31 Mar 2011

The flicker in the two foot high Libyan face on the video wall

Once in a while something happens to a newsman on television in the middle of a live television interview that in a split second tells you a thousand truths. So it was on Monday night when I was interviewing one of Libya’s deputy Foreign Ministers. Just before going on air, we had heard a reasonably well sourced rumour that Moussa Koussa – his boss – had defected via Tunisia.

In the course of my interview, I challenged the Deputy with this information. Even though we were connected by little more than a jumped-up video phone, his face – two foot high in the studio wall in front of me – was clear. I saw in that very moment, a flicker, a flicker I could well have missed had we been face to face. The flicker, together with a miniscule pause and change in the timbre of his voice told me I had hit home. “He has been in Tunisia, he is back, he is in a meeting later tonight,” the Deputy told me. Oh yes? Our informant had talked of Koussa having travelled to Tunisia in a road convoy…if he really were back, it would have to have been by plane, at night, under bombardment from the enforcement of the no-fly zone. I rapidly concluded, Moussa Koussa: no fly. Moussa Koussa had defected!

But I could not prove it. All I could do was to Tweet my strong sense that Koussa had defected, and await developments. Koussa is well known to MI6 who were pivotal to engineering a channel with him in the reopening of dialogue over Megrahi, the accused Lockerbie bomber. Koussa’s defection via Tunisia and Farnborough airfield has all the hallmark’s of their cloak, and their sheathed dagger.

But one Koussa, does not itself a Gaddafi fall signal. There have been rumours of tensions in the past – he is supposed to have been ‘struck’ by one of Gaddafi’s sons. He is not, and was not a military man.  Top level diplomatic defections have been two a penny. This is indeed the most top level yet, and may prove useful. But the harsh realities in Libya lie in the carnage and bombardment littering the coastal towns of North Eastern Libya. The military stranglehold on Tripoli and on the relatives of other potential ‘high value’ officials in Gaddafi’s regime is complete. Koussa’s defection may prove to be a hairline fracture, even a potentially noisy one. But for genuine splintering – a military or Gaddafi familial defection would be needed.

My own limited exposure to dictators suggest that the greatest danger  to them resides, not in defecting Foreign ministers, but in the hidden hand of the close friend or relative ‘behind the arras’. The talk is of exile for Gaddafi. It is not talk that I find consistent with the Gaddafi I have met and reported. My sense is that the Colonel will be disposed of by his own – sooner, or later. How soon – I don’t know, I need another two foot high face in the video wall and a pointed question perhaps, to find out.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4