Libya's parliament passed a law on Sunday banning officials who served under ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi from government posts, a move that could push many of the country's new leaders from office.
The Political Isolation Law injects a new dose of uncertainty into Libyan politics during a still-fragile transition. It comes at a time when the government is struggling to rein in militias and politicians are grappling with a weak central government and lawlessness.
Its backers say it is necessary to complete the 2011 revolution against Gadhafi, who was captured and killed at the hands of rebels fighting him. Critics charge that the law is too broad, and that its vague wording could force out people like the prime minister who held fairly minor posts during Gadhafi's more than 40-year rule. Many of these officials played a key role during the uprising that overthrew Gadhafi.
Several drafts of the bill were discussed over the past several months, and it was not immediately clear how the final draft will be applied. Those who it does affect will be banned from government positions for 10 years.
Thousands of Libyans in Tripoli celebrated in the streets after the law was passed, waving the country's new flag that was the symbol of rebel fighters during the devastating eight-month 2011 civil war. Before the vote, protesters had placed images of people killed in the war on empty coffins laid outside parliament, a message that Gadhafi-era officials were not welcome in government.
The law was passed only days after militias surrounded government offices in Tripoli to force parliament to adopt an expansive version of the law.
Deputy head of parliament Juma Attiga, who oversaw the vote, told the TV station Libya Ahrar that militias had pressured parliament to vote in favour of the law, but that he had planned to vote yes in any case.
The General National Congress, Libya's elected parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the law. Out of 200 lawmakers, 169 attended the vote.
Notably absent from the voting was the head of Congress, Mohammed al-Megarif, who may be ousted under the new law for having served as an ambassador under Gadhafi.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan could also be among those affected, though his position as a diplomat under Gadhafi might not be considered a "senior" post.
Politician Mahmoud Jibril, whose liberal bloc won big in Libya's first free elections last year, may also be affected. He was once an aide to Gadhafi's son.
The law could also remove a number of ambassadors, heads of governmental agencies, professors, media professionals and elected lawmakers from office.
Security officials such as the military's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Youssef Mangoush, once a special forces commander under Gadhafi, may also come under the law. He quit his post 10 years before the uprising began and sided with rebels during the war.
Soldiers including senior officers have in recent weeks demanded that Mangoush resign, accusing him of failing to control militias. But if he is removed in accordance with the new law it could disrupt attempts to build up a national army and police capable of replacing militias, who are the de facto authorities in much of the country.
The militias usually have roots in the rebel groups that fought Gadhafi but have mushroomed in the two years since his fall, and taken on new agendas. Many of the armed groups have been accused of rights abuses, but the government continues to rely on them to keep order in the absence of a strong police or military.
'They sold us out'
Borqiya Ghagha, a 26 year-old mother with the protesters outside parliament, said removing Gadhafi-era officials was a key demand of the revolution in which thousands died trying to oust the longtime dictator from power.
She said she voted for Jibril's party in parliament, but that "they sold us out."
"The whole platform turned out to be a lie," she said. "He used propaganda to have his party reach power and until now they have not put forth a concrete plan for Libya and instead used their power to bring forth Gadhafi-era officials to power."
Parliamentary spokesman Omar Humeidan said after a live broadcast of the vote that a committee will be formed to see how the new law affects current senior officials.
The committee will be comprised of judges and rights activists already serving on an "integrity commission: that vetted Cabinet ministers for ties with Gadhafi. That body will be dissolved and the new commission will take on more members, he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that while Libyans have a right to see officials who abused their positions under Gadhafi or committed crimes be removed from office, the law is too sweeping.
"This law is far too vague - potentially barring anyone who ever worked for the authorities during the four decades of Gaddafi's rule," Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW said in a Saturday statement.
Some Libyan activists say the vote is undemocratic since it took place under the threat of violence from militias. A Friday march in Tripoli against militia impunity was attacked by supporters of the armed groups.
The law has also been criticized because it excludes any possibility of judicial review. The Supreme Court, for example, had played a critical role in striking down last year a post-revolutionary law that had criminalized glorification of Gadhafi, a move many said contradicts the right to free speech.