“The counsel general decided not to come to work today,” the man at the Libyan consulate in Sfax, Tunisia, told me. Like many other journalists in this sun-bleached industrial city a few hours from the Libyan border, yesterday I had been promised a visa “soon,” and to “come back later.” Which I duly did, making the tired sweep from hotel to consulate to café to consulate to restaurant to consulate to café in an endless loop terminated only by the clang of the consulate’s metal gate as it shut for the day – at 3pm. So this morning I reported for duty as usual, armed with reading material and a hopeful smile, only to be told that the consul-general was taking a holiday, and had taken his precious visa stamp with him.
“He’s probably defecting,” I joked, sotto voce, to my new found friends similarly seeking visas. But a statement made in jest could have inadvertently touched truth. Only a few hours later did I learn that Libya’s Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa had made an unannounced “private” visit to Tunis the evening before, and that his deputies (including the man responsible for the press corps’ elusive visas) had gone with him. My holidaying consul-general may have in fact taken his visa stamp to Tunis, a three-hour drive to the west, to meet his boss. So what is Libya’s foreign minister doing in Tunis?
In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that some Gaddafi aides had been reaching out to their contacts in the west, “saying what do we do? How do we get out of this?” She didn’t name names of course, and there is no indication of how high up the aids were, but given the situation it doesn’t seem outlandish that defections are on the minds of many – especially those with plausible exit plans. In one of his most recent press conferences, reports Al Jazeera, Koussa looked decidedly unhappy, igniting speculation that the former intelligence chief may have already been contemplating a switch. Of course, in the erratic and opaque world of Libyan politics, speculation is about as close to the truth as you can get (the same apparently applies to the granting of visas). In the same interview Clinton suggested that some of the outreach might have been simple “game playing,” or yet another example of Gaddafi’s “unpredictable” behavior. “But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, ‘what are my options, where could I go, what could I do?’ And we would encourage that,” she said. So maybe Koussa is simply exploring his options. And maybe the consul-General in Sfax really is just taking the day off. I certainly hope so, because if he has defected with his boss, I am unlikely to get my visa any time soon.