A single policeman stood guard at the door, a tourist waited patiently in the cold for a visa and a cleaner put the rubbish out. On this grey London morning only a few assembled photographers and the small knot of protesters across the road gave any indication of the turmoil behind the blank facade of Libya’s grand Knightsbridge embassy.
Yet from Washington to New Delhi, many of Libya’s ambassadors have defected in protest at the regime’s violent repression that has seen thousands of peaceful demonstrators fired upon by snipers and fighter planes.
On Monday, rumours circulated that the UK embassy was the latest to declare itself on the side of the people when the solid green flag of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya, a symbol of his 1969 Green Revolution, was replaced by the tripartite flag of Libyan independence. As it turned out, a protester had switched the flags and the embassy remained – officially at least – on Gaddafi’s side. Moments after the ambassador arrived on Tuesday morning, the green flag was once again proudly hoisted above the traffic of central London, a visible sign of defiance to the collected protesters and a signal that the government wasn’t finished just yet.
Libyan allegiance to the regime, though, is an increasingly rare commodity, even amongst those on its payroll. An embassy employee, visibly nervous about being seen talking to a journalist asked to speak out of sight of the embassy. He said that the atmosphere inside the embassy was “very awkward” and that loyalties were divided, despite public assertions of support. “First Tunisia, then Egypt – change is sweeping through the region,” he said. “For us, this is the equivalent of 1989 in Eastern Europe.”
Across the road, the crowd held placards in readiness for a march on Downing Street later in the day. “The east of the country is now free but Gaddafi is cutting Tripoli off – cutting the internet, cutting the phones and bombing the roads,” said Omar Alegiy, a student from Benghazi, the eastern city where riots began which is now largely out of Gaddafi’s control. Alegiy added that, although the state is paying for him to study at Liverpool University, he wanted a future free of Gaddafi and his eccentric ways. “I don’t want people to think of Libya and instantly associate it with terrorism.”
Although Libyans that Monocle talked to expressed distaste for the regime, there was a palpable sense of uncertainty about who or what could replace a man who has moulded the country in his own image for over 40 years.
“Yes we want democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of the media, but for now we just want peace for the country,” said another student, Safwan Alshikhy. “It is difficult to call my family in Libya as the lines are down. We are just watching the news like everyone else.”