TUNIS// A draft law that would ban former regime officials from holding political office in Tunisia was fiercely debated yesterday in parliament.
Opponents criticise the legislation as too broad, saying it could affect as many as 60,000 people but some Tunisians have welcomed it as necessary for the country's democratic transition.
The draft legislation for the "immunisation of the revolution" is designed, according to its text, to eliminate the "poisonous winds of the counter-revolution".
Under the proposals first mooted last year, senior officials who served under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from 1989 until his departure after a popular uprising more than two years ago would be forbidden from holding a local or national official position.
As well as officials, senior members of the former ruling party, leaders of youth movements, some university academics and anyone who called for Ben Ali to be re-elected in 2014 are barred by the draft ruling.
During the discussions in parliament, Mohamed Ali Nasri, an MP with the Call for Tunisia party, questioned the draft law.
"The presenters of the law want to divide the society into followers of the old regime, atheists and Muslims," he said.
Some of those who were most active in the demonstrations against Ben Ali have fiercely supported the passing of the law. The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, a loose union of neighbourhood groups that has become increasingly politically active, held a demonstration yesterday outside the National Constituent Assembly calling for its implementation.
But rights groups say the proposed law is so broad that it could exclude tens of thousands of people from office, does not provide for consideration of individual cases and could be exploited as political rivalries deepen.
"It's not a legislation of justice," said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia office director for Human Rights Watch. "It's a legislation barring a certain number of people who have occupied positions in the state apparatus and ruling party.
"It's not about justice and it's not about reconciliation."
Because the former ruling party - the Constitutional Democratic Rally known by the French acronym RCD - was so ubiquitous a part of society under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, the law effectively excludes a whole class of people from the democratic process, Ms Guellali argued.
"Exempting them from the political scene means that their passport to nationality is taken away from them," said Beiji Caid Essebsi, leader of the opposition Call for Tunisia political party, who once served as interior minister under Bourguiba.
Mr Essebsi, at the forefront of a coalition of mainly secular political parties, some of whose members would be affected if the draft passed into law, led a news conference on Tuesday condemning the ruling.
He accused the interim government of lacking legitimacy, because it has overrun its year-long, constitution-writing mandate by nine months.
Other members of the coalition said that the law was likely to be used by the dominant, Islamist Ennahda party, many of whose members were jailed under Ben Ali, to exclude legitimate political rivals.
"This law is divisive," said Abderazak Hammami, a member of the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party and part of the coalition headed by Mr Essebsi. "It will cause trouble between Tunisians - they can denounce someone and say that he was affiliated with the party."
He drew comparisons with laws in Iraq designed to prevent Saddam Hussein's Baath party returning to power, which was used to disqualify swathes of people - many of them Sunni - from holding government jobs or political office. It became a bitter source of resentment for many Iraqis who had held junior positions within the Baath party, who accused the Shiite-led government of sectarian motivation.
He also cited a recently enacted law in Libya, which disqualified many legislators elected to an interim parliament for their work under Muammar Qaddafi, called for by militias in demonstrations.
"These laws are outside the legal framework" said Mr Hammami. "And there is a big difference between the situations of Libya, Iraq and Tunisia. We should always resort to the courts, and the law should not exclude thousands of people just because of affiliation to a party."