x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Libyan isolation law must allow for exceptions

Those Libyans who have reformed their ways, or who genuinely wish to try and rebuild Libya they destroyed, ought to be given the opportunity to do so.

The Arab Spring revolutions have produced governments that, while vastly different, share broadly similar problems. Chief among them: how to incorporate old regime stalwarts in newly democratic structures. There are no right answers, but there are wrong ones. And Libya's recently passed "political isolation" law is a case in point.

Designed to limit the involvement of officials from the Qaddafi era in modern public life, the law addresses a fundamental quandary hat all of the four Arab revolutions have faced (and, eventually, a post-Assad Syria will have to address): how to come to terms with the past. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, the toppled regimes had been in place for decades, which meant that millions and millions of people had to find ways to make accommodation with the old while ushering in the new. Without compromise, there was no other way to survive.

Yet in Libya the so-called political isolation law, passed by the General National Congress, is an exclusionary effort that, while popular, threatens to grind government to a halt. It has been framed so broadly that even those such as the General National Congress president Mohammed El Magariaf, who went into exile against Qaddafi more than 30 years ago, is implicated and could lose his position.

We've been here before. One of the worst acts of the US invasion of Iraq came in the immediate aftermath when the occupying power instituted a policy of "de-Baathification", barring from power anyone with any links to the ruling Baath party. There were two problems with this. The first, at a stroke the US removed a vast well of officials, with institutional knowledge, and condemned many more to barely acceptable jobs. The trouble with this policy is that anyone who wished for advancement in Iraq's vast bureaucracy had to be a member of the Baath party. Their anger at being tossed aside was the fuel that stoked the long-running uprising that ultimately pushed the US out of Iraq. In Libya, starved of institutional capacity for years, there is an even more limited pool of bureaucrats.

But the second problem with de-Baathification is that it was used to sideline opponents. As political analyst Hanan Ghosheh writes on the facing page about Libya, "each party insisted on conditions that would eliminate its political rivals". In Iraq, the repercussions of that are still felt.

It is broadly a good idea to call to account those who profited most from the old regime, and whose efforts kept it in power. Yet there should not be a blanket ban. Those who have reformed, or who genuinely wish to try to rebuild the country they helped destroy, ought to be given the opportunity to do so.