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February 28, 2013
Libya’s political isolation law is flawed at best and leaves significant room for improvement. The current draft lists 36 categories of individuals deemed unfit for political office given their ties to the previous regime. Category number 14, for example, includes anyone who “assumed the position of administrative manager, ambassador, or general secretary for [embassies] abroad,” a provision that would disqualify Mohamed Magariaf, the current General National Congress (GNC) president.

In fact, among the law’s 36 categories one can easily identify the previous job titles of a litany of prominent Libyan leaders. Most controversial are those of former National Transition Council (NTC) leaders Mostafa Abdul Jalil, a Qaddafi-era justice minister, and Mahmoud Jibril, a close associate of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi during his tenure as head of the National Economic Development Board.

The law’s scope is astounding and is rife with curious language. In one of its more interesting provisions, it excludes all individuals involved in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s original 1969 coup from political life. At first this might seem reasonable if it did not, by default, also exclude the officers who plotted a 1975 counter-coup, an early attempt by regime insiders to thwart the dangerous direction Qaddafi was taking the country. In other words, this was a law written with little regard for detail or patience for nuance or exception.

Outraged by the breadth of the law, GNC member Zeinab al-Tarqi noted on Monday that the isolation law would even apply to national war hero Abdel Fatah Younis, a Qaddafi regime general who defected at the start of the 2011 uprising and became a revolutionary icon before he was murdered. Poignantly, al-Tarqi asked, “Can we really tell the family of Abdel Fatah Younis that he is being politically isolated?”

At its worst, the GNC’s draft law allows for decisions on political isolation to be ineligible for court appeal. The political exclusion law was more severe than most anticipated.

Political underpinnings

The abrasiveness of the law may be no accident in light of current GNC politics. Ever since the question of political exclusion arose, many have turned a suspicious eye on Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Justice and Construction Party, came in a distant second in the GNC’s July elections, losing handily to Mahmoud Jibril’s more liberal National Forces Alliance (NFA). Given that nearly any political isolation law would affect Mahmoud Jibril’s (and perhaps several individuals in his coalition) role in government observers have speculated that Brotherhood support for a severe political isolation law is little more than a strategy to knock out its top political rival.

Adding plausibility to this claim, over the past few months the Brotherhood has reportedly added a number of GNC independents into its coalition. This has increased the sense that, over time, and perhaps with the inevitability of a political exclusion law, the Libyan Brotherhood can attain a level of political dominance more closely in line with its Islamist cohorts in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Brotherhood has naturally denied any political interest in the isolation law, but a member of its party revealed something quite telling to al-Jazeera on Sunday, complaining that “some political partisans have attempted to broaden the coverage of the exclusion law so as to make it cover a wider range of actors, and thus ensure that it won’t be popular.”

If true, this might explain why such an unfathomably draconian exclusion law has been released to the public by the GNCthat is, precisely so it is never able to pass.

There is another reading of this, however, that is far more compelling. If the Brotherhood’s goal was to simply pass some form of political exclusion, and they only required a fairly reasonable and less divisive law than the current draft to knock out a number of their political opponents, it would make more sense for them to first fight vigorously for a far more extreme version of the law. In this way, the group would appear reasonable later, when opting for a more moderate version of political exclusion.

Political scientists would frame this strategy within the concept of Overton window, where one pushes for a more extreme version of a policy than desired in order to get the more reasonable one approved by the public. In the Libyan context one might just call this creative politics.

Sallabi and the silver lining  

Perhaps a better indicator of Libya’s political isolation law’s chances lies less with Brotherhood rhetoric, NFA opponents to the law, or the current draft, and instead with the powerful moderating voice of Ali Sallabi. Although he currently has no formal political position, Sallabi presents a towering figure in modern day Libya, holding enormous sway with Islamists both inside and outside of the Brotherhood. Thus, when Sallabi published an op-ed on February 23 outlining his thoughts on political isolation, there was good reason to take note.

In his op-ed Sallabi stresses the “need to put in place a political isolation law,” before rejecting the current draft on its face, calling it “far from just.” Sallabi then presents a somewhat novel solution, asking Libyans to consider the Egyptian experience with political isolation­­particularly article 232 of the recently-passed Egyptian constitution, which lays out the terms barring former leaders of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) from office. Sallabi estimates that Libyans can use their constitutional-writing process to do the same, substituting NDP leadership for those who led Qaddafi’s infamous revolutionary committees and went on to assume positions of leadership within the country.

It remains to be seen if Sallabi’s arguments will hold sway, but in tandem with the country’s dangerously broad current draft, it seems increasingly likely that Libya will see some form of a political isolation law passing.

Analysts and observers commenting on the dangerous path of political isolation have often discounted one glaring reality of modern day Libya: political exclusion has already been taking place, and worse, at a breakneck pace. Since its inception in April 2012, Libya’s Orwellian-named Integrity Commission has already disbarred at least nine members of the GNC, a handful of cabinet ministers, and scores of other officials across the country, including many on a hyper local level. The commission has released neither its standards for dismissal nor its rationale, and its decisions have often proven highly controversial. In the best-case scenario, a better political isolation lawone significantly revised from the current draftcan replace the ad hoc work of the Integrity Commission and make the process more transparent.

The political isolation law as it stands is clearly untenable. It would disbar the country’s top political actors and strip fledgling bureaucracies of competent labor. The current draft should thus be read more as a reflection of political posturing than a realistic piece of legislation. Moreover, that a lively debate over the dangers of the draft is underway in Libya can be read as a positive development, as arguments for narrowing such an isolation law will continue to be developed ahead of the drafting of the constitution, where such an exclusion law­ (as Sallabi has suggested­) may ultimately be enshrined into law.

Eric Knecht is a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

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