By Niz Ben-Essa
Tripoli, 12 May 2013:
Over the last few days I’ve found people constantly asking me about the Isolation Law. Over coffee, at weddings, after football matches or over dinner, people ask “are you for or against?”
In a country which is so often black or white, where compromise and neutrality is rare and where a difference of opinion is still treated with contempt, I have found that my answer leaves some people confused as I tell them that “I am still undecided”.
On Tuesday 7th May, I ventured to the Foreign Ministry after hearing that members of the local community were heading down to face the armed groups laying siege to the building. I found myself in the midst of an impassioned crowd, engaged in multiple mini-debates and discussions, and I found myself absorbing the different view points from the different groups that had gathered at this stand-off.
It was refreshing, informative and healthy. People were engaging in debate, often heated and passionate, and were disagreeing with each other without the threat of violence or aggression. I understand clearly that this is not always the case in Libya, but on that day I could see no weapons. Out in the open people felt the freedom to call for the collapse of the current government, even the elected congress, and others felt the freedom to demand respect for the rule of law and the ballot box. With all its flaws and difficulties, along with all the uncertainty and fear, this is the new Libya.
Amongst the calls for the Prime Minister (and even the Mufti) to leave office, amongst the arguments against the armed groups, in-between the debates about Qaddafi era remnants and reconciliation, I was able to assimilate and take in the thoughts of the people on the street. Able to take on board the arguments and counter arguments from both camps, one conclusion was clear to me – there are strong, compelling arguments coming from all directions.
One of the prominent arguments in favour of the law is that of consensus and unity. It appears, on the street, that the majority of people support the idea of “cleansing” all our institutions of anyone who had anything to do with Qaddafi. There is a perception that they are the cause of all our ills and that their removal would not only pave the way for progress but will unite Libyans on this common objective. A unity last seen or felt during our liberation and subsequently on election day. It is felt that in implementing an objective with such overwhelming consensus, we will once again be united by cause. A unity which it seems so many people long for
Another strong, but rather more sentimental argument is that of opportunity. People who once “served” Qaddafi have had their chance. Now its time for them to step aside and allow a new cohort of Libyans an opportunity to represent us. After all, the Isolation Law isn’t criminalising anyone, it is merely barring certain individuals from holding positions of leadership. If these people believe that the only way they can help Libya is through holding positions of authority then surely their patriotism can be questioned? There are more ways to helping Libya than just being president or prime minister, surely?
This relates closely to a concept which I often talk of. The idea of a saviour or of a hero, which is so innately imbedded in the Arab psyche, is something we must distance ourselves from. There is not one individual whose leadership alone will save Libya. Nor is there a single individual who alone can destroy this country. If a law bars an individual from high positions in office, surely there are others just as qualified, if not more so.
Libya is a country of 6 million-plus, with many holding senior positions in international institutions, companies, hospitals and enterprises around the world. Surely these highly qualified, and potentially less controversial, individuals have a stake in our future and have a role to play? Surely, rather than clinging to the “old guard”, we should be welcoming back our highly skilled and experienced diaspora as well as encouraging our young leaders, pioneers and entrepreneurs to flourish and play their role in their new Libya.
But the counter arguments are just as compelling and emotive. Can a law that punishes you for your employment history, rather than your ethical behaviour, be a just law? Can a person who worked for the regime but laundered no funds, persecuted no man or woman, has no blood on their hands and committed no crime nor sin be subject to isolation? Is it not the role of the judiciary to address the past evils of those who committed crimes?
Should we not be calling for a strong and impartial transitional justice system as opposed to individual blanket laws which tarnish a whole spectrum of individuals with the same brush, from former Prime Ministers to university deans? Surely it comes down to individual human rights – If I committed no crime, is it not my basic right to be treated as such?
One common saying you will hear is that these people “prolonged the life of the regime”. Did we all not contribute to this? Did not our apathy, acceptance and indifference allow Qaddafi his 42 years of murder, corruption and social destruction? Besides, can we not learn from the mistakes of others? TheDe-Ba’athification of Iraq crippled the country and destroyed the institutions which defined the State. It is a process which is now seen in retrospect as one of the most significant contributors to the instability in that country today. Are we treading, blindly, along the same path?
One man at a wedding turned to me and said, “…let the ballot box do the isolating”. If the people believe that an individual’s history is relevant, they will not vote for them. For example, Mahmoud Jibril’s history is no secret to anyone and yet, despite this, nearly 1 million people voted for his party, often believing they were voting for him directly. The ballot box didn’t isolate him, the people didn’t shun him, why should a law do so?
Before the February 17th Revolution I cannot claim to have been active in any way to oppose Qaddafi. Sure, I despised everything about him and spoke ill of him to my family and friends, but never did I make my opposition to him public or take an active stance against his regime. Like much of the nation, I was filled with apathy and indifference.
But there is something that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Whilst I didn’t, there are those who did oppose Qaddafi for decades, who were driven into exile in fear of their life, who were subject to assassination attempts, who were called “stray dogs” and who were denied basic rights as Libyans.
These same people had family members murdered, or worse, are still unaccounted for. They played their part in our revolution and, with so many other Libyans, drove this country towards liberation. These same people danced with us on liberation day, mourned with us on martyrs’ day and voted with us on our first election day.
Because of a position held in the 70s some of these same people are now subject to a law which refers to them as cronies and regime remnants, shunned by a country they dedicated their life for. I may be undecided on the isolation law, but this is not something that sits well with me, and is not consistent with my vision for the country.
And then there is the dirty game they call politics. Many believe the isolation law has been sold to the people as an essential phase of our transition when in fact they believe it is merely a tool for political parties to attack their opponents. This I cannot prove, but it certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility in politics.
If it can happen in the oldest democracies in the world, it can no doubt happen in Libya. And when it becomes apparent that those who champion a cause do so for their own gains and not for the greater good of the country, it threatens to render the cause defunct, no matter how legitimate. This is also true of those who champion the law by force, whose actions have polarised the people where the cause should have unified them.
To conclude, I fear a country where our only achievement was to have merely removed a dictator but where we have done nothing to remove the people that made him a dictator. Those who put Qaddafi and his ideology before Libya and its people. Those who carried out and enabled the unspeakable things of those lost 42 years. But, more than this, I fear not just the people that made the dictator but the ideas and principles and ideologies that epitomise dictatorship.
Laws which attempt to measure and judge an individual’s patriotism or devotion to one’s country. Laws which protect the rights of some by denying the rights of others. Justice which no longer becomes just and fair and equal, but becomes a victors justice – vengeful, divisive and selective. This is what I fear most.
Despite my uncertainty and indecision, one thing is clear – In a nation which aspires to be democratic and just, no law, no matter how essential, no matter how strong the consensus in favour if it, no law can hold true legitimacy when passed at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Amidst my uncertainty, this much I am certain of.
God bless Libya.