Political Isolation and Libya’s Future

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Ever since the downfall of Qadhafi, Libyans have wrestled with the question of what to do with those who worked for the ancien régime. The questions being asked are not unlike those Iraqis had to deal with in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and deal specifically with how far the new government should go in expunging the state apparatus of any official or civil servant that served under the previous order. The law, passed only after militants flexed their muscles outside of the parliament, bans most Qadhafi-era officials from holding office for ten years. Many regional and international observers have criticized the law for removing many experienced officials from the state apparatus while failing to specifically target those who may be guilty of wrongdoing.

According to several news reports, including one by Al Arabiya, following the passing of the law competing camps took to the streets of Libya’s capital and other major cities and fought outside government buildings: “Clashes have been reported Friday evening outside the Libyan foreign ministry between gunmen and protesters denouncing a law recently passed by the country’s ruling Islamists, sources told Al Arabiya. Sources speaking to the news channel said gunmen were reportedly dressed in military uniforms and had kidnapped a number of protesters. Meanwhile, hundreds of Libyan activists protested in three major cities slamming the ‘Political Isolation Law,’ which was passed by the Libyan congress earlier this week.”

The general fear expressed by domestic and international observers seems to be that — as in Iraq where the de-Bathification law contributed to a rise in violence — Libya would see instability as a result of the isolation law. As Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in Chief of Alquds Alarabi, puts it: “Those who drafted the new law do not understand that such political alienation will kindle anger and frustration among hundreds of Libyans who worked with the Gaddafi regime for over 40 years. Gaddafi was the legitimate authority at the time, and politicians had no choice but to work and feed their children. These former leaders, along with their children, could turn into enemies of the new regime, which already faces animosity due to territorial division, insecurity, and the failure of state institutions to provide basic services to citizens.”

In addition to such fears, Tripoli Post’s Abdullah Elmaazi is also concerned about what message the new law sends about what kind of future Libyans want to build: “While no one can deny that the revolutionaries who toppled the regime must be assured of their rightful place in government, the victor’s justice must be just otherwise we will have merely replaced one form of tyranny for another….Libyans must eschew the nihilistic politics of revenge and the conquest and bounty mantra which currently exists and adopt policies of reconciliation and inclusion. This is the only road to national salvation.”

Others believe that politicians and activists are focusing too much on the isolation law at the expense of a comprehensive ‘developmental vision,’ which, according to Mahmoud Jibril, speaking to the influential The Majalla magazine, can prove detrimental to the country: “With the country still in the midst of rising instability, some sections of Libyan society have opposed the isolation law, calling for political reconciliation and the beginning of a new era. These voices have largely been silenced in the recent period in the face of accusations of treason and counter-revolution….Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Jibril asserted that ‘isolation should not be the biggest concern of the Libyan people, we must not abandon our main agenda, and that is our need for an army, police force and courts, as well as a developmental vision regarding the problems that have accumulated over the past forty-two years.’”
Moreover, as the Khaleej Times editorial argues, if there is a danger to the legitimacy of the new Libyan state, it is the armed gangs rather than former low-ranking government officials or civil servants. Therefore, it is the armed gangs that the government ought to be concerned about: “While there is rationale in the argument that Gaddafi’s henchmen, who plundered wealth and misused their offices, should be prosecuted for their wrongdoings, there is no point in bringing down the edifice of day-to-day governance by suspecting officials for their political likings. The government in Tripoli should look at the wider picture of governance and restore its writ by beefing up security measures. Rather than wasting time on tracing and sacking Gaddafi men, it would be better advised to outlaw the militants. The defiance against the state should come to an end.”

The challenge, of course, is that there is a case to be made in favor of the isolation law. Libya Herald’s Niz Ben-Essa  asserts that the question is not whether the law is supported by the majority of the population or not: “Can a law that punishes you for your employment history, rather than your ethical behavior, be a just law? …Despite my uncertainty and indecision, one thing is clear — In a nation which aspires to be democratic and just, no law, no matter how essential, no matter how strong the consensus in favor if it, no law can hold true legitimacy when passed at the end of the barrel of a gun.”

For some, Libya’s newly passed law sends a clear signal about where the country is headed to and to the degree that the Libyan intervention involved Western powers, it highlights the urgent need for more productive involvement by the West: “Until this point, the Libyan revolution has served to exemplify the positive potential of Western involvement in the Arab Spring, particularly when examining wanton destruction and rising radicalism in Syria. Despite the risks to their own safety, Libya’s anti-militia and pro-democracy voices have already called for mobilization. In the coming days, these activists are expected to take to the streets and confront heavily armed militias to demonstrate to the world their thirst for democracy. With Libya’s stable and prosperous future hanging in the balance, the West can ill afford to turn a blind eye. “

But perhaps the damage has already been done, and all one can do now is come to terms with a new reality in Libya, one where, according to The National’s Hanah Ghosheh, armed gangs force the hand of the government: “Now that it has passed, the Libyan public must be prepared to face the unintended consequences of this drastic legislation. Even if it produces the desired effect of cleansing the country’s major institutions of ex-regime remnants, this may become a moot point. The armed protesters’ success in imposing their will on the GNC through coercion has set a dangerous precedent, clearing the way for a new breed of dictatorship to take root and replace the old one – mob rule through armed force.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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