Libya: legislating under duress

Armed groups withdrew from Libya’s foreign and justice ministries at the weekend, ending a siege which lasted almost a fortnight, and bringing some respite – if only temporarily – in the country’s political crisis.

An agreement to call off the siege came after the armed groupshad been confronted on Friday by anti-militia protesters who drove some of them away.

Although the ultimate goal of the militias is apparently to reshape Libya’s government, the immediate issue is the Political Isolation Law – designed to exclude erstwhile Gaddafi supporters from public office – which was approved under duress by Libya's interim parliament, the General National Congress. .

Writing in The National, Hanan Ghosheh explained:

“Originally, the isolation law … was intended to prevent former regime officials from participating in public life as Libya tries to build a democratic framework of government. It is not surprising that, in theory, the law enjoys widespread support among Libyans. After all, these individuals enabled, prolonged and profited from the destruction of the country under the Qaddafi regime. The general feeling is that without these people’s support the regime would not have lasted so long.

“However, despite his established history as an opponent of the former dictator, Mr Zeidan [prime minister, Ali Zeidan] failed to accurately gauge the depth of the public stigma associated with ex-regime figures when initially forming his government.

“His appointment of former Libyan ambassador to the United States, Ali Al Aujali, to the post of foreign minister raised the eyebrows of even his staunchest supporters. That move made Mr Zeidan vulnerable to scathing criticism from his opponents, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and militia groups with Islamist and foreign ties.

“Even now, the public's perception is that regime supporters are still entrenched in many ministries, conducting business just as they were before the revolution. 

“Mr Zeidan's perceived inability to remove them quickly enough renewed the fervour of the pro-isolation movement while also giving militias unhappy with the prime minister's rhetoric against them a pretext to attack him under the deceptive guise of wanting to protect the February 17th revolution.”

So, while the law was not unreasonable in principle, political machinations – involving the militias and others – over the drafting led to its scope being stretched far beyond what was originally intended. This has prompted some observers to make comparisons with the disastrous de-Baathification process in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Commenting on the law in the New York Times last week, David Kirkpatrick wrote:

“Bowing to pressure from armed Islamists and other militiamen, the congress passed a law to exclude former officials of the Qaddafi era from public office. Its text was so broadly written that it may force out of office both the president of the congress, Mohammed Magarief, and the prime minister, Ali Zeidan. Both spent long careers in opposition to Colonel Qaddafi after short stints as Libyan diplomats at the beginning of his 40-year reign.

“Although the law’s full repercussions remain to be seen, its backers made clear that their first aim was to exclude from power Mahmoud Jibril, the politician who leads the main coalition in congress opposed to the Islamists. 

“A political scientist trained at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr Jibril organised the rebels’ provisional government during the battle to oust Colonel Qaddafi and played an integral role in enlisting crucial western backing for the fight. But before that he worked for three years as the head of an economic planning board under the Qaddafi government.”

There’s little doubt that those who used threats to widen the scope of the Isolation Law were hoping to bring down Zeidan’s government – and they may yet succeed in that. Others, though, resent their browbeating of Congress. 

The Libya Herald quotes one of Friday’s anti-militia demonstrators as saying: “I don’t like Zeidan, but he was appointed by a democratically-elected Congress. We must support him”. Another is quoted as saying: “I don’t want him removed this way. It must be Congress that decides.”

The protesters also accused Qatar of interfering in Libya by funding Salafists and other Islamists. Qatar has taken the allegations seriously enough to issue a denial, and on Sunday prime minister Zeidan attempted to smooth things over with the Gulf state. The Libya Herald reports:

“In a meeting … with the Qatari Ambassador, Sheikh Mohammed bin Nasser Al Thani, the prime minister said that there was no evidence for such accusations. He laid stress on the depth and strength of relations between the two states. There was profound mutual respect between the two, he said, noting that Libya valued the role Qatar had played during the revolution – politically, militarily and in terms of the humanitarian aid provided.

“For his part, the Qatari ambassador reiterated that what was being said in the media and social networking about Qatari interference sites had no basis of truth …”

Writing for Foreign Policy, Mohamed Eljarh notes another consequence of the Isolation Law – that it leaves the Muslim Brotherhood relatively unscathed:

"The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya seems to be the least affected by this law, and it is most likely to benefit if prominent figures are pushed out of the political scene. Despite being one of the most organized political movements in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood has so far failed to win the trust of the people, in clear contrast to its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

"The law is intended to come into effect on June 6, and the GNC [General National Congress] has a mechanism to replace the now-isolated members who were elected by the Libyan people as their representatives in July of last year. The runner-up candidates will replace the 'isolated' representatives that ran as independents, and candidates who ran under a party banner will be replaced by the next candidate on the party list, assuming that they have not been 'isolated' themselves."

Hanan Ghosheh adds that in the longer term it may also harm the prospects for democratic rule:

“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.”

However, it’s not clear how long the Isolation Law can survive. The Associated Press reported last week:

Legal experts as well as supporters and opponents of the new law note that it can be overridden if it's not included in a new constitution that has yet to be drafted. The parliament itself is temporary, with its main mission being the formation of a panel to write the charter that will result in new elections.

"This parliament and this government are transitional and therefore any decrees that are passed under transitional bodies become invalid," said veteran lawyer Abdullah Banoun. "Only after the new constitution passes, and we know how Libya will look in the future, only then can parliament debate laws like that."

Here are some more articles that give background on the new law:

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Monday, 13 May 2013