Libya and the Uglier Side of the Arab Uprisings


In February 2011, rebellion spread to Libya. Muammar Gadaffi vowed to “cleanse Libya house by house,” allegedly recruiting black African mercenaries. There’s no doubt that social media has served the opposition well, but it’s also incited Libyans through implicit racial messaging, and revealed a darker side of social media that has condemned Africans trapped in Libya.

Of a population of 7 million, 1 – 1.5 million Libyans are sub-Saharan African migrant workers, and are among the most destitute and exploited. They are frequently subject to xenophobic violence, and routinely imprisoned in desert detention centres or simply left to die. Libya makes no distinction between migrants and asylum seekers: in a visit to Italy, Gadaffi remarked that “It is really a laughable matter [that migrants could be refugees]…they are living in the desert and forests having no identity at all.” Police routinely beat Africans in markets; a Darfuri asylum seeker, reported that police began to “ask you where you came from” after they mistakenly beat a black Libyan.

Libyan refugees arriving at the Libya–Tunisia border after fleeing the 2011 Libyan uprising – "We were in horror and panic these last few days in Libya; something that made us rush to escape," said Mohammed Ahmed.

Twitter users first reported the use of black mercenaries. Black soldiers aren’t necessarily mercenaries; they could very well be Chadians previously incorporated into the army, forcible conscripts, and indigenous black Libyans. With a tremendous lack of access, international media have been forced to rely on social media and have become complicit in the vilification of Africans living in Libya. The effects have been pervasive: a rebel stated that “the regime has sent African forces into the city but we are here waiting in the square of the martyrs.” He hadn’t seen African mercenaries, but believed they were coming nonetheless.

Africans migrants are now the targets of retaliatory attacks. One Turkish contractor reported that his staff of 70-80 Africans was killed by mobs. Terrified workers have fled to Libya’s peripheries hoping to escape or have stayed hidden. Their home countries are either financially unable – or unwilling – to evacuate them. Other countries have refused to transport third-country citizens: Human Rights Watch reported that two Africans who attempted to board a Tunisian ship were beaten. Many migrants are simply stranded, awaiting repatriation or attack by angry Libyans, whichever comes first.

Paradoxically, if they were not asylum seekers before, they certainly are now. No matter how things unfold, black Africans will be an easy target. There is no international law that requires third country evacuation, but when groups are targeted, there’s an obligation to not expose them to persecution. As one stranded Nigerian said, we are somebody and we are from somewhere.” Another stated “if our country was a very nice place to be, we would not have gone to a place like Libya.”

Lack of international support to the opposition may have come from Gadaffi’s threat to halt immigration control; it’s believed that migrants are smuggled through Libya, despite Africans comprising only 1–2% of illegal immigration to Europe. A BBC reporter conjectured that “the fear with Libya is that sub-Saharan Africans will try to leave and there are more of them”.

The treatment of “Africans” in Arab countries also is illustrative of a paradigm that’s been conveyed in the media. The Arab uprisings have been inspiring for their creation of hope that ordinary people can define their futures. Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya all have common themes of mass disillusionment and discontent, but so do many African countries where demonstrations have received little coverage. One of the most powerful messages conveyed by the international media’s coverage of Tahrir Square – which had projectors screening CNN – was the dispelling of the stereotype of Muslim youth as suicide bombers.  But demonstrations in sub-Saharan Africa that began in many of the same ways as their North African neighbours have not received the same traction. As Azad Essa wrote for Pambazuka, it may be difficult to qualify the role of social media in the Arab uprisings, but it might be “even more difficult to quantify the effect of the perception of being ignored, of not being watched and discussed.” Africans have displayed enormous solidarity with Arab demonstrators. In Zimbabwe, six people are facing capital charges for organizing a meeting to discuss mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

Though lack of success thus far in African demonstrations could be due to a myriad of factors, one has to wonder if the failure to report on them is also based on some of the same assumptions that have condemned Africans in Libya. Little weight has been placed on the implications for the continent, advancing the “failing Africa” narrative. As one commenter mentioned in an open letter to Al-Jazeera, “At the very least one would think Deby must be having sleepless nights while the Arabs next door are revolting…Does the Chadian government not have an opinion on the fact that the Brotherly Leader is said to be using Sub-Saharan Arab Africans and Africans to kill North African Arabs?...Is it too poor to mention?”

Attempts to fight repression should encourage reform, in the Libyan case as well as other Arab – and African – contexts. An equitable and democratic society capable of enforcing the rule of law cannot be established without ensuring that all peoples – even the least amongst them at the bottom rungs of society – are treated equitably. This should begin with the media. 

Immigration, internet, Libya, Xenophobia