Transitions

Libya's fight for the rule of law

On Sunday, March 31, armed gunmen stormed Libya's Ministry of Justice. The gunmen (reportedly militia members under the Supreme Security Committee) threw Justice Minister Salah Marghani and his staff out of the building in protest over recent televised remarks the minister made during an interview with Libya AhrarTV

Marghani (second from left) had spoken out against unlawful detentions and the practices of prisons being run by armed militias. He promised that all prisons will be brought under the control of the ministry's judicial police and the attorney general. Marghani, like Prime Minister Zeidan (pictured at the podium), is making an effort to act as an honest communicator with the Libyan people. Marghani is handling the issue in the same responsible manner as he did in his response to the Human Rights Watch report on Libya: in that case, he publicly admitted the country's failure to prevent human rights abuses and promised to take urgent action on the issue. 

His honesty and transparency did not, however, prove popular with the armed militias and groups running their own secret prisons and detention facilities. The gunmen demanded that Marghani be sacked from his post and accused him of trying to help former regime officials escape (laughable allegations even by militias' standards). 

Marghani and Prime Minister Zeidan held a joint press conference just a few hours after the storming of the ministry in which they condemned the incident. They both refused to give into pressure to allow militias to control prisons or hold prisoners. Standing firm, they stressed that the decision to prevent militias from holding prisoners would not be changed. 

Since it took charge a few months ago, the government has successfully maintained its media presence by holding at least one press conference a week. 

Most Libyans welcome the government's tough line. The responses on social media and television show that public support for Zeidan and his government appears to be getting stronger by the day. This is what Zeidan and his team have been working hard to achieve, but the tough talk needs to be translated into action on the ground. This is ultimately what matters to Libyans. 

A battle is under way between two forces in Libya. The government is striving to establish the rule of law, while the militias, clinging to revolutionary legitimacy, want things done their own way, with general disregard for the law. This is the core issue. Everything else is secondary. 

The government cannot win without the support of the Libyan people. Zeidan and his cabinet ministers echo this sentiment whenever they get the chance. Moreover, in a clear contrast to the position of the previous government led by Prime Minister el-Keib (which allowed the growing influence of militias), the minister of justice has commended the people of Benghazi for the mass demonstrations, famously known as the "Benghazi Rescue Friday" on September 21, 2012 -- and the "Benghazi Won't Die Friday" on December 28, 2012, that were held against militias and armed groups in the city. He has urged all cities, especially Tripoli, to follow this path. 

The government has already set up a joint task force to clear Tripoli of all armed militias and groups, and has so far cleared 36 locations out of 500 possible locations including private residential villas that belonged to former regime figures in the capital. A similar effort will follow in Benghazi. The government is clearly determined to establish control throughout Libya, and it seems to be making progress. In addition, public tolerance of militias is diminishing as ordinary Libyans' support for the state (and, implicitly, for its monopoly on violence to maintain order) increases. This provides a real opportunity for the government to act decisively. 

Minister Marghani put it perfectly during his press conference with Prime Minister Zeidan following the storming of the Ministry of Justice: "The building may be stormed and the justice minister may get killed, but justice won't die, for justice is God and justice is truth, and falsehood and intolerance won't prevail over truth and justice."

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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Bassem Youssef and the Sultan

Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:

"Goha, how much do you think I'm worth?," asked the Sultan to the wise jokester.

"I'd say 4,000 dinars, Sultan."

"You must be joking -- my clothes alone are probably worth 4,000 dinars!"

"Then I guessed right," answered Goha.

The ancient story stops here, but the modern-day Sultan, Mohamed Morsy, didn't enjoy having his hollowness mercilessly exposed by satirist Bassem Youssef. Commonly referred to as "the Arab Jon Stewart," Youssef has frequently put the government and its president in the crosshairs on his weekly show, El-Bernameg (The Program), which is broadcast by a private channel every Friday evening.

Responding to an arrest warrant issued by the illegally appointed prosecutor general for insulting the president and denigrating Islam, Bassem Youssef decided to go to the prosecutor's office -- wearing a parodying the one President Morsy had recently worn at a ceremony in Islamabad. As he waited for questioning, he tweeted jokes about his summons.

Much later, after a five-hour interrogation -- during which he was shown the punchlines to his own shows and made to answer for them -- he was released on a 15,000 EGP ($2,200) bail. Despite the pressure, he vowed to continue his work. "The tone of my show is actually getting higher and higher and higher," he said.

Jon Stewart's defense of Youssef on The Daily Show last night incidentally echoed a quatrain by Egypt's iconic poet and humorist from the 1960s, Salah Jaheen:

My heart was once a rattle, it is now a bell

I rang it -- the servants and the guards were alerted

But I'm only the jokester -- why get up, why fear?

I hold no sword, and ride no horse

How strange!

Why get up, why fear? Well, it's a tactic of tyrannical regimes to create laws that criminalize freedom of speech and criticism of the state. The laws under which Youssef was accused are holdovers from previous regimes, which the new Sultan -- sorry, president -- was glad to keep on the books. The assumption that such laws will subdue a population that recently vanquished the previous ruler to use those methods is, needless to say, ridiculous.

The attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters to silence dissent and criticism are not only futile, but painfully counterproductive. The intense media coverage and outpour of global support highlight the ridiculousness of a president trying to imprison a comedian -- especially a comedian the president used to support his political campaign. Already the fiasco is rapidly backfiring. A U.S. State Department spokesperson accused Egypt of muzzling free speech and suggested that Egyptian authorities were selectively prosecuting their opponents. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has also gotten in on the action.

Morsy's campaign isn't subsiding, though. Now a second comedian, Ali Qandil, has also been summoned to the prosecutor general's office, this time on charges of blasphemy. And TV commentators who defended Youssef are also facing legal complaints for threatening national security.

Stand-up and TV comedy may be the heirs of the wise jokesters of yesteryear; either way, comedy is here to stay, despite the government's best efforts to silence dissent.

And even in the unlikely event that comedy does disappear, government officials are doing a great job making a mockery of themselves all on their own.

They will, of course, only provide fresh material for all the new jokesters to come!    

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images