RABAT (Reuters) - Supporters of a top aide of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Thursday he was a victim of a power struggle inside the ruling elite, after France arrested him at the request of Libyan authorities.
Nuri al-Mismari’s arrest deprives Gaddafi of a confidante who witnessed at first hand how the North African country returned to international good graces after decades in isolation.
He was arrested in Paris on Sunday after a request from Tripoli, which said he was suspected of embezzlement, the French Justice Ministry said late on Wednesday. France gave Libya 30 days to submit evidence backing its accusations.
But analysts and diplomats say the way Tripoli handles his case will be crucial in either rallying the political elite behind Gaddafi or in encouraging more of its members to consider leaving the country and cause him greater embarrassment.
What brought Mismari to Paris in the first place could not clearly be established: Some analysts speak of an outright defection while his supporters say he was set up.
On Thursday, Libya Press agency, sponsored by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, quoted a “well-informed source close to Mismari” as dismissing the embezzlement accusations as the work of Libyan security services and saying he went to Paris for heart surgery.
“Mismari is the victim of a plot by some security services to keep him away from the leader (Gaddafi) ... He never intended to flee or seek political asylum in Paris ... Mismari will remain a soldier faithful to the leader and the revolution.”
News about Mismari’s exit took at least a month to reach the public domain, but there is little doubt about his prominence.
“He knows the inner workings of the regime ... He is the gate keeper,” said Charles Gurdon, a London-based Libya expert at consultancy Menas Associates. “It’s very unusual for someone to defect from Libya,” he added.
Ashur Shamis, editor of online newspaper Akhbar Libyaonline, said Mismari “knew everything there is to know about Gaddafi”.
Mismari has for years been at Gaddafi’s side as part of a tiny group of officials in his innermost circle. “He was a very familiar character in Gaddafi’s tent,” Gurdon said.
The tent, the traditional quarters Gaddafi often insists on laying out even when he travels abroad, is open only to visiting dignitaries and his closest aides.
The greatest risk from the case may stem from a “negative handling of Mismari’s repatriation”, said a senior Western diplomat based in North Africa.
“This is happening at a time when there is a great deal of anticipation about how Gaddafi plans to ensure the continuity of an atypical regime. Not everyone in his working and/or personal entourage is pleased about the designs that are being proposed by bolder and more progressive members of the elite, such as Saif al-Islam,” said the diplomat.
Saif al-Islam, who took a central role in ending Libya’s stand-off with the West, is Gaddafi’s most prominent son.
The behind-the-scenes power struggle between the reform camp and conservatives flared in November when outlets controlled by Saif al-Islam’s media group published criticism of the government. This has led to the arrest of 20 of the group’s reporters and print version of its main newspaper was suspended.
The row subsided after Gaddafi ordered the reporters’ release.
While Libya has potential to become a top Mediterranean pick for investors, analysts say business-friendly reforms are stalled there as depicted by its deteriorating on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2010.
Standing out with his long white hair and tailored cowboy-style jackets, Mismari was a constant presence at public events where he would stand next to the Libyan leader. He was often seen barking orders at subordinates and shepherding visitors in front of the Libyan leader.
His influence went beyond his job title as head of protocol, according to people who observed Gaddafi circle’s workings.
Shamis said Mismari “is well aware of Gaddafi’s relations with African leaders. These are not normal relations and any information about how these ties are nurtured may embarrass Gaddafi”.
“The (other) risk for Gaddafi is that he (Mismari) may divulge information about his health, his psychological state etc,” said Shamis.