TRIPOLI, Libya – Under pressure from armed militias, Libya’s parliament passed a sweeping law Sunday that bans anyone who served as a senior official under Moammar Gadhafi during his 42-year-long rule from working in government.
The Political Isolation Law could lead to the dismissal of many current leaders, some of whom had defected to the rebel side during the country’s 2011 civil war or had been elected to office since Gadhafi’s ouster and killing. The move is also likely to further stall the country’s already rocky transition to democracy by ousting elected lawmakers.
It injects a new dose of uncertainty into Libyan politics during a still-fragile transition. Liberals say it will give a boost to Islamists, who performed poorly in recent elections compared to their counterparts in other Arab states, although Islamists said they could also be affected by the ban.
The law was partially driven by the unpopularity of Libya’s current crop of politicians among many of the still-powerful former rebels who toppled Gadhafi, and others who say little has improved since. Backers of the law say it is necessary to complete the revolution.
But critics say the law was passed at gunpoint, as militias have surrounded several government buildings in Tripoli for the past several days barring officials from work. Their vehicles mounted with rocket-propelled grenades kept watch on the street during the vote.
Most of the militias have roots in the rebel groups that fought Gadhafi, but they have mushroomed in the two years since his fall. Many of the armed groups have been accused of rights abuses, but the government continues to rely on them to keep order in the absence of a strong police or military. Many militiamen say they mostly want jobs and steady pay.
The General National Congress, Libya’s elected parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the law. Out of 200 lawmakers, 169 attended the vote.
Deputy head of parliament Juma Attiga, who oversaw the vote, told the TV station Libya Ahrar that militias had pressured parliament to vote in favor of the law, but that he had planned to vote yes in any case. He may be affected since he served as head of a governmental rights group under Gadhafi.
The law highlights the government’s inability to rein in armed groups and exposes the many obstacles the North African nation faces in rebuilding its weak central government.
It comes at a time when Islamists are in a position of strength following the Arab Spring uprisings that saw Libya’s two neighbors – Tunisia and Egypt – oust longtime autocrats from power. As is the case in all three nations, Islamists and liberals are in a power tussle for control over the direction of their countries.
But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, liberals won big in Libya’s first free elections last year. Former rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril’s liberal bloc took nearly half of the seats allocated for party lists. The body has a significant number of independents allied with Islamist parties.
Legislators told the Associated Press that the law states parliamentarians who lose their post will be replaced by either the next name on the party list or by the independent candidate who came in second in a district. This could benefit many Islamists, who trailed in the elections and came in second in many districts.
Lawmaker Tawfiq al-Shaybi, who is with Jibril’s bloc, told Libya Ahrar TV that the country’s Muslim Brotherhood party was pushing the law “in favor of themselves rather than in favor of what is best for the country.”
Brotherhood lawmaker Majda al-Falah denied that Islamists passed the law to target their opponents.
“The proof of this is that 164 (parliamentarians) voted for the law and not all are Islamists, though among them are members of our party,” she told the Associated Press.
Several drafts of the bill were debated over the past several months, and it was not immediately clear how the final draft will be applied. Those who it does affect will be banned from government positions for 10 years.
Sunday’s session of parliament, carried live on TV, was heated – some lawmakers demanded to debate articles, but Attiga cut them off insisting the session was just for voting.
Notably absent from the voting was the head of Congress, Mohammed al-Megarif, who may be ousted under the new law for having served as an ambassador under Gadhafi.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that while Libyans have a right to see officials who abused their positions under Gadhafi or committed crimes be removed from office, the law is too sweeping.
“This law is far too vague - potentially barring anyone who ever worked for the authorities during the four decades of Gaddafi’s rule,” Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW said in a Saturday statement.
Some Libyan activists say the vote is undemocratic since it took place under the threat of violence from militias. A Friday march in Tripoli against militia impunity was attacked by supporters of the armed groups.
The law has also been criticized because it excludes any possibility of judicial review. The Supreme Court, for example, had played a critical role in striking down last year a post-revolutionary law that had criminalized glorification of Gadhafi, a move many said contradicts the right to free speech.
Still, thousands of Libyans in Tripoli celebrated in the streets after the law was passed, waving the country’s new flag that was the symbol of rebel fighters during the devastating eight-month civil war. Before the vote, protesters had placed images of people killed in the war on empty coffins laid outside parliament, a message that Gadhafi-era officials were not welcome in government.
The law may also affect a number of ambassadors, heads of governmental agencies, professors and media professionals on government payrolls.
Security officials such as the military’s chief of staff Maj. Gen. Youssef Mangoush, once a special forces commander under Gadhafi, may also come under the law. He quit his post 10 years before the uprising began and sided with rebels during the war.
Soldiers including senior officers have in recent weeks demanded that Mangoush resign, accusing him of failing to control militias. If he is removed abruptly, it could disrupt attempts to build up a national army and police capable of replacing militias.
Borqiya Ghagha, a 26 year-old mother with the protesters outside parliament, said removing Gadhafi-era officials was a key demand of the revolution in which thousands died trying to oust the longtime dictator.
She said she voted for Jibril’s party in parliament, but that they failed to bring about change.
“The whole platform turned out to be a lie,” she said. “He used propaganda to have his party reach power and until now they have not put forth a concrete plan for Libya and instead used their power to bring forth Gadhafi-era officials to power.”
Parliamentary spokesman Omar Humeidan said after a live broadcast of the vote that a committee will be formed to see how the new law will be implemented.
The committee will be comprised of judges and rights activists already serving on an “integrity commission” that vetted ministers for Gadhafi-era ties. That body will be dissolved. A new clause, though, requires members of the new vetting body to be at least 35 years old and have a degree in Islamic law, he said.