Donald Macintyre: This display of eccentricity and menace reinforces sense of a threatened autocracy

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The White House was said to be "analysing" Saif Gaddafi's televised speech in the early hours of yesterday. You could only wish them good luck. For this long and at times conversational stream of consciousness defied easy comprehension.

Given that its author has a PhD from the London School of Economics, it was all the more striking for its lack of a sustained argument. Did he really think Libyans could be convinced that the protests were being led by "drunks" and "drug addicts"? Was the suggestion of a new flag and a new national anthem genuinely expected to satisfy those prepared to die in the streets of Benghazi in order to see the region's longest-lasting dictator gone?

The second son eschewed his father's flowing, traditional robes for a well-fitting business suit, crisp white shirt and soberly checked tie. He gesticulated frequently, sometimes with a flattened palm sawing the air, sometimes the fist loosely clenched but the index finger extended to reinforce a point. At times he seemed to lean back casually in his chair; almost inviting a command that he sit up straight.

He said he had brought no papers, though he did occasionally glance down at what seemed to be notes. The hour of his appearance was certainly eccentric, reinforcing the sense of a regime at bay. But his body language in no way suggested a statesman taking control of a crisis; it was more like that of a man threatening a troublesome group of commercial adversaries ranged round a boardroom table.

That said, while not all the messages were clear, some of them were by now wearisomely familiar to anyone following the recent cycle of threatened autocrats in the Middle East. The warning that the regime was all that stood between the country and a mixture of criminal anarchy and Islamic extremism; the bitter denunciations of news networks from Al Jazeera to the BBC; the hint at a return to colonial rule; the blame falling on often unspecified "foreign forces".

Saif Gaddafi added two Libya-specific points which he enunciated with all the menace he could muster. The first was oil. It was oil, he said, that had united the country over its famously deep tribal divisions. This may not say much for 42 years of Gaddafi government. But his point was that if the uprising continued, who then would "manage the oil"? Instead the "thugs" would "burn" the oil and "your children" would no longer be able to go to university. This might have made more sense in a country without Libya's huge inequalities of wealth – not to mention a corrosive absence of jobs for those graduating from the universities he said the oil had paid for. But it was designed to frighten Libyans into thinking that even worse would follow without Libya's precious oil.

And the other was on the army. His message was that the army was not like that in Egypt, where it turned in the end against Hosni Mubarak. Instead, it was ready to fight for and with Muammar Gaddafi "whatever the cost" and – as he put it – to the "last bullet". Too little hard political information is coming out of Libya to know what truth there is in this. Certainly the army will be crucial in determining how much more blood will be spilt before this fight between dictator and people draws to an end. But it was hard, after seeing this address, to believe that the regime is as secure as Saif intended to demonstrate it felt. "We will not lose Libya," he insisted. We have heard that, or its equivalent, in the recent past.

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