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The Arabs in Africa

[ ["Suspected African Mercenaries" Image from the AP]

As Libyans rise up against the 41-year-old dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi, one of the most striking claims of state violence has been the hiring of “African mercenaries” to crush the revolt. Like Hosni Mubarak’s “thugs” (or baltagiya in Arabic, terms that gained widespread currency almost instantly), the mercenaries represent the anti-populist face of violence, those who are willing to take to the streets not for reasons of personal conviction or national duty, but for compensation from the embattled regime.

The mercenaries and the thugs provide a contrast to the nonviolent, impassioned politics of the protesters. One point further distinguishes Qaddafi’s mercenaries from both the revolutionaries and Mubarak’s thugs: that they are continuously referred to as “African.” This should be an empty signifier, like saying that European mercenaries were hired to crush a revolt in Spain; after all, Libya is an African country and Libyans are Africans. But those of us who are watching the news know what is “meant” by this, and some reporters have been quick to correct themselves with either “black Africans” or, less frequently, “sub-Saharan Africans.”

Although just one aspect of the current situation in Libya, I suggest that it should give us pause to consider the stakes of this conceptualization of a basic Arab-African or Arab-black antagonism—one that not only formulates these as mutually exclusive categories but also pins them against one another in the context of the Libyan revolution.

This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

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15 comments for "The Arabs in Africa"


I am disturbed by all the meta here, which seems, on theoretical grounds, to dismiss the testimony of those actually in the streets fighting dictatorship, and risking their lives. it is they who testify that Qadhafi is using "sudanī" mercenaries. While all that you say here may be true about the history of race relations, signifiers, and all that, the fact remains that trustworthy reports, visual and verbal, suggest that Qadhafi is hiring sub-Saharan soldiers-for-hire to kill Libyans. This fact may, in the long run exacerbate Libyan-SSAfrican relations; Libyan racism may lead Libyans to exaggerate the role the Africans are playing, and downplay the role of vicious Libyans. But I am put-off by what seems to be a disparagement of Libyan testimony on "theoretical" grounds.

Fulan52 wrote on March 02, 2011 at 10:21 AM

Thank you for this. The increasingly dangerous representation of mercenaries in racial designated terms obfuscates the universal character and use of 'mercenaries' in fact are in real political terms. The fear is that these designations become increasingly reified on the ground with disastrous ramifications. The history of so called Arabs in Africa and Africans in the Arab world is far more complex and fluid.

Khalid Medani wrote on March 02, 2011 at 11:59 AM

I would like to be clear that in no way was it my intention to disregard the testimony of those who have been witness or fallen victim to state violence in the course of this uprising. Rather, I intended to engage critically with these testimonies as well as the response that they have generated. I certainly took the testimony at face value when I first heard it; however, when I started to look for actual videos showing this, I simply couldn't find any other than the ones that I described. For example, I came across a video (that I can no longer find) titled something like, “8-year-old Girl Shot by African Mercenaries”, in which the girl says she was shot, and where, but not by whom. She just says "they." The actual video doesn't have a single mention of black Africans or mercenaries, but it's nonetheless used to substantiate the charge.

I am also not sure what more compelling footage would look like. My point is that even faced with footage of dark-skinned fighters for Qaddafi, we should not immediately make the assumption that they are not Libyan, or that they were brought to Libya as mercenaries. Rather, we must recall the fact that there are black Libyans, in addition to a large number of black migrant workers from other parts of the African continent. If Qaddafi has brought in foreign mercenaries--and I'm not saying he hasn't--this doesn't change the way the discourse around these mercenaries is tied up in broader race relations.

Callie wrote on March 02, 2011 at 05:35 PM

I found this Daily Telegraph article informative:

Many of these "mercenaries" seem more like child soldiers.

August wrote on March 03, 2011 at 12:01 AM

I doubt the mercenaries are black they are probably Qaddafi's Arab friends from the Chadian wars and imported janjaweed, chickens coming home to roost. What this broad brush will do is cement hate between southern and northern Africa a Sudan magnified

mr simon wrote on March 03, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Thanks for the Article. You are true thinker.

One unfortunate situation I observed this week was the former Libyan diplomat who disassociated himself from Gaddafi admonish black africans about sending their children to Libya. I failed to see the goal of his message. There are thousands of African refugees in Libya. Most of them are hiding in their room today with not much to eat afraid of being lynched were they to step their feet outside.

Protesters have genuine concerns, but mobs mentality is dangerous in the brief absence of authorized legal system.

A man of such position should have used his air time to bring out a little bit of common sense from then protestors rather than justifying the already precarious situation. 99% of black africans in Libya are not Gadaffi's soldiers. They should have the right to go out and shop like any one of them.

Jose wrote on March 04, 2011 at 01:54 AM

Libyans treat captured 'African' mercenaries very well almost all of the time. Any antagonism that exists is because of Gaddafi's politics, but the Libyan people use the term African has a short & sweet adjective. You should all know that a good chunk of Libyans are black, perhaps one fifth or more and they too use the same terms. Try saying sub-Saharan African in Arabic and you get a clearer understanding why nobody uses that term.

I'm sorry but this article is very irrelevant.

Libyan Tarhouni wrote on March 04, 2011 at 02:52 PM

A very welcomed contribution, given that Reuters is reporting many of those alleged to be mercenaries are Sub Saharan foreign workers whose lives have since come under attack.

ninajua wrote on March 04, 2011 at 03:01 PM

Sorry for the pun, but call a spade a spade.

Gaddafi is a white fella. The mercenaries are black people. The population of Libya is mixed. Gaddafi has oppressed the blacks harder than the whites, and coverage of what's happening is reflected in the European media through white eyes, as though the black folks are somehow foreign to North Africa.

There. And I didn't have to spend 4,000 long words on it.

DanaBlankenhorn wrote on March 04, 2011 at 03:33 PM

I found this Daily Telegraph article informative:

Many of these "mercenaries" seem more like child soldiers.

August wrote on March 05, 2011 at 11:19 AM

I am disturbed by the tangential mood that this article conveys. I read it as a soft-on-Gaddafi piece.

Kumar David wrote on March 08, 2011 at 10:18 AM

To the contrary, I found it to be a thoughtful piece and unless one is on or close to the barricades, analysis trumps cheer leading. Moreover, this is not so much about Qaddafi, whose money has blinded many of his supporters in the West from seeing his contradictions, but about a very real problem that exists in all societies that have large immigrant populations that the powers that be exploit for their benefit.

The situation in Libya has been further exploited, as in Sudan, by the elements in the international Zionist community who wish to portray themselves (and Israel by inference) as supporters of Sub-Saharan Africans against their Arab oppressors, such as we have seen with the phony Save Darfur campaign which has totally distorted the reality of the struggle in Sudan.

In the case of Libya, we see the report referred to in Maidhof's text, "Libya Must End Racism Against Black African Migrants and Others," as having been issued by UN Watch, which is described as an "independent organization" which it pretends to be, but in truth it is anything but.

UN Watch was created by the American Jewish Committee which may be called the foreign policy arm of the US Zionist establishment and its role is to promote Israel's agenda throughout the world and it has been doing so for decades, not secretly, but generally under the radar.

Consequently, anything this so-called "UN Watch" publishes needs to be taken with several carloads of salt.

Before I, too, be accused of going soft on Qaddafi, I would not that it should be the obligation of anyone who believes in justice to stand with those who are fighting against a dictatorship, any dictatorship. There should be no room for double standards.

Jeff Blankfort wrote on March 10, 2011 at 02:15 PM

Unbelievable that the writer who began this storm notes the designation my Libyans of 'Sudani" without examining the origins and deployment of this word in the region. There is no evidence that Sudanese are employed as mercenaries, and it does Libyans a disservice to assume that this is in fact representative. Why then do we have evidence of Libyans physically protecting so-called Africans from angry mobs. The author is simply warning against the introduction of particular racial divisions that have not hitherto been part of the Libyan social and cultural landscapes. It is also suprising that despite the valiant struggle of Libyans today, we are not asked to forget the astronomically destructive interventions of Qhaddafi and his military in Chad, Sudan and West Africa itself. I am sure that part of this revolution is in part driven by a sincere opposition to Qaddafi's destructive role as against bilad al-sudan more generally. Thanks for this one is letting anyone off the hook here.

Khalid Medani wrote on March 10, 2011 at 05:17 PM

Why the complaint about "mercenaries". The US uses them all the time in Iraq and AfPak. They are called private contractors. Or "Coalition of the Willing" ie Nations that have been strong armed by the US to send soldiers to do the US bidding. They are used by the UK that used to recruit Sikhs, Nepalese or Indians to do their bidding and they are used by the French, it is called the French Foreign Legion (in the US as in France we give them citizenship too), not to mention the Senegalese Tiralleur used th terrorize the Algerians during the French Occupation.


Markc065 wrote on March 21, 2011 at 03:26 PM

I am extremely disturbed by the fact that this article seems to lay the responsibility for this false dichotomy on foreign policymakers, organizations, or journalists, even stooping to the usage of a blatant strawman attack (Iran is never referred to as part of the "Arab world" by policymakers.)

It is not "Western" imagination or "Cold War paradigms" that brought this false dichotomy into play, but rather it was the Libyans who do not consider themselves to be "black Africans" who brought about this racist dichotomy and terminology.

Note this very telling quote by Mr. Salem Essalem from The National: "The detained men were among some 200 sent on Wednesday from the old city to prisons for investigation by teams including lawyers and judges, said Salem Essalem, the NTC official directing the transfer.

Mr Essalem and others associate sub-Saharan Africans with Col Qaddafi, who opened Libya to foreign workers. Reports of mercenaries have hardened suspicion.

'This, this is Libya,' Mr Essalem said, pointing to his arm. "These people are Africans. They attack us and defend the Qaddafi regime.'"

It is not the first time someone has pointed to the skin on their arms and used it to identify not only race, but nationality. I have seen this numerous times in another country that has struggled with its identity, Egypt. And it is not the first time that a national movement has turned into an opening for horrendous acts of racism, rape, torture, and even lynchings.

While I stand with the Libyan people for democracy and against the dictator Gaddafi, I cannot sit idly by and have you divert the blame for this racism on the "West" or "Europeans." This is a reaction of the Libyan people's frustrations with Gaddafi and an attempt to negate everything Gaddafi has ever stood for, in this case Pan-Africanism as opposed to Pan-Arabism. This mobilized all of the Libyans who do not self-identify as black or even African (some that is clearly, factually true) to lash out and vent their anger and frustration on those they choose to identify as "black" or "African" - even though the NTC itself has members among its ranks who we could also call "black Africans."

The bottom line is that this issue of racism and conflicted identity is a problem that comes from within Libya, and North African nations in general, and not from the "imagination" of "Western" or "European" politicians, journalists, and organizations. This is something the local populace themselves have been telling these "Western" and "European" journalists, a paradigm and false dichotomy that they themselves have imposed on the way that the West views them. Note that many self-identifying "white Arab" Libyans would easily be considered black in the "West."

An African Arab wrote on September 21, 2011 at 10:12 PM

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