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Libya's 'Political Isolation Law' Generates Controversy

Libya's parliament is considering a bill that would categorize Libyans according to their roles during the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Libyan National Congress President Mohammed Magarief speaks at a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the country's revolution in Benghazi February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori  (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3DWRD

TRIPOLI, Libya — Who will enjoy the full rights of citizenship — including serving in public office — in the new Libya?  There may soon be an answer to this question. On Tuesday, parliamentarians began debating a draft of a bill known as the Political Isolation Law. The draft bill lists 36 different categories of Libyans considered “directly responsible” for “corrupting political, economic, social, and administrative life” in Libya during the 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi’s autocracy. The bill, seen by Al-Monitor, also specifies the government positions that banned individuals would be prevented from holding.

Lawmakers argue the law is a necessary and overdue step that the majority of Libyans support. While the desire to prevent those who aided Gadhafi’s abusive and corrupt regime from holding positions of power in Libya today is hard to fault, the draft law is unpopular among Libyan rights activists. Some say that aside from being impractical if not impossible to enforce, the bill will hinder progress toward initiating national reconciliation efforts and promoting the rule of law.

The categories in the bill identify Libyans who served in an extremely diverse array of government functions during the Gadhafi era. The first category singles out “soldiers and civilians” who participated in Gadhafi’s coup in 1969 for exclusion. Subsequent paragraphs exclude editors of newspapers and magazines published during the Gadhafi era; researchers at The World Center for the Study and Research of the Green Book, a Gadhafi mouthpiece; and those who served in the Libyan diplomatic service, among many other citizens.

If the General National Congress (GNC) passes the law in its current form, the individuals currently serving in the highest positions of government during Libya’s ongoing political transition could well be removed. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was a career diplomat before he defected in the 1980s and became a vocal regime critic. GNC President Mohammed Magariaf was the Libyan ambassador to India before defecting in 1980 and later playing a leading role in Libyan opposition movements in exile.

The cases of Zeidan and Magariaf — former Gadhafi officials who abandoned the regime decades before it was toppled in the 2011 uprising — illustrates just one of the complexities of deciding who will and will not be allowed to take part in leading the efforts to build the new Libyan state.

The chairman of the GNC committee that drafted the bill told Al-Monitor that his committee grappled with these complexities. “It’s not fair to put those people who worked with Gadhafi for 40 years and never dismantled the evil regime in the same category as those who worked only one or two or even 10 years and then helped to dismantle the regime,” acknowledged chairman Mohammed Toumi.

“We tried it add some kind of exceptions … but it was difficult because everyone wanted these exceptions to include some people he trusts,” he explained, saying that it is now up to the 200 members of the GNC to consider adding, removing or altering any of the criteria in the tabled bill.

“'Political isolation’ is not a tool to punish people,” said Toumi, before laying out his rationale for the law. “(The people) that led the country for decades under an evil regime were by one way or another a tool in the hands of the ex-regime. We cannot build a democratic state using the tools that had been used to build a dictatorship. We cannot achieve a different result using the same tools.”

“The aim of (the law) is to isolate those who were at the decision-making level in the Gadhafi regime from making decisions in the new state, especially in this first period,” said Dr. Majda Alfallah, a GNC member from the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.

Alfalla told Al-Monitor that her party accepted the draft law and planned to vote in favor it. 

Toumi noted how political exclusion acts had been used in other countries during periods of significant political transition or outright overhaul, such as in post-communist Eastern Europe, as a “protection” measure.

“It’s a very short and sensitive period of time and we need to build the new institutions. We want to make sure these new institutions and our new constitution are built with clean hands,” said Toumi, a trained pilot and former opposition activist who spent 18 years in prison during Gadhafi’s regime.

Some Libyans activists believe the law will have the opposite of its intended effects.

“From a legal perspective it's a law which enshrines retribution and punishment over accountability and the rule of law,” said Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, told Al-Monitor.

“What this law enshrines is revolutionary legitimacy, where merit is assessed by perceived political affiliations and not deeds or qualifications,” said Saudi. “What we need is the rule of law — enshrined not through a sweeping law that disenfranchises people from the political process but which encourages political participation by all and ensures accountability by all who committed crimes whether in the past or present."

“It’s de-Baathification all over again,” said a prominent Libyan rights activist who did want to be named due to his current work with the government, referring to the political purging policy implemented in Iraq to disastrous effect.

“(The law) bans a lot of good people who have expertise running the government,” said activist Mohammed Ben Halim.“A lot of people who stayed in the country (during Gadhafi’s rule) had no option but to work in the government. They were not corrupt.”

The wide net cast by the language of the current draft is also a cause for concern from some camps. A Human Rights Watch statement issued last month encouraged the GNC to “define explicitly which positions under Gadhafi and which past acts warrant exclusion from public office, and for how long.” The monitoring group warned that “vague terminology” would enable the law to be used for partisan purposes.

Maggie Fick is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @maggiefick.

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