gaddafi, Libya developed the oil reserves and the wealth brought stability in the country for many years. He proceeded with the peaceful departure of the RAF base in El-Adem and the USAF base in Wheelus. The conservative Arab society was maintained under Gaddafi with the added restriction on alcohol but strict religious customs were not enforced. Women were treated with respect, wore western clothes, drove cars and worked in mixed gender environments. In line with all Arab countries dissidents were not tolerated. There was law and order backed by the military regime. Gaddafi for all his faults had integrity and patriotism and all his antics were attention seeking rather than mischief.
I really liked Libya for its climate, its beaches, its important Greek and Roman archaeological sites and particularly its people. In total I spent well over five years in Libya.
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