The proposed “political isolation law” in Libya is not only a monument to effrontery and audacity. It’s a betrayal of the principles and strategy central to the revolution’s success. Political dynamics in Libya are complex and rapidly shifting. But this proposed bill is a particularly crude and straightforward power-play.
It boils down to this: Islamist parties were trounced by a nationalist coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril in the party section of the recent parliamentary elections. After failing to form an alliance with the majority independents in parliament, Islamist factions were unable to prevent the non-Islamists from steering their own candidate, Ali Zeidan, into the Prime Minister’s office. Libyan Islamists were stunned by how disadvantaged they were compared to their ideological comrades in Egypt and Tunisia. And they’ve decided to try to do something about it: purge the revolution and the new system.
The law they are attempting to bully the rest of the country into accepting is virtually insane. After more than four decades of rule by Muammar al-Qaddafi, anyone who played almost any role in the former regime at any stage would be precluded from holding any significant public office. This includes minor bureaucrats, low-level diplomats, and the overwhelming majority of Libyans with technical expertise or government experience.
The bullying isn’t just political. On March 5, hundreds of violent protesters disrupted Congress demanding passage of the bill, holding lawmakers hostage and opening fire on vehicles. On March 7 another gang of thugs attacked Al-Assema TV after it broadcasted debate on the law, abducting several key figures, some of whom remain missing. And there have been at least two major assassination attempts against Congress President Mohammad Magarief, at least one associated with this campaign of intimidation.
Last week I was involved in a lengthy TV debate with three Libyans, one of whom was a passionate supporter of this unspeakable bill. In defense of this proposed legislative coup d’état, all he could do was keep listing the crimes of the former regime. No one, of course, disputes this.
I bluntly called this a betrayal of the basic principle of the revolution which created a relative unity – of a kind that has eluded, for example, both political and armed opposition groups in Syria – the ‘big tent’ principle. It didn’t matter if you had spent decades outside the country, years in prison, or recently defected from the government. If you are willing to take up activism and arms against Qaddafi, you were welcome into the fold.
He dismissed all of this, denouncing everyone who ever served the former regime in any capacity. I asked him again and again if it were not true that this law would ban political participation by key figures in the revolution and the new system: National Transitional Council leader Moustapha Abdul Jalil, the late revolutionary commander Abdel Fatah Younis, Prime Minister Zeidan, Congress President Magariaf, and, of course, Jibril. I fired these names at him time and again and he categorically refused to deny that any of them would be exempt from exclusion, because, as he put it, “all defectors were rats leaving a sinking ship.”
I pointed out this would be nothing less than a purge, and that the motivation for this was that they lost the election rather badly and, as things stand, have little hope of improving their position. His only answer was that he was in Libya while I was in Washington, which, I noted, meant he had no arguments at all.
But, I continued, I didn’t think he was really as crazy as he was pretending. The proposed law has all the hallmarks of a red herring. There is no doubt that at its core is an effort by Libyan Islamists to rejigger the political system in their favor, having been utterly crushed in the last election. And they are cynically using populist politician Abdurrahman Sewehli of the Union for Homeland party – who takes the strongest line in favor of the proposed law and ‘credit’ for the storming of Parliament – as their front man and cat’s paw. And since Zeidan and Magariaf have been at each other’s throats for months on several issues, their task is all the easier.
What may really be at work is a more subtle agenda pushed by the Qatar-backed and highly influential Libyan Islamist Ali Sallabi. He is appealing for a less draconian exclusion law on a virtually daily basis. By over-bidding so wildly at this point, and having Sallabi pose as a “moderating force” suggesting a “more reasonable” set of exclusions, the Islamists may hope that everyone breathes a sigh of relief at a less draconian measure that nonetheless seeks to force a change in the balance of power in the country. In fact, they ought to be profoundly alarmed at what, in almost any form, can only serve as a ruthless power grab and attack on democracy and pluralism.