In the small Dutch town of Maastricht after much delay, disappointment, and rebuke, I managed to get Libyans and Americans to sit in the same room together and talk about issues ranging from politics and terrorism to women's rights. That was back in 1999. While the Lockerbie tragedy loomed large, the participants in what would be known as the US-Libya Dialogue Group were eager to see relations between Libya and the United States normalised. Most participants were so supportive of the effort that later that same year I was able to organise another meeting in the Mediterranean island of Malta.
More than 10 years later relations between Washington and Tripoli could not be better - at least on the surface. The most visible sign in Libya is that those wanting to travel to the US can apply for visas in Tripoli instead of having to travel to Tunisia. After Barack Obama was elected the US president some Libyans were even expecting him to visit Tripoli. Had it not been for the media circus surrounding the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al Megrahi, imprisoned in Britain for the Lockerbie attack, the Libyan leader Muammer Qadafi might have even visited Washington after his first visit to the United Nations in New York.
But Libya and the US still operate under lingering suspicion rather than on a foundation of trust. While the American embassy in Tripoli's prestigious Bin Ashor neighbourhood is actively engaging Libyan society, "official" Libya appears to be reluctant to open up to its long-time adversary. According to the American ambassador to Tripoli, 1,700 Libyans are studying in the US; the number is expected to reach 6,000 within the next couple of years. When there were US sanctions on Libya there were very few, if any, Libyans who studied at universities in the US.
Through the various US state department sponsored training programmes, dozens of Libyan media professionals, academics, business people, women who are pioneers in their fields, and even schoolchildren, have been to America over the last two years. In a speech he delivered at Princeton University, Gene A Cretz, the first US ambassador to Libya in 25 years, elaborated on the number of "firsts" that had recently occurred in the relationship between the two countries. Mr Cretz listed the "first Libyan national security adviser's meeting with secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the first interview of US officials on Libyan television, and the first opening of US visa services in Libya", among the most important of these events.
Yet Americans travelling to Libya still find it difficult to get their visas approved on time - usually without explanation. Currently there are no American students in Libya and few tourist visas being issued to Americans who wish to visit the splendid Roman ruins on the Libyan coast. While American diplomats in Tripoli can move freely, meet people, and attend various events, many Libyan officials don't consider this to be a good idea.
The situation with trade isn't much better. While the American oil companies got back their concessions in Libya after they had been forced to abandon them by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, US direct investment in Libya outside the energy sector is negligible. I know of at least one major project worth billions of dollars that was proposed by a major American company. Russian and Chinese companies were selected for the project instead.
Understandably, "official" Libya is not comfortable with the American penetration of Libyan society. Years of sour relations, defamation, and plots peaked with the US bombing of Col Qadafi's home in 1986 that killed his adopted daughter. Libya still marks the night of the attack, April 15, 1986, as one of sadness and brutal aggression. A visit to the destroyed home of Col Qadafi is usually on the agenda for dignitaries visiting the country.
Since renouncing its nuclear programme in 2003, Libya blames the US for not appropriately rewarding such a huge step. In the meantime, the US seems to think that it's too early for anything major to happen. It's unlikely that the relationship will return to the animosities of two and three decades ago but it's likely to remain somewhat frigid at the official level despite any appearances to the contrary.
The increased US security measures in the aftermath of last month's failed attack above Detroit has added even more complications to the relationship. The US government's new list of stricter security on citizens of certain countries visiting America has included Libyans. The Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa quickly summoned the American ambassador to protest the decision and declare Libya's intention to enact reciprocal measures.
While the two countries have come a long way, hard work lies ahead if both Libya and the US are serious about final rapprochement. For Libya, it's far more important to speed up the normalisation at the non-governmental level. Cultural exchanges and training programmes may be more effective in building trust than any official government efforts. But more than a decade after I helped break the ice between the two countries in Maastricht, I remain cautiously optimistic. Many of those who participated in that dialogue, including the former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, have since visited Libya on multiple occasions and are enthusiastic about making bilateral relations stronger. Suspicion on both sides is the key word; with the Libyan side more suspicious than its American counterparts. Still, the new US ambassador to Libya will probably be able to add more "firsts" to his list as his country and mine travel the long road to complete rapprochement.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Tripoli-based academic and political analyst