Flawed isolation law threatens to undo Libya's gains

As long as the armed militias' tactics of intimidation against Libya's legitimately elected institutions go unchallenged, the dream of a truly democratic Libya will remain only a dream.

Powered by automated translation

Despite Sunday's passage of the long awaited and controversial Libyan political isolation law by the General National Congress (GNC), the siege of government ministries in Tripoli by armed militia protesters in favour of the legislation continues. Negotiations between the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, and these rogue militia groups to bring an end to the blockade have reached an impasse as the demands have escalated to nothing short of the removal of Mr Zeidan from his post.

While the demonstrations began ostensibly with the desire to see pro-Qaddafi elements eliminated from government institutions, it is becoming apparent through their continued presence around the foreign and justice ministries that the isolation law was just a cover. From the beginning the militia's goal was to bring down the Zeidan government and now the two parties are engaged in a power struggle which has thrown the fate of the country into a tailspin.

Originally, the isolation law at the crux of the current crisis 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 peoples' support the regime would not have lasted so long.

However, despite his established history as an opponent of the former dictator, Mr 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.

But as the details of the legislation were being hammered, it became less about freeing Libya from Qaddafi ties and more about political manoeuvring between the different blocs. As each party insisted on conditions that would eliminate its political rivals, they succeeded only in checking each other. Prolonged debate and failure to agree on the scope and breadth of the law led to armed assaults on GNC sessions by militia protesters eager for it to be implemented.

The final result was a piece of sweeping legislation that went well beyond its originally intended targets, ironically encompassing many former opposition figures before the revolution. Most prominent among them is the GNC president, Mohammed El Magariaf, who left the Qaddafi regime early on in his diplomatic career to become one of its most outspoken enemies while living in exile for more than 30 years. To those familiar with his history, Mr El Magariaf's inclusion in the law borders on the absurd while underscoring its flawed, politicised character.

While the new statute aggressively targets former high level regime associates, it does nothing to hold accountable those that were involved in corruption and other crimes after the revolution. A simple change in the current players of the political landscape is not likely to result in an end to the unethical practices which have become endemic to Libyan society as a result of more than 40 years under Qaddafi rule.

Although the vast majority of the Libyan populace supports the political isolation law to varying degrees, the draconian nature and extreme pressure from militias under which the final draft was passed has deeply compromised its integrity and perhaps even its legality. Many who truly believed it was in the interest of Libya and supported it through legitimate means are now realising they may have been short-sighted in considering the potential harm of its side effects.

Now that it has passed, the Libyan public must be prepared to face the unintended consequences of this drastic legislation. Even if it produces the desired effect of cleansing the country's major institutions of ex-regime remnants, this may become a moot point. 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.

The fate of Mr Zeidan and his government now hangs in the balance against this very threat; it is unclear what his next move will be, especially since he has signalled resistance to the use of force.

Yesterday, his minister of defence, Mohammed Al Bargathi, submitted his resignation in protest, calling the siege of the government ministries "an assault against the democracy" he was sworn to protect. Others may follow his lead.

At this stage, even if the embattled prime minister does somehow survive this crisis, the damage has already been done. The bottom line is that as long as the armed militias' tactics of intimidation against the country's legitimately elected institutions go unchallenged, the dream of a truly democratic Libya will remain only that - a dream, and one that seems to be quickly fading away.

Hanan Ghosheh is a Libyan-American political analyst

On Twitter: @hdghosheh