Transitions

Libya Reverses a Purge

Two years ago a flawed law barred Qaddafi-era officials from political life. Now some politicians are having second thoughts.

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Earlier this week, Libya’s internationally recognized parliament voted to abolish the controversial Political Isolation Law passed two years ago by the previous legislature. A classic example of lustration, the law disbarred any officials with links to the Qaddafi regime from holding public office. On the face of it, such a move seems natural enough: Why have a revolution at all if you allow the agents of the old regime to slink back to their posts? In fact, though, the law created more problems than it solved.

The draconian law was pushed through under pressure from Islamist militias and powerful armed groups from the city of Misrata, a coalition now known as the Libya Dawn alliance. The Islamists saw the law as an instrument to exclude their rivals from political life, thus ensuring their own domination of state institutions. Playing heavily on the theme that the revolution had to be saved from figures of the old regime, they managed to gain crucial support from the powerful militias of the city of Misrata, thus ensuring the bill’s passage.

The law bulldozed over important political realities. First, it’s important to keep in mind that the uprising against Qaddafi succeeded not least because many of the dictator’s own officials (or former officials) turned against him and defected to the forces of the revolution. Several of these people ended up becoming popular and influential players in the immediate post-revolutionary phase — such as the interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril (whose party gained the highest vote totals in the 2012 elections) and Mustafa Abduljalil, chairman of the interim government.

Second, perhaps even more importantly, the law affected all officials of the Qaddafi regime instead of targeting those who had engaged in corrupt or criminal behavior. Anyone who held a post in the old government was automatically disqualified from working in the new one. The scope of the law was so broad that it targeted even junior and local positions in the security, health, and education sectors, depriving the bureaucracy of urgently needed human capital. These institutions were left without the staff needed to run them. Many are near collapse.

Third, the law provoked feelings of injustice, exclusion and marginalization among cities and tribes that were close to the Qaddafi regime, further fueling Libya’s bloody civil war.

For all these reasons, opposition to the Political Isolation Law is nothing new. Members of the parliament in Tobruk have long called for its abolition, and such calls only grew louder in recent weeks as the UN-brokered peace talks have gained momentum. (The photo above shows a Libya Dawn demonstration against the talks in Tripoli last month.) Key figures and groups targeted by the law wanted to ensure any agreement resulting from the dialogue would address the issue of lustration in a way more favorable to them. Dropping the law puts the issue on the negotiating table, which they hope will result in a new, less draconian arrangement.

In today’s Libya, though, nothing is straightforward, and there are also those who are extremely unhappy about the law’s abolition — above all within Islamist Libya Dawn coalition. The law’s cancellation could strengthen the hand of the coalition’s extremists, who claim that the revolution faces an existential threat, and that it can be saved only through a decisive military victory. On the other hand, Libya Dawn moderates, who had been persuaded to participate in the UN talks, are embarrassed, their position weakened. This situation is dangerous, as it could seriously jeopardize the success of the dialogue.

Among those who welcome the law’s disappearance are hard-line supporters of Operation Dignity, the anti-Islamist military campaign led by General Khalifa Haftar. The general now stands a chance of assuming the role of Commander in Chief of Libya’s armed forces, a prospect impossible under the law because he took part in the 1969 coup that helped Qaddafi come to power. (The fact that he turned against Qaddafi in the 1980s and spent decades in exile made no difference under the harsh terms of the Political Isolation Law.) Prime Minister Jibril and his supporters will also be thrilled at the prospect of his return to political life.

Others welcome the abolition of the Political Isolation Law on the grounds that it will ameliorate the shortage of qualified people in state institutions. In an interview, Minister of Interior Omar al-Senki recently described the law as “a huge mistake.” He went on to say that he welcomes the return of Qaddafi-era officials — “particularly [in] the security sector” — to their old jobs.

The cancellation of the Political Isolation Law, while undoubtedly controversial and not without its dangers, is probably a step in the right direction. Enshrining the principles of inclusion, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence in any potential peace deal can only be a positive step. And if this move helps to reverse the policies of exclusion that have plagued Libya’s political life over the past several years of turmoil and war, then the revolution may yet have a chance.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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