An Ill-Advised Purge in Libya

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

At the January national conference of the Association of the Families of the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in Tripoli, I saw the Libyan legislator Abdel Wahab Mohamed Qaid lead a chant in support of the country’s proposed “Political Exclusion Law.”

The law, which Parliament has accepted in principle, will disqualify anyone associated with the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi from holding public office in Libya — not just senior regime officials, but potentially the country’s upper- and mid-level bureaucracy as well.

In the expansive auditorium in Tripoli, victims’ families responded in unison, cheering Qaid and calling on him to push the law.

I had heard similar sentiments two days earlier when speaking with former revolutionaries protesting in front of Parliament. They told me that the Political Exclusion Law must be approved and strictly enforced if Libya is to protect the revolution and head off corruption in the country’s new government.

Libya’s revolutionaries and the families of victims of the Abu Salim massacre are sincere and well-intentioned in their efforts to both build a new Libya and keep those who contributed to Qaddafi’s rule away from any form of authority.

The emotions at the People’s Auditorium in central Tripoli were high; victims’ mothers and sisters cried, while men chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is great). They had come to the conference for answers — to find out what really happened to their 1,270 loved ones, executed without trial by Qaddafi’s secret police.

Qaid himself spent 16 years in Abu Salim prison; “I grew up in prison,” he told The New York Times last October. He is the brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was described in the article as Al Qaeda’s “brightest star and second in command” and was later killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan. Qaid is now a moderate member of the Libyan Parliament, advocating tolerance and pluralism. Part of his mission is championing the Abu Salim families.

For their part, the revolutionaries protesting in front of Parliament underwent their share of suffering under Qaddafi. In addition to serving long years in prisons, many were either wounded or lost loved ones during the fighting to oust Qaddafi. Now the revolutionaries believe their mission is to defend their victory. They must protect Libya from a counterrevolution they see as beginning with the penetration of state institutions by Qaddafi loyalists.

These impulses to hold former regime figures accountable and build a Libyan state based on good governance are what motivate calls for the Political Exclusion Law. The law’s advocates should be careful, however: Societal division, instability and the regrouping of Qaddafi loyalists could be among the unintended consequences of the law as written.

The advocates must be mindful not to repeat the Iraqi experience of “de-Baathification.” In attempting to strike all members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from public life, the Coalition Provisional Authority essentially wrecked Iraqi reconstruction, marginalizing large segments of society and fueling sectarianism.

The first, direct outcome of enforcing the Libyan Political Exclusion Law would be pushing smart, influential former officials — some with access to key resources — toward a not insignificant segment of Libyan society unhappy with the revolution’s outcome.

There are currently around one million Libyan refugees in neighboring countries, particularly Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons all throughout Libya.

One of the grimmer aspects of the Libyan revolution was that it labeled entire towns (including Sirte and Bani Walid) and entire tribes (including the Warfalla) as pro-Qaddafi, thus excluding them from Libya’s rebuilding process. These marginalized communities — refugees, displaced people and ostracized tribes and towns — are a ticking bomb. The Political Exclusion Law will push a new group of powerful former officials to join these excluded communities. Together, they can regroup to mount a challenge to the revolution and the stability of the country.

The officials targeted by the Political Exclusion Law are also the ones with governing experience and the knowledge of how to actually run the country, including the state’s education, economy and oil bureaucracies. Libya has a shortage of judges, for example, and almost every working judge had some role in the former regime. So the Political Exclusion Law would leave Libya with a paralyzed judiciary, with devastating consequences.

Equally important, the Political Exclusion Law is an arbitrary and ineffective defense against corruption. Corrupt bureaucrats who were not part of the Qaddafi regime would be able to occupy senior positions in the new government, while honest individuals forced to work in the old system for lack of an alternative would be ousted.

The frustration of victims’ families and revolutionaries is understandable and must be addressed. The solution to their grievances is a transitional justice law that targets individuals — not communities — based on their actions under the old regime. The law should hold accountable individuals who are guilty of real crimes, not guilty by association.

Instead of the Political Exclusion Law, Libyans should be investing their efforts in building a thorough and transparent transitional justice law. It would provide a real, fair accounting for those guilty of offenses under the previous regime while allowing victims’ wounds to heal. At the same time, it would avoid further dividing Libya, and spare the country from another wrenching conflict.