Atrocities by the Libyan rebels? Some consistency, please!

August 30, 2011 at 12:54 am (africa, Anti-Racism, apologists and collaborators, AWL, Human rights, Jim D, Libya, Middle East, stalinism)

By Sacha Ismail

Socialists who, like the AWL, have backed the Libyan rebels against Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship should not ignore or downplay reports of atrocities by victorious rebel fighters in Tripoli and elsewhere.

Already, those on the left who are determined to prove that there is no difference between the two sides – or even that the rebels are worse than the old regime – are gleefully citing such atrocities. But that does not mean that none of the claims are true.

The fact that there have been cold-blooded reprisals against those claimed to be Qaddafi officials and fighters is tragic and alarming. Let us consider, however, a more damning issue: the treatment of sub-Saharan, black Africans in Libya by rebel forces.

Evidence is emerging that not only African mercenaries fighting for the old regime, but also many migrant workers – not only in Tripoli, but in Benghazi and elsewhere – have been arrested, beaten and in some cases killed. See, for instance, this article by Kim Sengupta in the Independent.

Many of the most sensational reports, talking about massacres and so on, appear on pro-Qaddafi websites and are not backed up by evidence. Nonetheless, we do not want to act as the mirror image of these apologists. Part of the point of this article is to condemn such atrocities and make some small contribution to stopping persecution of black people in Libya.

At the same time, we demand some consistency.

It is not the case that, pre-revolution, Libya was a racially egalitarian society with a benign, anti-racist government, in which the rebels emerged as an eruption of anti-black racism. Qaddafi’s Libya had a long history of discrimination and outrages against black African workers in particular (see, for instance, the evidence and sources in this February 2010 document submitted to the UN Human Rights Council).

In 2000, many thousands of workers from sub-Saharan Africa fled the country following murderous racist attacks sparked by a government crack down on foreign employment and by items on the (naturally, government-controlled) news services which portrayed African migrants as being involved in drug-trafficking and dealing in alcohol. At the time, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions reported: “at least 500 Nigerians have been reported killed and many more injured during those attacks. Migrants workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria were the victims of attacks by young Libyans targeting black migrants… The violence spread like wildfire from the Capital to the eastern part of the country, where there have been killings, beatings and attacks on shops.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Qaddafi regime deported 140,000 migrant workers between 2003 and 2005. There are many other such facts, including numerous racist – usually anti-African – outbursts by Qaddafi and his officials.

At the same time, the regime behaved in a racist and imperialist fashion towards geographical minorities in Libya – not just the Berbers, whose language was banned by Qaddafi, and who seem to be asserting themselves as part of the rebellion – but also black peoples in the south of Libya, such as the Toubou, who have also played a role in the uprising.

Clearly, however, the rebel camp is also diseased with racism, with narratives about marauding black mercenaries (and not, for instance, the Serbs who have also been fighting to protect Qaddafi) flaring repeatedly into actual racist atrocities. Again, we have no reason whatsoever to hide these facts, and every reason to speak out about them. The rebel leaders have condemned reprisals; if they are serious about democracy, let them show it by speaking out loud and clear against anti-black racism and persecutions.

Having said all that: the idea that, because of this, there is no difference between the totalitarian state of Qaddafi and the popular uprising against it is bizarre. It also exposes broader political inconsistency.

Take the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the overthrow of Egypt’s British-dominated monarchy in 1952. In the 1920s there were about 80,000 Jewish people in Egypt. From the late 1940s, difficulties mounted for the Egyptian Jews; under Nasser this developed into serious persecution. After the Suez crisis in 1956, there was a stepping up of repression, and 25,000 Egyptian Jews left the country. As socialist academic Joel Beinin put it: “Between 1919 and 1956, the entire Egyptian Jewish community… was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column.” After the 1967 war with Israel, almost all Egyptian Jewish men were deported or imprisoned, ending in the complete disappearance of the community. Less than a hundred remain today.

You could add that Nasser was an authoritarian dictator who systematically repressed independent Egyptian workers’ organisations! Yet it hardly follows that in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attempted to return Egypt to the status of a semi-colony (ie an imperialist war fundamentally different from the one NATO has just waged in Libya), socialists should not have sided with Egypt.

Or let us take another example, the American revolution which overthrew British colonial rule. This is how the Argentinian Marxist Daniel Gaido describes its racial dynamics:

“The American revolution was therefore a hundred percent settlers’ affair: it was largely waged against the native inhabitants of the country. The other victims of English colonialism – the slaves kidnapped in Africa – also remained largely indifferent or hostile to the settlers’ liberation movement, which is not surprising if we remember that Thomas Jefferson owned over 175 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence… during the Revolutionary War it was the British who, for purely opportunistic reasons, granted freedom to runaway slaves reaching their lines and protected the Indian tribes west of the Appalachians from the spread of white settlement – that is from genocide. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the left wing of the Revolution, accused the British king George III of having “excited domestic [i.e. slave] insurrections among us,” and of having “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages [sic]…” The Revolution resulted in the establishment of what historians called a Herrenvolk (ruling people or race) democracy, in which immigrants from Europe were turned into “whites” and granted political rights while Indians and slaves were excluded from the category of citizens.”

In passing, it is also noteworthy that the American revolution only triumphed because of outside military intervention, by the imperialist powers of the Netherlands, Spain and France – the last two of which, of course, had their own large colonial empires in the Western hemisphere.

Both the Egyptian and American examples provide much stronger cases for not supporting the “revolutionaries” than Libya today. Yet in both cases failure to do so would have been totally disorienting.

The reality is that those using the facts of racism and atrocities by the Libyan rebels to justify their hostility to the Libyan revolution are generally not too concerned about the records of those they support. Repression and atrocities of all sorts can be justified or ignored if they fit into the “anti-imperialist” world schema. It is perfectly possible, of course, to raise issues such as racism among the Libyan rebels in good faith – as this article attempts to do. But they are being highlighted by pro-Qaddafi “anti-imperialists” primarily because of the rebels’ alliance with NATO, and in order to whitewash Qaddafi.

Working-class socialists, in contrast, should be consistent.


  1. George Clinton formally known as Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    can someone tell me where the fuck to begin with this fuckking incohherent crap?

    how the fuck seymore dick ever got the guardian to let him have a cooMMNT IZwerthLaess slot… oh hang on…yes. he fits in very well. I get it now.

  2. charliethechulo said,

    Amazing, isn’t it, how people who supported the barbarous Iraqi “resistance” when they murdered trade unionists and democrats, threw acid in womens’ faces, and blew up the mosques of the wrong sort of Muslims, now get so hoity-toity about human rights in Libya?

    Seymour is scum.

  3. charliethechulo said,

    30 August 2011 5:45PM

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.

    Ha, ha, ha!

    Is this a first?

    A ‘Guardian’ CIF author having his own comments banned by CIF? HA-HA-HA!!!

  4. charliethechulo said,

    Seymour called out for the antisemitic piece of shit he is:

    31 August 2011 12:06AM

    Richard Seymour:

    Strangely enough, this is a complete fabrication, an unproveable assertion of the kind that Israel’s apologists specialise in. Strangely enough, it is Palestinians, not black Africans, who were expropriated and ethnically cleansed by Zionist armies. Strangely enough, it is the remaining Palestinian territory that is occupied by Israel, not Sudan, Nigeria or Senegal. Strangely enough, this whole line of argument on your part rests on a racist ontology which, to work, must assume the essential coherence of racial categories. Strangely enough, I’m not buying it.
    Reply from frozenchosen

    Strangely enough, it appears your bitterness towards Israel and Jews has led you to lose much of your mind, and use the little of it that is left to spout rhetoric of dubious accuracy. I think you’ll find that ethnic cleansing in 1948 occurred on both sides and the “Zionist armies” only began fighting after 5 Arab countries vowed that they wanted to finish Hitler’s work. What would you do if your life was on the line? – how come these Darfur refugees didn’t seek a home in an Arab country? There are several that would have been much closer to travel to than Israel.

    And can you explain what the hell this means and what it has to do with the point to which you were responding: “…this whole line of argument on your part rests on a racist ontology which, to work, must assume the essential coherence of racial categories.”

  5. Jim Denham said,

    This appeared as a comment on Seymour’s blog, under his ignorant crap as wriiten for the ‘Graun’; this writer is clearly much better informed than the failed “intellekshul” Seymour:

    Oxford-based researcher Hein de Haas writing last February on the subject of Libyan migrant workers and the class-antagonism deflecting orchestration of systematic racism and ethnic cleansing :



    Not many people know that most African migrants do not use Libya as a passage to Europe, but that they have come to Libya as part of Gaddafi’s guestworker schemes or as illegal labour migrants. According to several estimates, Libya hosts 2 to 2.5 million immigrants, representing 25 to 30 percent of its total population. This includes about half a million Egyptians; several tens of thousands of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; and 1 to 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans (for further information see ‘The Myth of Invasion’).
    Since the 1990s, Gaddafi has actively stimulated immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his ‘pan-African’ policies. These immigrants from extremely poor countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From 2000 onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.
    In an apparent attempt to respond to growing domestic racism, the Libyan regime hardened its policies towards African immigrants. Measures included lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants. Gaddafi has been happy to conclude agreements with Italy and other European states to violently crack down on immigration in exchange for lucrative trade and arms deals. This has led to blatant violation of international refugee law. In many ways, it has served European countries well that Libya has not signed the Geneva refugee convention and is not concerned about human rights at all.
    Of course this repression has not stopped migration, but mainly facilitated exploitation of African migrants in Libya, whose position became even more vulnerable. While the Gaddafi regime has tried to put the blame on immigrants for all sorts of social problems, their cheap labour force has served Libya very well economically.
    According to several sources, Gaddafi has now hired thousands of mercenaries from Chad and other poor sub-Saharan countries to do the actual killings. This is a truly diabolic move – as the Gaddafi clan now tries to blame the killings on the ‘foreign element’ who were hired by him in the first place. This might fuel racist violence and further destabilisation of the country.
    It is not clear to what extent these mercenaries have been recruited among migrants or directly in the origin countries. However, irrespective of their background, the apparent presence of black African mercenaries has certainly only fuelled already present racist feelings towards African immigrants.
    African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is ousted – they will be an easy target for mass lynching that may follow. And in the unlikely case Gaddafi manages to cling on to power, African migrants are equally likely to be scapegoated and massacred. “

  6. George Clinton formally known as Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    wanted to say on yer Fiji post but no comments box…if ever there was a country deserving the moniker ‘apartheid state’ then that’s yer country right there. The people of Indian origin who live there are treated fuckking appallingly. Disgusting little tin-pot cuntry.

  7. George Clinton formally known as Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    here is lenny the loon on a ride – the second and third chin that caught on the seatbelt saved the little fat fella’s life.

  8. Ben said,

    Plenty of stuff in this post about Nasser’s persecution of Egypt’s Jews, but this is an article about Libya. Why don’t you tell your readers about the persecution of Libya’s Jews?

  9. Sacha Ismail said,

    The reason I discussed Egyptian and not Libyan Jews is because in the 50s Nasser led a popular movement against British imperialist domination; hence the analogy with the Libyan rebels and black Africans in Libya. (This isn’t really the point, but I’m not aware that Qaddafi ever played such an anti-imperialist role, given that Libya was indisputably independent two decades before his coup.)

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