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Libya Defense Chief Quits as Gunmen Extend Ministry Siege

Mohammed Al-Barghathi
Libyan Defence Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi speaks during a handover ceremony at the headquarters of the Libyan army chief of staff in Tripoli on Nov. 27, 2012. Photographer: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Libya’s defense minister resigned as gunmen extended their siege of ministries in Tripoli for a second day, demanding the government’s resignation and tougher rules to bar Muammar Qaddafi-era officials from state jobs.

“Breaking into the ministries dressed in military uniform, and carrying guns, represents a flagrant attack on democracy and the elected authority, which I swore to protect,” Mohammed Al-Barghathi, a Qaddafi-era air force officer, said in a video on the Defense Ministry website. On May 5, Libya’s parliament passed the so-called Isolation Law, which bars senior officials who served under Qaddafi from office and from belonging to a political party for at least 10 years. The law comes into effect on June 5.

Militiamen with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons began blockading the Foreign and Interior ministries on April 28, demanding that parliament pass the law. The siege was raised on May 5, then resumed and extended to other ministries after gunmen rejected the measure.

Libya is mired in unrest two years after Qaddafi’s removal, with militias across the country refusing to disarm and Islamists on the rise in the oil-producing east. The ability of the gunmen to lay siege to state institutions highlights the weakness of the central government and its security forces.

Standards Authority

A draft version of the Isolation Law showed it would affect about 30 lawmakers, and anyone who served as a minister, ambassador, university dean or head of faculty, or as the head of a student union, local council, security agency or media organization. The state-owned oil industry may also be affected.

The General National Congress appointed the Political Positions Standards Implementation Authority to spell out which individuals are affected, and implement the legislation.

“The full implications for the transition will only emerge once the new authority has agreed the parameters for exclusion,” London-based Control Risks Group said in a note today. “If the law is implemented in its most extensive form it would prevent the security and operational environments from being stabilized over the next year, and possibly beyond.”

In any case, the passage of the law in itself is likely to embolden militias, it said.

‘Not Satisfied’

Streets leading to the Foreign Ministry were closed yesterday and employees could not enter their offices.

“Protesters are not satisfied with the Isolation Law because it doesn’t ensure a 100 percent exclusion of ex-Qaddafi officials,” said a gunman, who identified himself only as Ali for fear of being arrested.

The militiamen outside the Justice and Foreign ministries are also calling for the removal of Prime Minister Ali Zaidan’s government. “It has failed to meet the aspirations of the Libyan people,” Ali said.

Demonstrations in central Tripoli on April 30 and May 2-3 for and against the purge law descended into clashes between supporters and opponents, though no casualties were reported.

A total of 169 of 200 lawmakers participated in the televised vote on May 5, with 164 supporting the bill and five opposed.

Congress speaker Mohammed Magariaf and his first deputy Guma Ataiga will probably lose their jobs under the law. The head of the state-run oil company and the Central Bank governor may also be affected. Qaddafi ruled from 1969 to 2011.

Libyan ‘Shame’

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party, the second-largest in congress, have said they support the law. So did members of the largest party, the National Forces Alliance, even though their leader Mahmoud Jibril may be forced to resign because he was an economic adviser under Qaddafi.

“It is a shame for the new Libya that it makes a decision under the threat of weapons and as government institutions are besieged,” Abdel Hafiz Ghogha, who served in the previous transitional government and resigned after protesters stormed government offices in Benghazi in January 2012, told Libyan state television.

Ghogha said he is affected by the purge law, even though he was among the first to join the revolution that ousted Qaddafi in 2011. Barghathi was also an early revolutionary, having joined the uprising in February 2011.

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