‘Mad dog’ Gaddafi won’t go without a fight

Published in The Times (February 17th, 2011)

So is it really possible that the next regime to fall in this astonishing winter of protests could be the mad dog himself, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi?

Having spent last week in Libya, talking to dissidents in Tripoli and Benghazi, I say that the answer is a guarded “yes”. The country is a strange mixture of repression and openness, so people have been able to follow the revolts over the borders on television and, until yesterday, on Twitter and Facebook.

Those seeking reform have been inspired by President Mubarak’s overthrow. “Egypt is the centre of the world for us,” one writer said.

Libya shares problems that have provoked anger elsewhere: an army of young unemployed, poor schools, inadequate healthcare and rampant corruption, much of it revolving around Colonel Gaddafi’s family.

But there are big differences. The country has some of the planet’s best oil, exporting nearly as much per capita as Saudi Arabia. So, despite Colonel Gaddafi’s appalling mismanagement under his unique brand of socialism, Libyans enjoy higher living standards than their neighbours. Moreover, it is a large and sparsely populated nation, making it easier to quash dissent and play off tribal rivalries.

Although Benghazi, the scene of rioting five years ago that left 20 people dead, is the traditional rebel city, the clampdown there felt less intense than in Tripoli. This is a sign of Colonel Gaddafi’s nerves, consolidating his forces at the centre of power. People in the capital are calling friends in Benghazi and saying: “We are relying on you to start things.”

But Colonel Gaddafi has not survived in power since 1969 out of luck; he is a wily political operator. He is doing everything possible to avert his downfall: personally warning the media against fomenting unrest; rounding up potential protesters; offering bribes for information on rebels; and, above all, flooding the streets with his secret police, the one arm of the State that works with ruthless efficiency.

He will organise shows of strength and fight back by all means necessary. This is why even those pushing for change put their chances of success at as low as 20 per cent. In the present climate anything could happen, but the odds remain stacked in Colonel Gaddafi’s favour.

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