Political isolation is nothing new to the Arab region. There have been numerous cases—particularly in the republics that are currently experiencing changes—where it has been imposed on figures affiliated with the former regime, for example during the 1950s and 1960s. However, it has become clear today that there is no real reason to politically isolate dozens of such figures, as the reasons behind such a move are largely based on revenge or personal motivations. These policies will do more harm than good.
Political change, whether in terms of regime, rule or ideology, inexorably results in the emergence of rival powers. In order to secure their rule against predecessors and rivals, the new regimes must be sure to benefit from past experiences. These new rulers must therefore make sure that they learn from history and do not repeat past mistakes.
I am writing just as Libya has passed a new political isolation law; this law is supposed to affect those who collaborated with the former regime. In broad terms, the law seems fair: no one can justify the practices of the Gaddafi regime, which replaced state institutions with a bizarre cult of personality surrounding the Libyan leader, to the point that several Libyan army brigades were named after his sons. This is not to mention the crimes committed by the regime during its struggle to retain power during the NATO-supported Libyan revolution, resulting in the death of tens of thousands after the rebels were forced to take up arms.
However, this new law has created problems which have yet to be addressed on the ground, particularly as a number of Libya’s ministers and MPs may find themselves affected by the political isolation law, which aims to prohibit former regime figures from holding government posts for up to 10 years. It may even result in the exclusion of the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.
Libya is not a unique case; in Egypt, for example, similar measures have been taken against members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). We have also seen a similar trend in Tunisia. However Yemen—thanks to the GCC–UN political transition plan—remains an exception.
Let us recall that one of the most prominent historical instances of the political isolation law can be found in Egypt’s Law No. 344 of 1952, otherwise known as the “Law on Political Treachery,” which was passed following the 1952 revolution and applied on all parties and figures belonging to the former regime. It was considered a bad law because it affected the good along with the bad, and was even ignored by the July 23 regime. More recently, the de-Ba’athification law in Iraq led to dissent and violence, something that could have been avoided had the law been limited to leadership figures. Instead, it was applied to tens of thousands of people who were in many cases forced to join the Ba’ath Party during Saddam’s reign simply to secure employment.
One can understand that every government, in order to protect itself, may be urged to politically isolate certain figures who pose a threat to it. However, the process of isolation needs to be carried out with a greater degree of accuracy and justice, being applied solely to those who committed crimes and violations—especially if the new government lacks experience and needs civil servants capable of running state affairs.
In any case, it is better to prosecute former regime figures for crimes committed during their service to the former regime, instead of creating an ex post facto law that prevents them from serving in government. This is for two main reasons: First, even if they are time-consuming, no one can argue that judgments based on longstanding criminal and civil laws are political. Second, with the number of those being isolated increasing, stability cannot be achieved—something that is key for the new regime to maintain its grip on power. Political isolation is an exception that can only be imposed during abnormal times. The most important impact of this law is that it frightens away investors, who will instead look for a safe haven. This is something that happened in the past, and it is also happening now.