By IBRAHIM SHARQIEH
AT the January national conference of the Association of the Families of the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in Tripoli, I saw the Libyan legislator Abdel Wahab Mohamed Qaid lead a chant in support of the country’s proposed “Political Exclusion Law.”
The law, which Parliament has accepted in principle, will disqualify anyone associated with the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi from holding public office in Libya — not just senior regime officials, but potentially the country’s upper- and mid-level bureaucracy as well.
In the expansive auditorium in Tripoli, victims’ families responded in unison, cheering Qaid and calling on him to push the law.
I had heard similar sentiments two days earlier when speaking with former revolutionaries protesting in front of Parliament. They told me that the Political Exclusion Law must be approved and strictly enforced if Libya is to protect the revolution and head off corruption in the country’s new government.
Libya’s revolutionaries and the families of victims of the Abu Salim massacre are sincere and well-intentioned in their efforts to both build a new Libya and keep those who contributed to Qaddafi’s rule away from any form of authority.
The emotions at the People’s Auditorium in central Tripoli were high; victims’ mothers and sisters cried, while men chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is great). They had come to the conference for answers — to find out what really happened to their 1,270 loved ones, executed without trial by Qaddafi’s secret police.
Qaid himself spent 16 years in Abu Salim prison; “I grew up in prison,” he told The New York Times last October. He is the brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was described in the article as Al Qaeda’s “brightest star and second in command” and was later killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan. Qaid is now a moderate member of the Libyan Parliament, advocating tolerance and pluralism. Part of his mission is championing the Abu Salim families.
For their part, the revolutionaries protesting in front of Parliament underwent their share of suffering under Qaddafi. In addition to serving long years in prisons, many were either wounded or lost loved ones during the fighting to oust Qaddafi. Now the revolutionaries believe their mission is to defend their victory. They must protect Libya from a counterrevolution they see as beginning with the penetration of state institutions by Qaddafi loyalists.
These impulses to hold former regime figures accountable and build a Libyan state based on good governance are what motivate calls for the Political Exclusion Law. The law’s advocates should be careful, however: Societal division, instability and the regrouping of Qaddafi loyalists could be among the unintended consequences of the law as written.
The advocates must be mindful not to repeat the Iraqi experience of “de-Baathification.” In attempting to strike all members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from public life, the Coalition Provisional Authority essentially wrecked Iraqi reconstruction, marginalizing large segments of society and fueling sectarianism.
The first, direct outcome of enforcing the Libyan Political Exclusion Law would be pushing smart, influential former officials — some with access to key resources — toward a not insignificant segment of Libyan society unhappy with the revolution’s outcome.
There are currently around one million Libyan refugees in neighboring countries, particularly Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons all throughout Libya.
One of the grimmer aspects of the Libyan revolution was that it labeled entire towns (including Sirte and Bani Walid) and entire tribes (including the Warfalla) as pro-Qaddafi, thus excluding them from Libya’s rebuilding process. These marginalized communities — refugees, displaced people and ostracized tribes and towns — are a ticking bomb. The Political Exclusion Law will push a new group of powerful former officials to join these excluded communities. Together, they can regroup to mount a challenge to the revolution and the stability of the country.
The officials targeted by the Political Exclusion Law are also the ones with governing experience and the know-ledge of how to actually run the country, including the state’s education, economy and oil bureaucracies. Libya has a shortage of judges, for example, and almost every working judge had some role in the former regime. So the Political Exclusion Law would leave Libya with a paralyzed judiciary, with devastating consequences.
Equally important, the Political Exclusion Law is an arbitrary and ineffective defense against corruption. Corrupt bureaucrats who were not part of the Qaddafi regime would be able to occupy senior positions in the new government, while honest individuals forced to work in the old system for lack of an alternative would be ousted.
The frustration of victims’ families and revolutionaries is understandable and must be addressed. The solution to their grievances is a transitional justice law that targets individuals — not communities — based on their actions under the old regime. The law should hold accountable individuals who are guilty of real crimes, not guilty by association.
Instead of the Political Exclusion Law, Libyans should be investing their efforts in building a thorough and transparent transitional justice law. It would provide a real, fair accounting for those guilty of offenses under the previous regime while allowing victims’ wounds to heal. At the same time, it would avoid further dividing Libya, and spare the country from another wrenching conflict.
Ibrahim Sharqieh is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.
In Many ways you are correct, the personal, expertise and resource logistics chains for a country are not easily replaceable. The revolution and it’s current political leadership will continue to rule from an emotionally charged position for some time to come. It’s to be expected.
The public as well as the current elected Politicians will eventually have to manage a society wide healing process followed by country wide conflict resolution programs designed to find a new and perhaps lasting peace for all Libyans.
Perhaps this is where new agreements will be formed, and opportunities to work and exist together will be presented.
We as a global community will need to consider that not all of the past regime supporters were hardliners, and that some inherited family politics and positions. These people were probably only interested in living a decent life under the political and economic conditions which existed. These individuals will need to be classified, and forgiven in many cases.
Others, who were the loyalists, hardliners who broke human rights violations will also need to be identified, classified, monitored and in many cased charged and brought to trial.
Libya requires an enormous amount of support reconstructing, and my professional recommendation and hopes are that the Muslim community globally will be mobilized and become involved in this proud countries re-birth and reclaiming of it’s Democracy. I also hope the leadership consults reconstruction experts and firms who have the know how to support success.
I attended a Libyan Embassy event in Canada Last month and met some of the leadership responsible for the reconstruction of the country. I was impressed by the other Arab Countries in attendance support for Libya and I view this as an opportunity for Muslims globally to come together and support new thinking.
Thanks, John. I agree with you completely. Based on what I witnessed in the conference of the association of the prison massacre, one can't underestimate their needs for healing and justice. The question for us in the field is really how to address these grievances while maintaining an efficient reconstruction process! It is a tough situation.
A great article, indeed! Thanks. But let's also look at it like this. If for now the Political Exclusion Law targets all those associated with the former regime, what will be the status of those yet to come who will naturally and inevitably fall out with the current system? Will these still isolate themselves from the associates of the former regime or will they join them and increasingly constitute a critical mass to hit back at the present regime or its associates? Where shall the country end with turns of revenge and counter revenge? In other words, does such a law portend any sustainability for the country or it spells doom? I'd rather that such a law was scrapped and if not yet passed, it should never see the light of day. Indeed, let there be a free and fair (transparent) judicial system that scrutinizes and targets anybody on the basis of the wrongs they have done, regardless of their ethnicity, geographical belonging, etc. Only this way can everybody in the country be held accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. And, only this way can everybody feel at home in the country as their very own. As a result, even those in exile or hiding due to blanket association with the former regime will start returning home either to answer charges leveled against them or retire peacefully in their homes as fresh citizens. Indeed, only such a system is sustainable.
Thanks, Barongo. I think if we continue to push with these policies then the critical mass will definitely happen and the contribution of the political exclusion law will be to push the elite to help with the re-organization and re-grouping of the different communities.
Admittedly the Association of the Families of the Abu Salim Prison Massacre has a cause to be aggrieved about atrocities they or members of their family went through during Gaddafi's rule. However, it needs to be very careful in wreaking vengeance through the so-called Political Exclusion Law. What is needed most in Libya now is "nation building" and this cannot take place when a section of the populace is excluded from governance whether legally or otherwise. I'll suggest a type of Truth and Reconcilation Commission that was employed in South Africa. Both victims and perpetrators should find a common ground where apologies and compensations are discussed because eventually al Libyans should try together as coimpatriots or country mae/women.
Bravo, Albert Arko-Cobbah! Indeed, nation building and rebuilding, as in the case of Libya, sometimes demands that we live above emotional and sentimental judgements. We are in real peril when we degenerate into being judges in our own cases. Of course, I know it is often hard not to want to hit back at those who pained you at one time. But this is exactly why we have governments and independent judicial systems so that they, unlike mortal or ordinary individuals, can see things from a different perspective. The post-Apartheid South African parallel you have drawn is, to me, no doubt the best solution.