A Lexicon of Hate Speech Terms
Libya has been identified as a priority country for this work given the unstable security situation and the extensive fragmentation in the country in the years since the overthrow of Gaddafi, all of which has been shown to play out in a burgeoning online environment.
As of December 2017, 54.1 percent of Libya’s population were Facebook users while the mobile phone penetration rate is over 100 percent, with many people having more than one mobile subscription.
Conflict in Libya
Much of Libya’s current insecurity and violence is rooted in the 2011 opposition uprising and overthrow of Gaddafi’s -42year rule.
The 2011 revolution began with Arab Spring-linked anti-government protests in February that progressed quickly into civil war.
This resulted in the proliferation of armed militias, the number of which ballooned to more than 1,600 3 over the next three years, and encompassed goals across the political and ideological spectrums.
In 2014, elections were held for the newly created House of Representatives (HoR) but the results were rejected by Justice and Construction Party (JCP) members of the General National
Congress (GNC), who had done poorly in the 2012 elections.
This resulted in the formation of rival governments—the internationally recognized HoR based in Tobruk and the GNC in Tripoli (with the National Salvation Government established as their executive arm)—and contributed to an escalation of conflict between rival armed groups.
The armed forces backing the HoR were led by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in what Haftar named “Operation Dignity” aimed at eliminating Islamist militias.
The GNC was backed by several militias (mainly Islamist), dominated for a time by the “Libya Dawn” coalition. This coalition did not last, but many of these militias remain active in one form or another, along with global extremist organizations and rival armed groups.
In December 2015, to resolve the political stalemate between two competing governments, the United Nations brokered a new agreement to form a Government of National Accord (GNA), intended to serve as the executive branch of a unified national government—and to become the only officially recognized government of Libya.
Despite the formation of the Tripoli-based GNA, conflict in Libya has persisted. The authority of the GNA is disputed by several parties—most notably Haftar and his LNA—who launched an offensive in and around Tripoli in an attempt to take control of the capital in April 2019.
Haftar announced that the offensive was launched to bring security and stability to Tripoli, later introducing the narrative that they would eliminate the “terrorist militias” in the capital.
The LNA-aligned HoR withdrew their initial support for the GNA in August 2016, choosing to continue support for a rival government in the east. Thus, for the past several years, Libya has contended with two rival administrations with competing security structures based in the east and west of the country.
Legacy of Gaddafi’s Rule
The social and political divisions in Libya that have been exacerbated by the recent conflict have foundations in the decades of authoritarian rule by Gaddafi.
The years under Gaddafi’s rule were marked by extensive political repression, intentional weakening of government institutions and the country’s security apparatus, and preferential treatment afforded to certain tribes and ethnic groups while others suffered from blatant discrimination and marginalization.
These relationships were by no means static during Gaddafi’s regime, as tribal and geographic alliances shifted periodically. However, some groups, such as the Tebu and Amazigh, were marginalized consistently throughout this period.
These and other ethnic groups continue to face discrimination today.
This discrimination is often predicated on their non-Arab identities which are underscored, in the case of the Tebu, by the use of slanders that characterize them as African rather than Libyan.
Resources and positions within the government and security forces during Gaddafi’s rule were unevenly distributed not only by tribe or ethnic group, but also by regional origins.
This resulted in the neglect of specific towns and geographic areas. This was partially due to the alignment of tribal divisions along geographic lines, but was also a result of political maneuvering related to the concentration of oil resources and historical relations and tensions.
The split between east and west is the most significant division, related to assertions by eastern citizens that they have received a disproportionately smaller share of the country’s resources compared to the amount of oil their region produces.
The city of Benghazi in particular faced significant underdevelopment and repression under Gaddafi in comparison to Tripoli, an issue that points to the opposition’s entrenchment in Benghazi and other eastern areas.
Geographic rivalries have played out in other forms during the course of the conflict as well. For example, militias from Zintan and Misrata engaged in intense fighting in Tripoli in 2014, despite both sides having been among the strongest early forces involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi.
The Misratan forces were part of the “Libya Dawn” coalition which moved to push the Zintani fighters out of the capital due to accusations that the Zintanis were aligned with Haftar and planned to help him take over Tripoli, as well as accusations that they were working with ex-Gaddafi fighters.
Additionally, there was a pro- and anti-Islamist factor to the conflict, with some Zintani elements reportedly opposed to increased Islamist power while the Misratans were seen as linked to Islamist political groups.
These rival militias later reconciled and aligned in early 2018, but the split and conflict are illustrative of the overlapping and complex regional, political, religious, ethnic, and tribal loyalties that play a role in Libya.
Another issue that impacted the general security environment leading into 2011 and that persisted in the political challenges from 2014 to today is the overall weakness of formal political and security structures.
Gaddafi’s system of nepotism and the deliberate weakening of many government institutions, partially out of fears of a coup, resulted in the collapse of these institutions during the 2011 uprising.
This led to a post-Gaddafi security and governance vacuum that was an opportune environment for the rise of hundreds of armed groups overlapping with groups jockeying for political power.
The high number of militias that grew within this context is also closely related to the patchwork of tribal and geographic loyalties outlined above.
Competing allegiances without distinct, shared political goals outside of the elimination of Gaddafi created an environment that encouraged factionalization.
The Gaddafi regime also marginalized and banned Islamist elements to further protect its power. As a result, during the uprising, many of the anti-Gaddafi militias contained Islamist elements and Islamism took root in various forms in the political and security gaps post- Gaddafi.
These political and militant elements ranged from moderates focused on democratic development to violent extremists, including an Islamic State (ISIL) branch that took hold of Sirte and several other areas in 2015.
The group had been expelled from Sirte and most other strongholds by the end of 2016, but it continues to carry out sporadic attacks on government and security force assets and personnel in the country.
Other Islamist militias—some extremist and some moderate— established footprints in other parts of the country, including al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi (dissolved in 2017) and factions that broke off from the Libya Dawn coalition in Tripoli and surrounding areas.
Some Islamist militias were main players in the escalation of clashes between rival groups that occurred in Tripoli in August and September 2018.
The largest Islamist political party to arise in the post-Gaddafi context was the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which had been banned and whose elements existed only in exile or underground during Gaddafi’s rule.
As a result of this, the MB in Libya did not benefit from the broad societal support that MB bodies in other countries in the region did. The group did form a political party, the JCP, which won 34 seats in the 2012 elections for the GNC, behind the largely secular National Forces Alliance (NFA) which won 64 seats.
The JCP and MB gained some wins within the GNC, such as the passage of the Political Isolation Law, banning anyone from the Gaddafi administration from political participation for 10 years.
The MB has since suffered diminishing popularity and influence, experiencing poor results in the 2014 HoR elections, which many MB supporters boycotted.
This led to the continuation of the GNC as a rival government by Islamist elements—including a strong MB faction. These actions contributed to criticisms of the MB regarding their role as spoilers in reconstruction and stabilization efforts as well as accusations of connections to extremist militant groups.
Eventually, representatives from the GNC and HoR signed the Libyan Political Agreement in late 2015, leading to the creation of the GNA, though the GNC continued to fight for power until early 2017.
The MB is now represented in some of the GNA’s governing bodies, though their continued political role and influence remains uncertain.
Ethnic and Racial Discrimination
As mentioned above, tribal and ethnic discrimination was commonplace under Gaddafi’s administration, with the Imazighen and Tebu minority groups experiencing abuses such as revocation of citizenship, denial of public services, forced displacement, repression of cultural practices, and banning of native languages.
The minority Tuaregs, despite being considered part of the wider Imazighen ethnic group, were actually given relatively preferential treatment by Gaddafi, but only under certain conditions.
They were allowed to speak their dialect and some groups of Tuareg from neighboring countries were even welcomed into Libya. However, this preferential treatment disproportionately benefited the men in this population as Gaddafi aimed to incorporate male Tuareg into the army, offering them citizenship as an incentive.
Segments of the Tuareg population were certainly aligned with Gaddafi as the rebellion broke out and some were members of the state-aligned security forces, but many other Tuareg were opposed to him and his overall treatment of minorities.
Unfortunately, after Gaddafi’s fall there was backlash against the wider Tuareg community by some parts of Libyan society who viewed them as Gaddafi loyalists.
Each of these groups have been making efforts in the post-Gaddafi landscape to increase recognition and protection of their cultures and inclusion in governance.
Along with local minority groups, the group that bears the brunt of discriminatory and racist targeting is the large population of migrants, the majority of which come from sub-Saharan African countries.
Estimates put the number of migrants in Libya at somewhere between 700,000 to two million people, depending on the source and time period.
Some of these migrants have entered Libya for work while others use Libya as a transit point to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
During the fighting against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, many migrants, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, were arrested or targeted by violence due to widespread, exaggerated rumors that the forces supporting Gaddafi had brought in scores of mercenaries from these countries who were then committing atrocities against Libyans.
These rumors were compounded by existing xenophobia, prior exploitation of migrants under Gaddafi, and the training of foreign rebel fighters by the Gaddafi regime, notably insurgents from Chad, Niger, and Mali in the 1970s.
Some foreign fighters had been incorporated into the Libyan military, but the accusations against foreigners during the rebellion were found to be widely overblown and proven false in many cases.
These accusations, and the arrests and violence against black members of the population, ignored the existence of dark-skinned Libyan nationals and vilified population groups based solely on the color of their skin.
Recent Events and Outlook
As mentioned in the introduction, General Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive aimed at taking control of Tripoli in early April 2019. This activity represents a significant escalation of conflict in the country and fighting is ongoing at the time of this writing.
The military actions have been widely condemned by the international community, the UN, and, of course, the Tripoli-based GNA.
Prior to the recent military developments, the GNA had been engaged in UN-led negotiations with Haftar aimed at forming a transitional government.
Earlier in the year, the LNA successfully led operations to take the al-Sharara and al-Feel oil fields in Libya’s southwest, giving the group control over the vast majority of the country’s oil production. This also gave the
LNA better strategic footing to move on Tripoli. Opponents to Haftar voice concerns that the general’s success in gaining control of the country would be a return to the type of authoritarian rule experienced under Gaddafi.