The question of who did what – whether during Muammar Gadafy’s 42 years in power or during the 2011 revolution that ousted him – continues to haunt Libya as it struggles to rebuild itself.
So few were surprised on Sunday when its transitional national congress, elected last summer in Libya’s first elections in more than four decades, approved a law barring senior Gadafy-era officials from public office.
So vague and sweeping are the law’s provisions that Tripoli is abuzz with guessing games regarding who exactly within post-Gadafy Libya’s power structures will be affected. Even figures known for decades as active opposition figures may fall foul of the legislation if they briefly held official positions at the beginning of Gadafy’s rule. Among those expected to lose their posts are several ministers and more than a dozen congress members.
The Bill, which will be implemented by a committee charged with deciding whether officials fall under the terms of exclusion, comes into force in 30 days. Those who are deemed to meet the criteria will be banned from government positions for 10 years. Proponents of the law argue it is a necessary cull that will root out ex-regime officials whose presence, they argue, is undermining public faith in Libya’s fledgling institutions. Critics, including human rights groups, say the Bill goes too far and risks derailing hopes of a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Guilt by association
"[The legislation] violates human rights and Libya's provisional constitution because it allows for guilt by association rather than provable misdeeds. The provisions and procedures for exclusion are overly broad and vague," said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch. "The desire to ban corrupt and abusive officials is understandable, but this law is deeply flawed."
The Bill was the culmination of months of often emotional debate and demonstrations, along with backchannel manoeuvrings by Libya’s political groupings and militias. Tensions rose last week as armed militiamen, some in trucks mounted with heavy weaponry, surrounded several government ministries demanding the law be passed.
“We’ve learned that this government will not do anything unless they see the guns,” one man from Benghazi observed ominously. But other Libyans, among them supporters of some form of exclusion law, were unhappy with the armed protests, seeing them as just the latest example of different factions resorting to the threat of violence to get what they want.
A necessary evil
Irish-born Housam Najjair, who fought in 2011 uprising, admits he falls somewhere in the middle. "I don't agree with the methods used but it needs to be done ... the offices are crawling with [former regime officials]. As far as I'm concerned what has happened is a necessary evil."
Some have sought to portray the battle over the exclusion law as one between Libya's Islamists and its more secular-leaning forces, chief among them Mahmoud Jibril, a political scientist who headed an economic planning entity under Gadafy before joining the 2011 uprising and becoming de facto prime minister. But although figures like Sami Saadi, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, played a prominent role in the exclusion law campaign, support for it extended beyond Libya's Islamist firmament.
Furthermore, as Dr Majda Fallah, a parliamentarian for the Muslim Brotherhood-linked JCP who lived in Ireland for several years, noted, some Muslim Brotherhood members who joined the al-Ghad reform initiative of Gadafy's son Saif may be affected. Another prominent Islamist from eastern Libya argued that the possible exclusion of some Islamists didn't matter "as long as we keep the Gadafy people out"
The law means it is impossible to predict what Libya’s political landscape will look like in the coming months. The country’s daunting array of challenges – from security to economic, not to mention the prickly task of drafting a constitution– just got more challenging.