Cruelty in Libya

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Cruelty in Libya

  • January 16, 2020
  • By Admin: Osman
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By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD 

Wars are by nature cruel. Civil wars and proxy wars are costly and deeply more cruel- particularly against civilians. Libyans experienced all three cases where combatants target civilians (including migrants and refugees). The victims suffer from perpetual displacement, imprisonment and mass killing. The victims, suffering from mental and physical cruelties, often long for external assistance.

To probably address such cruelties, Germany’s Merkel recently called for a Libya summit in Berlin. The official aim is to prevent “foreign intervention” and proxies in the almost decade long devastating war in Libya. Merkel’s foreign minister conditioned the success of the gathering with involved parties ultimately recognizing “no military solution but only a political solution to the conflict”. Unmentioned are the ways in which summit participants remain complicit in the tragedy. Apart from been sponsoring and utilizing proxies[i], some participants repeatedly violated UN arms embargo on Libya.

In addition, most participants explain and interpret the Libyan tragedy from ahistorical perspective. Such ossified tendencies underestimate the conflict’s transnational state and non-state actor dimensions. Often departing from narrow state interests, leaders fail to see the cruelties experienced by ordinary Libyans, migrants and refugees. For some states, Libya constitute a foreign policy tool. For most Libyans, as well as for African migrants and refugees, the perennial conflict and the ensuing diverse interventions poses existential threat.

Such summit proclamations, therefore, remind us the historic top-down universalization of constructing the future of other nations- so these nations might become subordinates. The idea is that a presumed external intervention might eventually empower and transform people and their cultures[ii]. In contrary, evidences show that both classical and modern conquests/colonialisms/ill-conceived interventions generated unimaginable cruelties[iii].

For centuries, Libya was the victim of such successive conquests. The latest attempt was the one epitomized by the Italian fascist General Graziani who incarcerated and massacred thousands of Libyans and Horn of Africans[iv]. Strangely some compatriots venerate  Graziani as a national honor[v]. Historians, on the other, as well as the victims and subsequent traumatized generations consider him a convicted war criminal.

Even Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan traditionalist and head of the colonial resistance movement, is also considered a leader and liberator by his people. Meanwhile, colonial powers portray him as a ruthless militant[vi]. Under such opposing world views, coupled with military aggression, cruelty against the Libyans and other Africans were monumental.  Perpetrators often justified their actions in maintaining solidarity with their fellow kinsmen on the expense of what they often referred as non-human entities. Here the tribal mentality of arrogance ignited the claim of superiority over fellow humans.

Though with different approach and tools, Gadhafi also constantly dehumanized his opponents, justifying his repeated assaults with national patriotism and anti-imperial rhetoric. In numerous times he compared regime opponents with “rats deserving total elimination[vii]. In response, while European powers dehumanized Gadhafi as a monster, rebels and their transnational allies described Gadhafi as a pharaoh – accusing him for displacing and democratically impoverishing his people.    

Eventually inter-rebel and inter-militia fights erupted. They accused each other for usurpation and barbarism. Subsequently the armed militias brutalized migrants and refugees- sometimes holding them as slaves[viii]. While classifying (some of the rebels) for been inhuman., Europe itself instrumentalized the blight of migrants and refugees[ix]. Both EU and individual European countries negotiated and entered deals with Libya’s warring factions- outsourcing, among other tasks, the incarceration of refugees. In response, to solve this downturn spiral, diverse transnational NGOs engaged actions of “civil humanitarianism” in rescuing refugees[x].

Scholars conceptualize such diverging political identity formations as reflecting a primitive intuition of animal-minded categorization of humans as “insider” versus “outsider” groups. While the first group deserves kinship care and recognition, the latter group suffers from exclusion and eventual persecution. When the powerful groups are forming and identifying conflicting groups, the real outsiders, the migrants and refugees, remain outsiders. They could be periodically adopted as temporal allies- with the purpose of strengthening core group struggles. But overtime they maintain their otherness status deserving exploitation with and beyond conflicts.

For Bourdieu arguments of existing essentialist symbolic group solidarities might be relevant. But in a complex transnational world, class elites consider such formations as a temporal means for alternative social, political and cultural platforms that transgress national, geographical and kinship boundaries. Bourdieu categorizes the Mediterranean region- due to conquests and colonialism, of belonging among the most trans-nationalized regions in the world[i]. This is probably why the subordination and exploitation of migrants and refugees, though in different standards, occurs in both sides of Mediterranean. Particularly, for African refugees “Pharaoh waits in both sides of the sea”.

Currently in Libya, two major victim groups pay the heaviest price for the persisting anarchy in the country. The first are the Libyan population. Despite living under dictatorial subjugation for decades Libyans felt materially better off. The wider public accessed diverse welfare opportunities. Freedom might have been the ultimate goal for Libyans, but the sudden civil strife and excessive cruelty took its toll, particularly among vulnerable Libyans. While some Libyans enlisted among the warring factions, others contributed to the illegal smuggling and trafficking enterprises. Here they mainly victimized non-Libyans who were temporarily transiting the war-torn country.  

The second groups are migrants and refugees. These are people who fled their countries in search for peace and prosperity. Most fled from abject poverty and persisting civil wars in their own countries. Instead of high hopes, they fell prey into the hands of fighting militias and transnational criminal groups, inflicting them torture and killing[xi]. Grieving African mothers expressed their double loss of first giving all their savings to their sons to flee to Europe. Then eventually paying huge ransom to Libyan captors for the release of their children- promises not often kept despite compliance with the extortion[xii].

The sooner the ongoing cruelty against Libyans as well as migrants and refugees stops the better. The world, particularly Europeans and Africans can do more. The summit in Berlin might find some solutions to some of the problems, but a genuine alternative and more inclusive settlement requires comprehensive transnational understanding and collaborations. One viable solution could be approaching the deadlock from a constructive “transnational social and political justice” perspective. In the book “transnational social justice”, Cordourier-Real calls for the transformation of the classical state-centered conception of justice. Such conception advantages the militarily stronger parties and the economically affluent groups[xiii]. This form of justice departed from the idea of “politically-bounded communities – aiming to regulate domestic institutions and states- with compatriots who share common cultural identity”. As most serious problems confronting the world; poverty, inequality, social exclusion, environmental degradation and conflicts occur at transnational levels, this demands the creation of reasonably balancing transnational coordination/cooperation. Transnational connections that neither propagate repetition of the earlier failed imperial universalization attempts nor the recent upsurges for regressive nationalism and isolationism.

[i] Goodman, J. E., & Silverstein, P. A. (Eds.). (2009). Bourdieu in Algeria: colonial politics, ethnographic practices, theoretical developments. U of Nebraska Press.

[ii] Mezran, K. K., & Miller, E. (2017). Libya: From Intervention to Proxy War. Atlantic Council.

[iii] Sowell, T. (2008). Conquests and cultures: An international history. Basic Books.

[iv] Mazrui, A. A. (1995). The blood of experience: The failed state and political collapse in Africa. World Policy Journal, 12(1), 28-34.

[v] Zaccaria, M. (2019). Italian Colonialism in Africa as a Connected System: Institutions, Men and Colonial Troops. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 1-24.


[vii] “Lion of the Desert” is a 1981 Libyan historical epic war film about the Second Italo-Libya War:


[ix] Mafu, L. (2019). The Libyan/Trans-Mediterranean slave trade, the African Union, and the failure of human morality. Sage open, 9(1), 2158244019828849.

[x] Cusumano, E. (2019). Migrant rescue as organized hypocrisy: EU maritime missions offshore Libya between humanitarianism and border control. Cooperation and Conflict, 54(1), 3-24.

[xi] Esperti, M. (2019). Rescuing migrants in the Central Mediterranean: The emergence of a new civil humanitarianism at the maritime border. American Behavioral Scientist, 0002764219882976.



[xv] Cordourier-Real, C. R. (2010). Transnational social justice. In Transnational Social Justice (pp. 123-151). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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