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'You have to be crazy to understand Gaddafi – because he's so crazy...'

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He sauntered up to the Tripoli landmark where we had arranged to meet and said, smiling: "I think you're probably looking for me."

Conversations like the one that followed are rare enough these days in this edgy, apprehensive city. And they are not the sort to which you take a government minder.

For this articulate twenty-something, with a good office job in a service industry, was startlingly free in what he said about the benighted politics of his country.

"You have to be crazy to understand Gaddafi because he's so crazy," he said. "He is many faces of crazy."

We spoke soon after the dramatic defection of the Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa, an event whose importance the well-educated young Libyan – giving us only his first name – neither underestimated nor had illusions about. Mr Koussa, after all, was an unlikely figurehead for the country's democrats.

"He had a bad record," he said. "He is a hitman."

But he hoped that the foreign minister's desertion would lead to others. For peaceful demonstrations at least have been crushed by armed Gaddafi supporters.

The young man is not exactly an activist. But back in February, having heard protesters had been shot at, he drove to join friends near Muammar Gaddafi's compound. "There were men with swords; it was scary." So they retreated into residential streets.

Though a rare attendee at mosques, he had gone to pray at one because he had heard there might be a protest. When worshippers came out, "before we could even open mouths there were men all around us pointing Kalashnikovs." The next time, hardly anyone turned up.

He emphasises the importance of the uprising in the east – despite his acknowledgement of severe military reverses last week – and of the Western military intervention sustaining it. "I don't particularly like Sarkozy, that French midget, but he saved the day. I don't particularly like American or British policy but these are desperate times and desperate people need help. Some people say we shouldn't take help from the enemy but if you're dead it's too late to ask for help."

By now, we were sitting in a park where state security might have been watching. Was he not worried about being seen talking to foreigners from the West?

"I think I've kind of gone past that stage," he said. Yes, he had heard that there had been arrests across the city, but no, he did not know too much about it. Nor does he exaggerate the level of revolutionary fervour. He says there is a minority of ardent pro-Gaddafi supporters and one of equally ardent opponents.

Those include his own father about whom he says: "I never heard him say a good word about Gaddafi." The majority lie in between, wanting a quiet, secure life for their families.

He contrasted the tightly-knit extended families in neighbourhoods of Tripoli where dissent is strongest with inner-city areas "where nobody knows the people they live next to".

He added: "Maybe these people fear change, but I think in the end they will go with whoever's winning."

And what of the young civilian men whom Colonel Gaddafi has now armed – and, the young man says had also paid – to confront the insurgents if they ever get to Tripoli.

"Maybe there will be a big battle but I think even those guys won't die for Gaddafi if they think he's going down."

Was partition between a rebel controlled east and a Gaddafi-controlled west the likeliest answer?

"I don't think people will accept it. How can you have half the country living in a democracy and the other half living with the gun?"

Thinking, however wishfully, that Colonel Gaddafi has become "history", the young man adds: "I don't think Libya will ever go back to what it was before," adding that the people in the east would not abandon the freedom they had now tasted.

"For the first time in my life I'm optimistic," the young man said.