Gaddafi's line in the sands | Ian Black

The defection of Moussa Koussa is a blow, but the colonel's family ties still help ensure loyal support

Libyans who talk frankly to foreigners often privately describe their country as an enigma or a "black box". Understanding Muammar Gaddafi's regime is difficult at the best of times. Now that he is fighting for his survival in a new struggle with what he calls "colonialist crusader" enemies, it is harder than ever.

The defection of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi's foreign minister and ex-intelligence chief, is certainly a blow – as well as a salutary reminder that Britain, the US and other western governments have been doing business with unsavoury characters for years. Other Libyan technocrats, diplomats and military people are likely to follow as they consider their options and the need to prevent the country collapsing into another Somalia.

Koussa was a consigliere who mattered. But hard power in Libya is in the hands of the Gaddafi family – its Mafia-like dysfunctionality brilliantly captured in leaked US cables. So it may be more significant that peace feelers are being put out by his sons Saif al-Islam and Sa'adi – though it is hard to see why the Benghazi-based rebels should accept a "transitional" regime headed by their brother Mu'tasim, until the uprising a rising star as his father's national security adviser.

Gaddafi's public stance is defiance, guarded by the lies he routinely tells his own people and the world. Journalists rarely meet a Libyan who does not profess undying, cult-like loyalty to the "brother leader of the revolution". Posters and mobile phone jingles sing his praises and parrot his words. Libya, goes one popular song, is "paradise". Everything in the Jamahiriya (state of the masses) is miya miya (100%).

Statistically speaking some of this must be genuine. Propaganda apart, supporters admire Gaddafi as a man of the people, an ascetic who can live off dates and milk. And if his Bedouin background resonates, so do the handouts – from scholarships for study abroad to juice and sandwiches for the human shields who flock nightly to his compound to ward off Nato's missiles.

Tribal support is vital. Gaddafi's small tribe is allied with the larger Warfalla and Megarha (Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is one of them). It is true that the young revolutionary of 1969 tried to suppress these reactionary social formations. But they have become an instrument of Gaddafi's control – and many Libyans have internalised the message that tribal war will erupt if he is not there to play them off, using bribery and coercion, against each other.

Western notions that the regime will be weakened by the defection of key individuals and army units may be correct. But it would be reckless to assume that the well-equipped security battalions (one commanded by another Gaddafi son, Khamis) will prove less loyal than the Special Republican Guards who fought for Saddam Hussein. The same is true of the Libyan nomenklatura in the revolutionary committees and security services. None have anywhere else to go.

Nor, after 41 years, should the wacky ideology of the regime be too lightly dismissed: imperialist greed for oil is a resonant strand. So too is the (false) charge that the opposition is dominated by al-Qaida. While foreigners talk of rebels, Libyan loyalists excoriate mercenaries, terrorists, and traitors.

Evidence of dissent can be heard in whispered conversations. "They are liars," one man hissed when yet another crowd spontaneously expressed its adulation for "Muammar the colonel". Brave souls talk of arrests and disappearances. The meaning of repression is grimly clear from the deserted streets of Zawiya and recurrent rumours of bodies of victims of the regime recycled as casualties of allied air raids.

Libya's small middle class – customers for Marks & Spencer, BHS and Monsoon in upmarket Tripoli suburbs – had placed their hopes in the gradual change promoted by Saif al-Islam until his "fight to the last bullet" speech brought it all back to the first family. A gloomy driver watching the orchestrated pro-Gaddafi rallies in Green Square said: "I never believed in the sons. They are no different from the father."

Contributor

Ian Black

The GuardianTramp

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