What Libyan Defections Mean for Muammar Qaddafi

A top Libyan diplomat fled to Egypt following the foreign minister's arrival in London

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Two days, two high-profile defections from Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

On Wednesday, Moussa Koussa--Qaddafi's foreign minister and former intelligence chief--resigned and fled to London. Today, former Libyan foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president Ali Abdussalam el-Treki refused to become Qaddafi's next U.N. ambassador, defecting to Egypt instead. Tripoli is awash in rumors of other defections.

So, how should we interpret these developments? Koussa and Treki aren't the first Qaddafi officials to resign, but the last wave--which included the regime's justice and interior ministers--occurred much earlier in the Libyan uprising. Do the recent defections, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested on Thursday, signal that Qaddafi's regime is "crumbling from within?"

Here's why Qaddafi's government may indeed be teetering:

  • Koussa was a Qaddafi confidant  Koussa, a "pillar" of the Libyan regime since Qaddafi's 1969 coup made the calculation that Qaddafi's days in power are numbered, The New York Times' David D. Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell explain. Noman Benotman, a Libyan militant-cum-think tank analyst tells CNN that Moussa's move "attacks the center of gravity within the regime."
  • Koussa has intelligence  Western officials are increasingly counting on a wave of defections within the Qaddafi regime--and not military victory by the rebels--to oust Qaddafi, and "Koussa will have unique insights into whether that is possible and how it might come about," the BBC's Gordon Carera notes. Koussa can also provide information on Qaddafi's war plans, state of mind, and willingness to negotiate an exit strategy, Vivienne Walt points out at Time.
  • Koussa received sanctuary  A Western diplomat tells Adam Tanner and Paul Taylor at Reuters that Koussa's reception in London "sent a message to other Gaddafi loyalists that they could still get sanctuary, even if they were associated with the bloody crackdown on Gaddafi's opponents." But, significantly, British officials claim Koussa has not been granted immunity from prosecution. "Some Western officials and analysts say the risk of landing in court in The Hague is an obstacle to persuading Gaddafi and his entourage to go into exile, and other top aides to defect," Tanner and Taylor add.

And here's why Qaddafi government may not be mortally wounded:

  • Qaddafi still has supporters  A Qaddafi spokesman said on Thursday said the Libyan leader "is surrounded by many people who admire him" and that Qaddafi and his sons will stay "until the end." Taylor and Tanner at Reuters add that Qaddafi's "call to rally against foreign aggression could continue to find support." And even if he loses many friends, Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught adds, Qaddafi is "a law to himself."
  • Qaddafi's keeping those supporters close  Opposition sources tell Reuters that Qaddafi is "keeping ministers and senior officials under close watch near or in his family's compound."
  • Qaddafi still has military strength  Qaddafi's forces have been driving the rebels back east all week. On Tuesday, U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress that Qaddafi's military capabilities are "fairly seriously degraded" but "that does not mean he's about to break from a military standpoint."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.