Libya struggles to come to terms with the past

Libya is approaching yet another important threshold in its efforts to come to terms with the legacy of the Muammar Qaddafi dictatorship. Next week, Libya’s interim legislature is preparing to vote on the draft of a law designed to ban politicians and officials who had close links with the old regime from high public office ...

Photo by AMR NABIL/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by AMR NABIL/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by AMR NABIL/AFP/GettyImages

Libya is approaching yet another important threshold in its efforts to come to terms with the legacy of the Muammar Qaddafi dictatorship. Next week, Libya's interim legislature is preparing to vote on the draft of a law designed to ban politicians and officials who had close links with the old regime from high public office in the new Libya.

Many other post-dictatorial societies have struggled with comparable problems. Post-World War II Germany went through a dramatically uneven "denazification." The countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe embarked on a highly controversial process known as "lustration." Now it's Libya's turn. It's clear that there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Originally the idea was that the law would only target officials who helped Qaddafi to stay in power, committed crimes, or acted corruptly. But as it passed through committee in the General National Congress (GNC), the bill kept expanding: Now it encompasses 36 categories of civil servants. In addition to senior officials of the old government, the law includes editors of newspapers associated with Qaddafi, the presidents and vice presidents of universities, ambassadors, and even Libyans with dual nationality. The proposed bill will isolate officials from public office who worked with Qaddafi at any point from September 1, 1969 to October 30, 2011.

Libya is approaching yet another important threshold in its efforts to come to terms with the legacy of the Muammar Qaddafi dictatorship. Next week, Libya’s interim legislature is preparing to vote on the draft of a law designed to ban politicians and officials who had close links with the old regime from high public office in the new Libya.

Many other post-dictatorial societies have struggled with comparable problems. Post-World War II Germany went through a dramatically uneven "denazification." The countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe embarked on a highly controversial process known as "lustration." Now it’s Libya’s turn. It’s clear that there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Originally the idea was that the law would only target officials who helped Qaddafi to stay in power, committed crimes, or acted corruptly. But as it passed through committee in the General National Congress (GNC), the bill kept expanding: Now it encompasses 36 categories of civil servants. In addition to senior officials of the old government, the law includes editors of newspapers associated with Qaddafi, the presidents and vice presidents of universities, ambassadors, and even Libyans with dual nationality. The proposed bill will isolate officials from public office who worked with Qaddafi at any point from September 1, 1969 to October 30, 2011.

Despite the various arguments in favor of the isolation law, the whole issue has taken a disturbing twist. Each of the three main political blocs (Justice and Construction, National Front, and National Forces Alliance) in the GNC submitted their own versions of how the law should look. It quickly became apparent that each group was aiming to use the law as a tool to neutralize its opponents.

The law in its current form will also include many of the current officials in the GNC and the government, including de facto head of state Mohamed Al Magariaf (from the National Front Bloc), Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, and National Forces Alliance leader Mahmoud Jibril. All three of these men served in leading positions under Qaddafi before defecting and opposing him. The law will also include some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading figures, but the Brotherhood seems to be willing to sacrifice some of its leaders in order to get rid of prominent rivals — especially Mahmoud Jibril, a leading secular politician who is popular among Libyans. As a result, the Islamists are pushing for the isolation law to be approved. If the law in its current form is approved, it will immediately create a political and institutional vacuum in Libya.

Libyan activists and civil society organizations such as Lawyers for Justice in Libya have expressed concerns. They’re urging the GNC to respect human rights and the rule of law and to prevent the law from being used as a tool for retribution and revenge. In addition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement last month that urged the GNC to "define explicitly which positions under [Qaddafi] and which past acts warrant exclusion from public office, and for how long." HRW also warned that "vague terminology" would enable the law to be used for partisan purposes. Mustafa Abduljalil, a leader of the previous post-revolutionary government, has drawn attention to the same issues.

Abduljalil, also minister of justice under Gaddafi’s regime before defecting in the early days of the revolution in 2011 to form the NTC with Mahmoud Jibril and others, spoke out against the isolation law in a recent TV interview. Abduljalil described the law as a battleground between political parties, one where the parties are now trying to topple each other after toppling Gaddafi. He also stated that those pushing for the law are targeting Mahmoud Jibril in particular due to his wide popularity among Libyans — a factor that largely prevented the Islamists from surging to victory in Libya’s general elections last year.

Hasan Al-Amin, a leading human rights activist within the GNC and a member of the committee that drafted the law, said in a recent newspaper interview the parties pressured them to work fast, and that this led to a badly written bill. Now the GNC is passing the draft bill along to the legal and constitutional affairs committees for revision. The present version proposes that those affected will be isolated from leadership roles for a period of ten years; but Al-Amin stated that many GNC members say that five years should suffice. According to the national political roadmap adopted by the former transitional government in 2011, the law must be assured of constitutional immunity (in other words, the supreme court will not be allowed to assess its constitutionality). Such an amendment will require the approval of two-thirds of the members of the GNC for passage. Since the law targets many of the GNC members, though, it’s highly unlikely that they will vote "yes."

The law in its current form would undermine current efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Libya. It would polarize politics and society, hindering Libya’s transition to democracy and rule of law. This seems particularly risky in light of the fact that the country right now has no mechanisms or institutions to guarantee that such a law will be enforced justly. Without such safeguards, Libya’s isolation law runs the risk of paving the way to a new tyranny.  

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.