ROME, ITALY - In Tunisia, the government is proposing a reconciliation law that critics say would allow cronies of ousted autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to escape justice and restore their influence.
And in Libya the internationally recognized government in Tobruk has approved an amnesty for associates of Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator toppled in 2011.
The moves are once again prompting fears that the ‘democracy experiment’ in Arab Spring countries is failing and that the past will continue to haunt and distort the future of a region grappling with war and terrorism.
Analysts say the move back to the future is largely due to the threat from Islamic extremists and the over-reaching by Islamists elected to power in the immediate wake of the toppling of dictators.
Security threats and religious extremism have provided the so-called “deep state” security agencies the opportunity to mount comebacks - as in Egypt, where figures from the era of Hosni Mubarak’s rule were key to the consolidation of power by former army chief and now President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu has plotted the survival and resurgence of the Arab deep states featuring the ousted regimes’ security agencies, business associates and politicians and argued that the former regimes have benefited from Islamic extremism - a “monster they helped create.”
In his just published book, “From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy,” he argued that while battling Islamic extremists, the former regimes also colluded with them.
Filiu highlighted the “highly selective amnesty” executed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who released Islamic militants from prison as the uprising developed against him, one of whom later founded Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate.
He said also Islamists in Egypt made the mistake of believing their success at the ballot box after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak gave them a “blank check” inviting the backlash that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to power.
The dynamic is playing out in Egypt’s neighbor, where last week, Libya's internationally recognized House of Representatives unanimously approved a general amnesty for crimes committed during the uprising against Gadhafi. The parliament in Tobruk has been locked in a violent rivalry with Islamists.
The law passed on July 28 will benefit the late dictators’ cronies and was passed partly as a riposte to a ruling by a court in Tripoli, which is under the control of a rival parliament backed mainly by Islamists, which sentenced to death Saif al-Islam, one of Gadhafi’s sons, and his intelligence henchmen Abdullah Senussi for a variety of crimes committed in an effort to suppress the 2011 uprising.
The Tripoli court’s ruling prompted several pro-Gadhafi rallies mainly in the east of the conflict-ridden country with protesters holding aloft banners bearing the face of the late dictator. Key former regime figures, who have been living in exile, have grown more assertive and say they have been holding talks with the government based in the East. They claim they are poised to tap the rising despair in Libya over the militia-fueled conflict and the emergence of an Islamic State affiliate.
In neighboring Tunisia, rocked by two devastating terror attacks this year, the government has sparked controversy with draft legislation that would let off the hook former regime figures and business allies who engaged in financial corruption or misappropriated public money during the regime of Ben Ali.
Conflict with transitional justice process
Critics say the legislation, if passed, will pave the way for a resurgence of the ‘deep state’ and wreck the country’s pursuit of so-called transnational justice and an accounting for the crimes of the old regime.
The proposed law has prompted one member of the Confiscation Commission, a body charged with returning to public ownership ill-gotten gains, Judge Ahmed Saoub, to resign. He said the law conflicted with the transitional justice process set up after the ouster of Ben Ali.
“It is against the work of both Confiscation Commission and Truth and Dignity Commission,” the judge told a local news agency. “The new government is trying to protect dozens of corrupt businessmen and politicians who used to have strong ties with the old regime. The very businessmen who were agents of corruption will be back in power as this law is giving them immunity from justice."
The law has been heavily promoted by the country’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, a former Ben Ali security minister.
Supporters of the law say the national security challenges and economic travails engulfing the North African country require new thinking. They say the draft law, if passed, will help improve the economy by ending sanctions against some of Tunisia’s most powerful businessmen.
A World Bank study published in June estimated that businesses owned by relatives, friends and allies of former dictator Ben Ali embezzled up to $3 billion from the state.
Transnational justice experts fear what is unfolding in the Arab Spring countries, arguing justice is key, if the states are going to overcome the deep divides fracturing them caused by the rights abuses during decades of authoritarian rule and by turbulent political transitions.
The decision by Tunisia’s president to extend a state of emergency in the country for a further two months is adding to fears that the past is repeating itself. A state of emergency was declared in the wake of June’s terror incident in Sousse when a jihadist gunman killed 38 mainly foreign tourists.
The government said the state of emergency has helped it dismantle terror cells, but Human Rights Watch has criticized the decision saying the government has used the opportunity “to gut basic rights and freedoms."
And opposition lawmaker Samia Abbou worried the extension was "a prelude to breaching the constitution.” Abbou argued current laws being passed didn’t have the backing of public opinion — “like what Ben Ali used to do in the past."