Libya: minority rights under attack

Submitted by Matthew on 23 January, 2013 - 5:23

As events in Mali are described as “collateral damage” from the Libyan revolution, significant events in Libya have gained far less attention.

Of all the North African and Middle Eastern rebellions, Libya is a comparative success story and is widely perceived as such by its population.

Ethnic minorities and migrant labour have fared badly, the militias are worrisome — but Libya is a functioning liberal, secular democracy in all but name.

Some critics say the new civil society has been based on the assumption that the state is controlled by sharia law. This is not so. There is a lot of popular pressure for the National Assembly to adopt a clear liberal democratic constitution — not least because of fears about the future role that Islamism might play electorally and militarily.

Some on the left have pointed to al-Qaeda flags flying prominently on public buildings at the end of the old regime; in reality the military forces of Islamism are geographically dispersed, often with only nominal links to al-Qaeda.

The Islamist mobs responsible for the attack on the US envoy last September were driven out of Benghazi and have been unable to secure any kind of physical or ideological grasp on the city’s population. And Ansar al-Sharia had no links to a wider al-Qaeda network.

Yet many commentators in US foreign policy networks were predicting Libya would be the next to fall electorally and militarily to Islamist repression.

Whatever the impact on Mali or Algeria, there is little public appetite for Islamism in Libya. Yet some of the minor Islamist militias, (and non-Islamist militias), are still refusing to lay down arms or abdicate control over pieces of territory.

The Islamists are not going down without a fight. There have been recent attacks on an Italian diplomat, and back in November the Benghazi police chief was assassinated.

The recent abduction of the Benghazi head of criminal investigation is leading to more frustration over delay with the constitution. This is perceived as the central political tool that will solve the militia problem once and for all.

The liberal coalition, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), has decided to temporarily withdraw from the National Assembly in protest against delays in delivering the constitution and the political chaos that could ensure from that delay, including concerns that the militia might target assembly members.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Muhammad Magarief, recently called for a fully secular Libyan constitution and the separation of religion and state. However the nationalist underpinnings of the central political blocs can be seen in what is not being debated: the fate of the ethnic, tribal minorities of Libya and the wider impact of this on Mali as well as the migrant worker problem in Libya.

Whatever the reality of their participation or not in acting as mercenaries for the old regime, peoples such as the Tuareg and migrant and military labour from Mali, Chad and Niger are seen to be as hostile to the new Libyan political settlement.

The driving out of Tuareg soldiers, and hostility to an autonomous Tuareg regime which had been promised to them by Qadaffi, has had obvious effects.

The Misrata brigades achieved much of their local popularity by their oppression and pursuit of ethnic minorities perceived as loyal to the old regime.

The two million migrant workers of Libya pre-revolution have dwindled to half a million. At the same time international organisations are keen to recruit people to well-paid work in Libya — the reconstruction and the redevelopment of tourism and catering.

There has been a huge crackdown on previously tolerated illegal migrants from the south. Many are being arrested and kept in metal containers in detention camps in the desert. The ill-treatment of minorities in factory and domestic labour is well-documented.

This ill-treatment has been given ideological cover by the national aspirations of “Libya and the Libyan people”. It builds on the aristocracy of indigenous Libyan Arabs well-developed over 60 years by successive regimes. International corporations, like Esso in the 1950s and 1960s, brought migrant labour into the country in the absence of population in the oil fields outside of the coastal strips.

The continuing crackdown on “illegals” is often sanctified by the idea that they are Qadaffi loyalists or nascent Tuareg Islamists. This is often supported by the physical intimidation by the militias still on the borders and in areas outside of governmental control.

The struggle for a secular and democratic constitution in Libya should cohere a commitment to minority rights and the free movement of labour, but it is clear that it won’t. The development of a new private sector, replacing Qadaffi’s old clique system of state control, will also work against minority rights.

The “collateral damage” of this will be a setback for the entire Libyan working class, indigenous and migrant, as it asserts itself in the new democratic settlement.

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