Libya crisis: The staying power of Col Gaddafi

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A supporter displays a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during an anti-coalition protest in Tripoli, 2 April 2011

"This is our country," said Saif al-Islam, Col Muammar Gaddafi's son, in a BBC interview late on Monday night. "You want us to leave? To go where?"

"To Zimbabwe?" I asked. "To Uganda?" He laughed: "Excuse me, no."

"To Venezuela?" "Ha, ha, ha." "Not going?" "Of course not."

Given the apparent determination of Saif al-Islam to hang on in Tripoli, we could be some way from the final stages of the Libyan crisis.

Col Gaddafi is not like former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who flew into exile as soon as he heard the sound of demonstrators in the streets.

Nor is he like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who resisted leaving until he realised the US and the European countries were serious about wanting him to go.

The Gaddafis are a great deal tougher than that. And they are not beholden in any way to the great powers.


When the trouble began in Benghazi last month, it looked as though the best comparison might be with President Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, back in December 1989. But Ceausescu's regime crumbled into pieces directly he was challenged.

In the end, even his secret police bodyguards abandoned him.

Col Gaddafi's rule has been remarkably resilient under pressure.

True, the eastern half of Libya has gone, and there must be sizeable numbers of people in the west of the country who long to get rid of Col Gaddafi.

There have been uprisings in various towns and cities in the west, including Tripoli itself.

But they have largely failed - and not simply because the regime could call on one of the nastiest secret police forces in North Africa.

It is because there is sufficient tribal and ideological support for Col Gaddafi's system to keep it going.

A better comparison is with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Image caption,
Thanks to Western air strikes, the rebels control eastern Libya

Washington's neo-conservatives promised it would fall apart directly the invasion of 2003 began.

Instead, it became clear that Saddam Hussein represented an important, if not a numerically dominant, constituency in Iraq.

As in Iraq, the political system in Libya makes out, wrongly, that the people as a whole are behind their leader.

But when the chips were down, an important section - not the majority, but a strong and determined minority - showed it was prepared to back Col Gaddafi.

And that support keeps him going.

Bland denial

This is why, in spite of what British Foreign Secretary William Hague clearly expected, the defection of former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa and other significant figures has not brought Col Gaddafi tumbling down.

If it had happened in President Mubarak's Egypt, his government would have collapsed. President Mubarak, unlike Col Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, felt he had to show at least a potentially democratic face to the world.

Col Gaddafi knows that no-one will judge him and reward him for his democratic credentials. The defection of Moussa Koussa ought to have been an embarrassment to Libya.

Instead, in his BBC interview, Saif al-Islam used the rather effective tool of bland denial. Moussa Koussa was just an old and sick man who needed treatment in Britain, and made up stories to get himself political asylum.

In the same way, he presented the war as being one between the whole Libyan nation and a few armed militiamen, many of whom are, he says, influenced by Islamic extremists.

But when he says he and his father will be staying in Libya come what may, it sounds like an assertion of a wholly different order.

Constitutional monarch

Maybe Saif al-Islam's instinct is to offer at least the appearance of change - the elections and political reforms which he maintains were already in the pipeline before the rebellion began in Libya.

In his BBC interview, he seemed to suggest that his father could remain as a kind of constitutional monarch, in place as a guarantor of the system, but not in day-to-day control of the government.

For the rebels, such a proposal is laughable. They believe that nothing short of Col Gaddafi's immediate departure will do. The cosmetics of political change will not do.

So we have a stalemate.

The Gaddafis, father and son, will not leave, and even with the huge support of Nato air power the rebels have not yet come close to forcing them out.

Until one side can defeat the other, it looks as though Libya will stay divided between east and west.

And some of the richest oil installations lie, tantalisingly enough, right on the front line.