After months of anticipation and weeks of jubilant protests in the capital, Libyan lawmakers enacted a political isolation law last week that prohibits officials who served the previous regime from reentering public service.
To the revolutionaries who fought against dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces for eight months during Libya’s civil war, as well for the activists who spent decades in exile before the uprising erupted in February 2011, the law is final proof that their long and sometimes bloody work was worthwhile.
Thousands of Libyans celebrated in the streets of Tripoli once news of the law’s passing spread, some honking their horns joyfully at its strict prohibition on all of Gaddafi’s former henchmen.
Having won 80 percent support in the legislature, the law’s enactment, more than two years after Libyans took up arms against Gaddafi, was an indication that the North African country still has to rid itself of all vestiges of the old order but is simultaneously committed to building a political system from scratch after four decades of authoritarian rule.
That the task is difficult was plain ahead of the vote when democracy observers warned that the law could be used to sideline political opponents. Although designed to root out Gaddafi loyalists from positions of power, the text of the isolation law is sufficiently broad to theoretically kick out anymore who held any important position while Gaddafi was in power.
Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, lobbied against its passing in a press release, arguing that its articles were not only discriminatory to Libyans who may have been a part of the former regime but a violation of the country’s responsibilities under international charters, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Libyans have a right to expect that officials who abused their positions under Gaddafi to commit crimes or violate human rights will be removed and never again allowed to hold public office,” the Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division. “But this law is far too vague — potentially barring anyone who ever worked for the authorities during the four decades of Gaddafi’s rule.”
Gaddafi may have been loathed around the world but some of his bureaucrats, diplomats and military personnel were legitimate, technocratic public servants. The isolation law could be used to punish them when they might only wanted to serve their country.
If proponents of the law intend on implementing it in full, even Libya’s incumbent prime minister Ali Zeidan and president of the General National Congress Mohammed Magariaf should resign. Both served as diplomats in the 1970s before fleeing the country and joining the opposition to Gaddafi.
At a time when militias continue to usurp Libya’s military and national police in terms of arms and influence and large territories remain outside the government’s control, the last thing Libyans need is the removal of seasoned administrators and some of their senior leaders who enjoy the support of both the legislature and countries in the West that helped topple Gaddafi’s dictatorship with a military intervention in 2011.