The recent passage of a political isolation law in Libya’s General National Congress (GNC), under pressure from armed militants, represents the most significant development during its tenure and threatens to derail the government of Prime Minister Ali Zidan. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Libya’s political isolation saga is not simply the highly political implications of the law’s passage (which will exclude a broad swath of individuals who worked for Muammar al-Qaddafi from political life for ten years) but rather the way a relatively small group of individuals with a specific agenda were able to push the issue to the forefront and present it as a national emergency, something it arguably never was. The ordeal is a lesson in the politics of the new Libya, where forces inside the formal political process can align themselves with those holding arms outside of it to shape the country’s agenda.

On an emotional level, the isolation law holds strong appeal. Supporters of the law argue that its passage was the only way, in their words, to “secure the goals of the revolution.” Many prominent figures from the Qaddafi regime—particularly from the era of rapprochement with the West (2003-11)—remain in positions of influence, or are seen as linked to the current Zidan government. Whether Mahmoud Jibril from his perch at the National Economic Development Board, or Ambassador Ali Aujali from his post in Washington, DC, these individuals put a friendly face on a brutal dictatorship in the years preceding the revolution and allowed the Qaddafi regime to gain strength economically and militarily—even opening the door to arms purchases that would have brutal consequences on the population during the 2011 uprising. Backers of the political isolation law argue that despite their defection at the start of the war, these former regime insiders have no place governing the new Libya, and until they are purged, the culture of corruption they were part of will continue.

In this context the argument for political isolation is reasonable and is consistent with a population highly dissatisfied with the performance of its government. After all, if the politicians with questionable ties (but who sold themselves on political experience) cannot manage the job, one might as well support the relative newcomers.

Given the strong impetus for political isolation, introducing and passing the law would have been justified had it emerged organically as the product of a mass movement of Libyans dissatisfied with the country’s stumbling political transition. Unfortunately, this was not what occurred. Instead, and in lieu of a broadbased coalition calling for change, a relatively small cohort of politicians and revolutionary leaders were able to manufacture a crisis. By sending armed militants to surround government ministries, backers of the isolation law stirred up an environment that lent a sense of urgency to the law’s passage.

Even for the most unbiased observers, it is difficult to separate certain groups’ support of the law from the clear benefits they derive from its passage. Within the GNC, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party—the most vigorous backers of isolation—always had the most to gain from the law. As the second strongest party, they are likely to accrue independent seats lost by their top rival, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) (whose leader Jibril considers himself a political target of the law). Moreover, should the law be extended to include Zidan—as some are currently lobbying for—it would likely push Awad al-Barasi (the Brotherhood’s initial choice for the premiership) to power. The other major GNC proponent of the law is al-Wafaa, an Islamist-leaning bloc generally opposed to the more liberal NFA that holds the greatest number of seats.

Although groups such as the JCP and al-Wafaa would have been more than happy to pass the political isolation law many months ago, the political will to do so until now has been absent. Given the urgency of moving the country’s constitution-writing process forward, passing a budget, and focusing on economic and security development, the issue largely lingered on the sidelines. Popular protests in support of isolation would arise sporadically, but were generally small and uneventful.

Misratan Exceptionalism

What exactly moved political isolation from an ongoing topic of debate in the GNC without momentum to a piece of legislation rapidly and overwhelmingly adopted, practically overnight, remains a point of great contention, but many well-informed fingers point to the city of Misrata.

Inside and outside of the GNC, many of the most unabashed proponents of political isolation hail from Misrata. During the war, the city experienced one of the longest and bloodiest confrontations with the regime, and in the process, developed many of the battle-hardened militias that today form the backbone of the country’s Supreme Security Committee (the controversial quasi-government band of militias that provides security in the absence of fully integrated state forces).

Two of the city’s GNC representatives, Abdulrahman Swehli (of the Union for Homeland Party, which performed poorly in the July 2012 elections) and Salah al-Badi (an independent), are often cited as the most aggressive proponents of the isolation law. As early as November, al-Badi was accused of inciting demonstrators to besiege the GNC, and reportedly admitted to disclosing an intentionally-secret offsite GNC location to protesters looking to pressure the congress into passing the isolation law in March. The leak led protesters to surround the assembly’s chamber, and even attempt to assassinate GNC speaker Mohamed Magariaf.

Many observers now point to Swehli and al-Badi as the catalysts for the sudden appearance of armed groups outside government ministries calling for political isolation; some reports have even noted the unusually large number of Misratans leading the charge. More explicitly, on a dramatic television interview on May 5, Hassan al-Amin, a recently resigned congressman also from Misrata, divulged a phone conversation with Swehli, who allegedly admitted to inciting ongoing chaos in the capital in order to move the political isolation law forward.

Other groups were certainly involved in making the isolation law an urgent national issue worthy of immediate passage—most notably Adel al-Ghariani’s political isolation coordination committee—but nothing pushed the draft into law like the guns positioned outside government ministries. After a week of key government ministries being effectively shut down by armed militants, the climate of crisis within the GNC became such that even many NFA members, long opposed to law, voted for its passage. Although the GNC explicitly denied the influence of armed force on its vote, it is inconceivable that a majority of MPs would have approved a law of such broad, sweeping character, just weeks earlier.

The use of force, whether by militias or individual revolutionaries, to achieve political ends is an alarming development in the new Libya. Moreover, it is a dangerous precedent for the upcoming constitution-writing process, which risks becoming less transparent if armed groups begin knocking on the chamber doors at every controversial turn (and there will be many). That said, the campaign behind the isolation law may suggest something even worse, as it reveals the ability of  legitimate political forces to align themselves with armed forces outside the formal process to shape the national agenda. 

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