Libyan Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem has defected from the Qaddafi regime and fled to Tunisia.
This defection is a big deal. Ghanem had been at OPEC when Libya was under economic sanctions, and his return to Libya as prime minister and head of the ruling party in 2003 was intended to signal Muammar Qaddafi’s return to respectability in the international community. Ghanem became the face of the reformed Libya, which had given up its dabbling in chemical and other weapons and was willing to privatize its state sector industries and do big deals with Western oil companies. He staunchly defended Qaddafi, going so far as to, in a 2004 BBC interview, deny the regime’s responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. Ghanem late became head of the powerful oil ministry. If Qaddafi cannot retain Ghanem, he cannot retain his technocratic elite in general. It is another sign that the regime is collapsing.
The defection is likely in part a response to the International Criminal Court indictment of Qaddafi and his eldest son. Persons who now continue to be right hand men of that regime are themselves in danger of prosecution for war crimes. There are fewer and fewer places regime figures could flee the reach of the ICC. Since Qaddafi has deeply angered Saudi Arabia, even that famed refuge for deposed heads of state is out of the question.
Despite the cavilling about the ICC indictment, in fact it is likely to hasten the end of the regime by signalling to the Tripoli elite that they are increasingly likely to face prosecution and sanctions, encouraging them to throw the Qaddafis under the bus. If Tripoli could quickly move to expel the Qaddafis (I hear Ecuador has no extradition), and then the Western elites with no massacres on their hands could sue to join the Benghazi leaders in a government of national unity, the fighting could end quickly.
The Transitional National Council is already moving to form such a national government, bringing delegates from around the country. Tripoli’s accession would be welcomed by the TNC, which already has many Qaddafi defectors in its ranks.