Muammer Gaddafi, Libyan leader, seems to have the military and economic ability to defend his 41-year rule, raising the prospect of the political revolt against him developing into civil war.
Analysts said the colonel could call on a ragtag collection of forces – including mercenaries, fighters trained since youth, and a militia run by his son Khamis – to fight for control of enough of his country and its oilfields to keep a grip on power.
The assessment suggests that, while the leader’s sudden overthrow cannot be ruled out, deposing him may require an even bigger effort than the weeks of protest that have this year forced the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents from office.
Crispin Hawes, an energy consultant and Libya specialist, said: “Don’t underestimate this guy’s capacity for hanging on like grim death. This is not a situation [like Egypt] where there is a field marshal who can turn round and say ‘OK mate, your time’s up’.”
While all analysts stressed how hard it was to gauge what was happening on the ground in Libya, several said Col Gaddafi still appeared to have some firepower despite reports of defections by military personnel.
Forces loyal to Col Gaddafi launched a counter-attack on Thursday on the city of Misurata, 200km along the coast from Tripoli, after it fell under opposition control.
Most international concern about Col Gaddafi’s aggression has focused in the past on Libya’s stores of chemical weapons, some – but not all – of which have been destroyed under a deal made with the administration of former president George W. Bush.
Analysts also warned about armed loyalists, who include not just regular soldiers but a militia known as the 32nd Brigade, led by the ruler’s fifth son, Khamis.
US diplomats referred to the so-called “Khamis Brigade” as a special forces outfit that “serves as a regime protection unit”, according to a March 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks and seen by the Financial Times. Later that year they describe it as “the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military”.
In December 2009 the diplomats referred to an offer made for Khamis to travel around the US to tour military installations.
Libya experts said the colonel also had citizens’ militias and African mercenaries, which have long been a plank of his security strategy.
He has been closely involved with the politics of a number of conflict-ridden sub-Saharan African nations over the years; Libya has served as a training ground for rebels such as Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord and former president now being tried for war crimes.
Ashur Shamis, a London-based Libyan journalist and dissident, said the colonel also had a force – dubbed Janissaries, after the elite Ottoman-era soldiers – who had been taken into the army at a young age and drilled in loyalty to the leader.
Mr Shamis added that any effort to depose Col Gaddafi would be complicated by the country’s geography, as the routes into the capital Tripoli were along exposed desert roads vulnerable to attack by aircraft and artillery.
“He has the power, and he has the willingness to use that power, and that’s very, very dangerous,” Mr Shamis said. “Unless something snaps, he is going to have a war on his hands.”
On the economic front, the regime has lost significant territory during an uprising that has led many foreign companies to temporarily shut operations. But it still appears to have control of important energy-producing areas such as the western gasfields.
Col Gaddafi could limp on with reduced energy exports, analysts said, especially as he was cushioned by large foreign currency reserves held through investments that he built up in Italy, the UK and elsewhere during the oil boom years.
Potential threats to his grip include sanctions and asset freezes, and if defections by troops and officials reach a critical mass.
If that does not occur, a man who is no stranger to extreme violence, international pariah status or prolonged economic sanctions may try to tough it out again.