Tension between the U.S. and Libya continued last week in the aftermath of the Dec. 27 attacks at Rome and Vienna airports by Palestinian terrorists supported by Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. Two Libyan MiG-25 fighters intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to the north of the Gulf of Sidra, then darted back to Libyan airspace before F/ A-18 jets from the U.S. aircraft carrier Coral Sea could reach the scene. While Gaddafi condemned Ronald Reagan as a "Hitler No. 2, " the Pentagon expressed concern about increasingly overt intelligence-gathering activities in the area by Soviet ships and aircraft. The crisis, meanwhile, gave TIME Correspondent John Borrell a chance to observe at close range a country that, though oil rich, is devoting far more of its wealth to guns than to butter. His report:
Crowd control is more of a problem than stock control at the state-run Jamahiriya supermarket in central Tripoli. Most days there are plenty of people and few goods, an elementary supply-and-demand problem that sometimes leads to fisticuffs and invariably produces squabbles. When a consignment of locally produced laundry soap reached the shelves last week, several hundred people were crowded around the doors at opening time. Once inside, they wrestled to get at the cartons and then elbowed and pushed their way to the cash registers. "I was hoping for cooking oil today," admitted one old man as he clutched his box and fended off latecomers, "but these days you take what you can get." So serious are shortages of many consumer goods that two people died last year during a stampede following the arrival of bananas from Nicaragua.
That there are fights over soap and bananas in Libya, which has a population of only 3.6 million and a per capita gross national product of about $8,000 (vs. $9,000 in Britain), is the result of both softening demand for petroleum and poor economic planning. Oil revenues are down from $22 billion in 1980 to an anticipated $8 billion this year. "The cash-flow problem is hurting," said a Western diplomat in Tripoli. "It is like taking a 60% salary cut and trying to keep up with the payments on the house and car." Some construction contracts have been canceled, and imports of many consumer goods, including food, have been slashed. But the defense budget alone consumes $2 billion, and an additional $1 billion goes to payments for the $12 billion worth of Soviet arms that Gaddafi has bought since he came to power in a 1969 coup.