Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa flew to Britain on Wednesday and has resigned from Muammar Gaddafi’s government because he is no longer willing to represent it, a British government spokesman said.
Koussa’s arrival at Farnborough airport, in the south of England, marks the biggest defection yet from the Libyan government since a popular revolt began over a month ago against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
HOW DAMAGING IS THIS FOR GADDAFI?
It’s certainly damaging, but whether it spells the end of Gaddafi’s rule is not yet clear. Koussa was hugely influential in Libya’s ruling elite, and has been for decades, but he was not part of the innermost circle. That is made up principally of Gaddafi’s sons and people with family ties to the Libyan leader, and their loyalty is likely to be more robust, especially now they share responsibility for blood spilled in Libya’s conflict. The key factor to watch for now is whether other members of the Libyan establishment, emboldened by Koussa’s defection, will follow his example.
AN INSIDER, NOT AN INTIMATE
Koussa has been at the heart of Libyan decision-making. For years he was director of the External Security Organisation, in effect, Libya’s spy chief. He was named foreign minister in 2009 but many diplomats believe even after he took that job he retained the intelligence portfolio. A potential benefit to the West from his defection is that if he decides to share his knowledge he could reveal valuable information about how the Gaddafi administration functions and the weak points that could be exploited to bring Gaddafi down.
Yet for all his insider status, Koussa has at times given an air of being on the edge of the Gaddafi circle. According to a leaked U.S. embassy cable, he privately expressed exasperation with one of Gaddafi’s sons, Mutassim, who he was tasked with training in international diplomacy. Late last year, unconfirmed rumours were circulating in Tripoli that another of Gaddafi’s sons had had an argument with Koussa and punched him in the face in front of several other people. At an international summit in Tripoli in December, he cut a forlorn figure, alone and smoking heavily in the public areas of the summit venue while Gaddafi’s intimates were cloistered in a private room. That suggests that while important, he is not central to Gaddafi’s power structure.
Geoff Porter, an independent analyst on North Africa who has testified on Libya in the U.S. Congress, said Koussa’s defection was one of the first signs the Gaddafi elite was fracturing.
“(Koussa’s) defection implies that even the higher-ups in Gaddafi’s camp think that the game is close to up,” he said.
But he added that Gaddafi himself and his sons “know that they are ‘dead-enders.’ They know that there is no way out of their predicament. There is nowhere to go, there is no exile.”
“So while (Koussa’s) … departure is a sign that things are bad in the Gaddafi camp, it is also a sign that the Gaddafi camp will drift toward extremism, nihilism and acute violence.
WHO IS NEXT?
The received wisdom has been that for many Gaddafi associates it was too late to defect because they had been too closely linked to the violent crackdown on protests, and so had no choice but to stick by the Libyan leader.
Koussa’s defection may send a message to other waverers still at Gaddafi’s side that it is not too late to make a move. There are a number of moderate technocrats inside the government who may be tempted to follow his example. They may not be at the hear of Gaddafi’s ruling circle, but he needs them to keep the country running, so their departure will damage him.
HOW DID HE ESCAPE?
Libyans living in exile have said that Gaddafi is guarding against defections by obliging members of his administration and their families to live in his heavily-guarded Bab el-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli. In effect, say the exiles, they are being held under house arrest. This begs the question of how Koussa got out. According to media reports, when Gaddafi’s former head of protocol, Nuri al-Mismari, decided to flee the country late last year he had to hide himself on board the private aircraft of the wife of a visiting African head of state. Koussa, by contrast, left Libya quite openly. Before flying to London, he crossed into Tunisia in a convoy of armoured limousines, according to a Reuters photographer at the border. This raises intriguing questions. Is the wall of fear that helps Gaddafi maintain power breaking down? Or was there someone close to Gaddafi who helped Koussa leave the country so he could prepare the ground for a bigger defection?
Koussa’s arrival in Britain will be presented as a triumph for Western diplomacy, but it will also raise awkward questions for the British government. Many people believe he had a role in the bombing of an airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 and the shooting of police officer Yvonne Fletcher in London in 1984. One Western diplomat said on Wednesday those past associations would bring up a lot of questions.