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.