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 citing such atrocities to back up their arguments. 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 and this article by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent.
Many of the most sensational reports appear on pro-Qaddafi websites and are not backed up by evidence or sources. Nonetheless, we do not want to act as the mirror image of these apologists. Part of the point of this article is to condemn 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; and this February 2011 article).
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 outbursts by Qaddafi and his officials - often anti-African ones, despite the regime's pan-Africanist demagogy. During the conflict this has included speeches, for instance by Saif Qaddafi, implying that migrants are somehow responsible for the violence engulfing Libyan society.
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 played a significant role in the uprising.
Clearly, however, the rebel camp too is 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. As larger and larger numbers of black people are detained by the rebels, this becomes more and more urgent.
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 almost 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 a fundamentally different kind of imperialist war 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 of the 1770-80s, 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.
In terms of the oppression of minorities, both the Egyptian and American examples provide 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.