Libyan Government: Preparing to Show its Strength
By: Reem al-Barki
Published Monday, October 1, 2012
In the wake of the attack on the US embassy, Libya’s new government has proposed a worrying State of Emergency law that if put into action would rob citizens of the freedoms they fought so hard for.
Tripoli - For 42-years under Muammar Gaddafi, Libyans, like their Arab neighbors, suffered from being subject to emergency laws, which reduced the role of the country’s legislative and executive authorities and placed citizens at the mercy of draconian martial law regulations whose abuses spared no-one.
After the triumph of the February 17 uprising and the ouster of Gaddafi’s regime, the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) introduced a new Special Procedures Law in May. This was similar to an emergency law, although the weakness of the state’s security institutions made it impossible to enforce in practice. It did, however, serve to grant legal immunity to all the leaders of and participants in the anti-Gaddafi revolt for any “military, security or civilian actions dictated by the February 17 Revolution that were performed by revolutionaries with the goal of promoting or protecting the Revolution.”
Now, with an elected entity assuming power for the first time in 58 years, Libya’s new political chiefs have set about drafting a full-fledged State of Emergency law.
The country still does not have a security force capable of breaking up a brawl on a street in the capital or in a remote village. Much basic legislation to guarantee public freedoms also has yet to be enacted, such as laws to protect journalists or civil society activists, who have increasingly been subjected to attacks. Existing laws are supposed to strictly protect the inviolability of persons, homes and property. Despite all that, a draft State of Emergency law of mysterious provenance was put to parliament. It still remains unclear how it originated.
The draft would grant the authorities powers that clearly infringe on individual freedoms – such as the right to intercept communications of any kind and impose controls on the media; order searches of individuals, homes, premises and vehicles; arrest and detain anyone thought to be a threat to public security; confine the movement of individuals; declare any part of the country a closed military zone; block financial transfers; and even ban the import or export of certain goods if the public interest so requires. Officials have said the new law is necessary to address the security threats and challenges Libya is facing in its post-revolution state-building phase.
The officials backing the draft law seemed oblivious to or ignorant of the strength of Libyans’ newfound sense of awareness of their rights, and of the high price of failing to speak up for them for four decades. Widespread opposition to the draft law from many sectors of society – and the refusal of some legislators to even discuss it – prompted its consideration to be deferred for a few days while its provisions are worded to sound less alarming to the public.
National Congress (parliament) member, Huda al-Banani, described the original draft as worrying, as its provisions were open to abuse and would enable a partisan government to commit human rights violations against its opponents.
Omar Abu Lifa, head of the Congress’ parliamentary affairs committee, stressed that the draft’s backers have no intention of actually introducing a State of Emergency, as widely rumored. He told Al-Akhbar that the bill was merely being put to parliament now so it could consider it in case it needs to be invoked in future, rather than rushing through ill-thought out legislation when an emergency actually arises. “Because a rushed law could be flawed, the Congress thought it should be drafted in advance,” he said.
Abu Lifa said any declaration of a State of Emergency would need the support of 120 of parliament’s 200 members, and would be a temporary measure whose duration parliament would also decide. He added that the committee was attempting to improve on the legislation brought in by the TNC, and denied the new law would authorize the interception of communications and messages.
“The freedom for which such a high price was paid will be taken away from us again over our dead bodies,” he insisted. He also maintained that no specific political group was behind the bill.
But criticism of it has been vocal.
“The Libyan parliament should be seeing to the constitutional needs of the transitional period instead of terrorizing people,” said Benghazi University political science professor Umm al-Izza al-Farisi. She told Al-Akhbar that she felt ashamed on MPs’ behalf that they were even thinking of enacting such measures, which she said did not deserve to be called laws.
Writer Hakim al-Misrati was equally scathing, noting that it was precisely such legislation that led to the so-called Arab Spring. “The introduction of draconian laws like these in many Arab countries – including Egypt, Syria and Iraq – turned their security agencies into monsters,” he commented. “ All the abuses the Arab peoples suffered were always committed ‘in the interest of the public good’.”
Misrati added that he did not fault the country’s MPs – “as most of them have not yet reached the age of political maturity” – so much as “the Libyan intellectuals and activists who have applauded proposing the law on the same hollow pretexts, even though they will be its first victims.”
Another writer, Samir al-Saadawi, said that having sacrificed thousands of lives for freedom, Libyans would categorically reject the proposed new law. He described it as a throwback from Gaddafi’s days, and above all an indictment of the new political class, showing its lack of confidence in either itself or the people. “There’ll be a second revolution to correct the course of the first if things continue going in this direction,” he warned.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.