Gaddafi's iron fist won't help him keep a grip on a divided nation

It has been a week of military reversals for the rebels, but their spirit remains unbroken, reports Donald Macintyre in Tripoli
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The walls across the street from the Murad Aga mosque in Tajura were freshly whitewashed to cover up the anti-regime graffiti that has been repeatedly scrawled on them in the last three weeks.

Before the mid-morning Friday prayers, the streets of this easterly working class suburb 10 miles from the centre of the Libyan capital were eerily quiet, with just a few customers passing through the two general stores that were open. On the surface at least, there was hardly a sign that it had been here two weeks ago that residents were fired on – with an unknown number of deaths – when they tried to march towards the city centre to demand the end of the regime.

This felt very much like a district in lockdown, one about which the regime was now so confident that they had not even bothered to maintain the earlier military checkpoints and tanks on the main road in. "But some of them are here in civilian clothes," said a 20- year-old resident, adding that the regime had given AK 47s to hand-picked civilians here "to fire on the people" after the crisis began.

The resident, who gave his name, but which it would be unwise to use, added: "Ninety-five percent of the people don't like Gaddafi, but they can't do anything. They don't have any weapons." Many of the district's inhabitants, he said, came from a tribe originating from Benghazi. "They saw what was happening there, and they wanted to do the same here." He added: "We should not talk on the street. You don't know who is watching."

He would be proved right in every salient detail; less than five minutes later, plain clothes security police arrived, told us we had no business to be there, and ordered us to leave the neighbourhood immediately, herding us peremptorily into a minibus they had summoned for the purpose. After we were safely out of the way, according to a Tajura Libyan now living abroad but in touch with residents, tear gas was again used to quell a repeat of the protests.

This time it was apparently fired by green bandanna-clad civilian pro-Gaddafi militias, possibly formed to free troops for heavier duties to the east. Later reports from the neighbourhood say worshippers emerged from the mosque chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans. "There was a lot of tear gas. Everyone ran away. They tried to prevent the protests and succeeded," the resident told Reuters.

Given that the protests in Tajura a fortnight ago led the world to predict that the revolution would bring the regime down, events there yesterday help to illustrate how the dynamic of the uprising has changed in the past few days.

If there is one lesson from the revolts that have spread though the Arab world it is that nothing can be predicted with certainty. But it looks very much as if this was the week that, however brutally, Muammar Gaddaffi's forces used their vastly superior weaponry to turn the tide, at least for now, confounding the West and dashing the hopes of many tens of thousands of Libyans who have been prepared to risk their lives to bring down the man who has ruled them for 42 years.

In the aftermath of the reverse for the rebels in Ras Lanuf, regime SMS messages warned of the impending "liberation" from opposition forces of Ajdabiya and the key second city of Benghazi, their two strongholds on the coast beyond the heavily bombarded oil port. This echoed precisely the bellicose chants from the more raucous elements of the audience to whom Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, promised on Thursday night that "we are coming" to Benghazi.

This wasn't so clear even by mid-week. On Wednesday night, after repeated cancellations, journalists were taken on a midnight victory trip to Zawiya the town 30 miles west of Tripoli, which Muammar Gaddafi had warned two weeks earlier was "slipping away".

They were greeted by about 300 noisy demonstrators and a relatively lavish fireworks display to celebrate the government's seizure of control. But, since we were prevented from leaving the grounds of a local sports club – in front of a building pockmarked by high calibre gunfire – it was impossible to be sure that the control was real, particularly when packets of rice, pasta and other items were handed out to the demonstrators as it ended. In fact, it now looks as if the government did not include the battleground in the main square on the tour because, until yesterday, it did not want to show the scale of the destruction in the town centre.

Whether and how soon the Gaddafi's forces will advance eastwards, prompting fears of brutal reprisals against those involved in the uprising if they succeed, remains to be seen.

On the one hand a clear military victory will severely embarrass Western powers calling for Gaddafi's fall, but they are seemingly increasingly unsure how to secure that. In such an event it is even hard to rule out – in time – the bizarre spectacle of a second attempt at the international rehabilitation of a possibly strengthened leader who in the last fortnight had returned to the pariah status he had before 2004.

On the other, even if he secures the victory that it has suddenly been possible to contemplate in the last 48 hours, that does not necessarily mean that his rule remains secure. "If Gaddafi reasserts control it will be in the face of new tribal and regional divisions," Yezid Sayigh, a professor in the War Studies Department at King's College, London, told Reuters yesterday. "Large sections of the population will no longer be willing to provide the intelligence Gaddafi would need to confront an urban insurgency."

Militarily the Libyan leader has undoubtedly had a highly successful week. But even in a Tripoli district as apparently subdued as Tajura, it seems the spirit of opposition has not yet been broken.

Regional Round-up

Saudi Arabia

A massive show of force snuffed out efforts to stage unprecedented pro-democracy protests in the capital Riyadh. With uprisings threatening allies on its eastern and southern flanks, the Sunni Saudi monarchy appeared to be taking no chances in its effort to keep the popular push for democracy in the Arab world from spreading to the world's largest crude oil exporter.


Record crowds of tens of thousands called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit, dismissing his offer of reforms. Outside the university in Sana'a dozens of people from rebel and government camps hurled rocks at each other as residents fired shots in the air to try and break up fighting. In the city of Aden, three people were wounded by gunfire and six were overcome by tear gas as police tried to disperse thousands of anti-government marchers.


Security forces reinforced by pro-government mobs fired rubber bullets and tear gas to scatter protesters near Bahrain's royal palace. The clashes broke out after an hours-long standoff between tens of thousands of demonstrators facing down lines of riot police and Sunni vigilantes carrying swords, clubs, metals pipes and stones.