In this season of revolution, the early and stunning toppling of dictators – if not necessarily entire regimes – in Tunisia and Egypt has been followed by what appear for the moment to be stalemates in Bahrain and Libya. And in these latter two countries, despite wildly different circumstances, a curious phenomenon has emerged: a concern over foreign, and often racially marked, “mercenaries.”
In Tunisia and Egypt, armies have acted as relatively cohesive national institutions, able to define their interests distinctly from those of rulers and move accordingly to preserve their own positions in society. But in Libya and Bahrain, we are told, regimes have relied more on imported labor, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, respectively, to help crush popular dissent. In the Libyan case, much has been made of the putative blackness, or “Africanness,” of the alleged mercenaries and their atrocities – a discourse that has attracted much critical scrutiny. In Bahrain, the discussion of foreign military labor (a longstanding and understudied phenomenon in the Gulf states) takes on a sectarian tinge, as observers have noted that the use of Pakistanis and Arabs who happen to be Sunni has the added benefit of tipping the demographic balance against the Shi‘i majority.
The race-talk around foreign mercenaries is reminiscent of the other “foreign fighters” that have dominated the news in recent years: namely, transnational armed Islamist “jihadis” – often racially marked as Arab – in locales as diverse as Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Balkans, and the Horn of Africa. The U.S.-led “Global War on Terror” has reified and amplified these notions by encouraging special forms of surveillance and control for what we can call “Muslims out of place,” or Muslims traveling from one non-western country to another. We can see this most disturbingly in the use of bounties to capture Arab travelers and expatriates sent to Guantánamo; as one U.S. military intelligence soldier who served in Afghanistan put it, “every Arab we encountered was in for a … trip to Cuba.”
At first glance, there is one major difference between the “foreign fighters” enlisted in the service of counterrevolution and those waging jihad abroad – one is seen as driven by money, the other by religious fanaticism. Yet underneath the apparent contrast between moral value and economic values is a common critique that looks askance at the idea of fighting in “other people’s wars.” Armed political involvement by non-state actors in other countries is itself illegitimate interference; moreover, foreigners with no stake in a place, driven instead by fanaticism or greed, are seen as more likely to commit atrocities. Regimes, too, have appropriated the accusation of “foreignness” to tar their enemies.
No doubt this critique is motivated by a sense that democratic legitimacy comes from populations grounded (so to speak) in specific territories. But beneath and around this apparently self-evident idea are a few considerations worth exploring. Because this sort of race-talk probably operates very differently inside these countries versus on the outside, I raise these issues mostly for those of us watching these events and struggling to shape our thoughts and actions accordingly.
1. The “foreigner” is not always a stranger. The discourse on “foreigners” as fighters or mercenaries tends to resonate on the assumption that these people have somehow dropped out of the sky without any precedent or context, and find it easier to kill people they have nothing to do with. This assumption of strangeness, however, defies history. Libya and Bahrain have both long hosted large migrant worker populations, largely drawing from the same regions now racially linked to the idea of “mercenaries.” Mercenaries are, among other things, workers. Some (especially if they happen to be white) are insanely overcompensated and accountable to no local actors; but many others are in a far more ambiguous position vis-à-vis locals. If they were not carrying guns, some may instead have been construction workers, drivers, or cooks (similarly, many of the Arab mujahids who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina were migrant workers coming from Italy).
The historical ties that give rise to mercenary and other forms of labor are neither recent nor are they simple. Often under the banner of empires, racism has long intersected with economies of migrant labor, both in their capitalist and non-capitalist forms (systems of slavery of course being a major part of this story). Nor is migrant labor the whole story: trade, pilgrimage, and education have also tied these regions together. And, of course, politics. To take only one pertinent reminder in light of today’s discussions of “Africans” in Libya: the Sanusi Sufi order that helped found the Libyan state allied with various “black” polities to oppose French expansionism in Central Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s racialized violence – both real and imagined – in Bahrain and Libya needs to be understood as part of these long and complex histories, full of rivalry and rancor, partnership and servitude. As we saw in the debates around “Africans versus Arabs” in Darfur, the mapping of oversimplified racial categories onto political conflicts too often plays into the hands of both despots and empires.
2. There are many ways to think and speak about these complex histories, some of which has been done by regimes in their various internationalist projects. Qaddafi is one of the best-known examples, given his flirtations with pan-Arabism, Non-Alignment, and pan-Africanism. In recent decades, it has been easy to dismiss this as idealistic sloganeering meant to distract attention from various domestic failings and there is of course much truth in this critique. But internationalist projects were also attempts by some newly independent states to survive in a Cold War world, with social, economic, and political consequences that have helped shape the diverse populations we find in the world today.
As these regimes have lost credibility, however, so have their associated internationalist projects, allowing any lingering resentments towards them to emerge more sharply. The racialization of Arabs as “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan and the Balkans accompanied a rejection of or disappointment in pan-Islamism associated with the Arab world (especially Saudi Arabia). Similarly, the perceived perks enjoyed by Palestinians in Iraq as recipients of Saddam Husayn’s pan-Arabist largesse helped make them targets after the U.S. invasion. How much is the concern over African mercenaries in Libya tied to critiques of Qaddafi’s adventurism in supporting rebels from all over the continent in the name of pan-Africanism? In this sense, this race-talk is a reminder of internationalisms past.
3. If the stench of racism here is wafting from the carcasses of rotting internationalisms, then contemporary debates over “intervention” are often dances atop the grave of what used to be called “solidarity.” The prevalence of the idea that involvement in “other people’s wars” is inherently suspect is greatly assisted by the decline of various non-western internationalist projects. Diverse transnational solidarities are by no means absent today, but they have largely avoided the question of organized violence, either due to pacifism or because of a suspicion towards state power (transnational jihad movements being an important contemporary exception, with their own sets of problems).
The debate over intervention has for the past few decades been narrowly framed by a global political dispensation that theoretically refers all legitimate armed interventions through a centralized body: the United Nations Security Council – at least until the U.S. and its allies decide to act on their own anyway, as in Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq. There is no need here to review yet again the many fundamental flaws of this arrangement. Instead, I think it is worth noting what has been forgotten in these debates: the possibility of other acts of armed transnational solidarity, such as the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War or Cuba’s confrontation with the armies of apartheid South Africa in Angola.
My point is not that these were “good” interventions versus the “bad” ones sanctioned by the western-dominated UN: it is that these interventions, despite their many problems, took sides to advance specific, shared, and unapologetically political goals that also provided legible criteria for evaluation and critique. In contrast, post-Cold War interventions have been framed in diverse anti-political discourses such as international law, morality (confronting “absolute evil”), and bare-life humanitarianism (as when Samantha Power calls for an “endangered peoples’ movement” against genocide). Interestingly, as the paradox of “imposing democracy” on Iraq demonstrates, it is doubtful that “liberal” interventions are even capable of advancing liberal politics. The problem is not merely that these interventions are hypocritical or conceal hidden agendas but that they defy attempts at meaningful evaluation insofar as they refuse to openly identify with, let alone defend, the agendas of actors on the ground, including who stand to benefit. Few argued for western intervention in Kosovo or Rwanda because the UÇK or RPF, respectively, were partners in any common political project. Instead, these interventions target “populations” and focus on criteria such as “saving lives,” “stability,” and other arbitrarily chosen “benchmarks.” Without an explicit political grounding, these interventions have little interest in actualizing positive political change and instead set multiple technocratic goals that allow them to avoid the verdict of failure by repeatedly shifting the markers for success. These interventions disavow political subjects (in all senses of the word) and replace them with objects of pity and rescue.
Our collective difficulty in actualizing a politics of armed solidarity outside the narrow terms of intervention helps explain the intriguing situation in which some of those most concerned about the depredations of “foreign” mercenaries in Libya are also advocates of western military intervention. Such an intervention, of course, is marked not as “foreign,” but as “international,” or let us say universal. By “universal” I don’t mean widely or commonly shared amongst humanity; I refer to the position of those whose foreignness is unmarked and sublimated into something allegedly higher. As the political theorist Carl Schmitt might have said, the universal is he who decides on who is merely “foreign.” We can see concretely how the universal hovers above the foreign in the recent UN Security Council resolution on Libya, which simultaneously refers the situation there (including the acts of mercenaries) to the International Criminal Court for investigation while exempting any future intervention force from compulsory jurisdiction before that body.
4. The point, and not a particularly original one, is that “foreignness” – the lived fact of cultural difference – is by itself politically inert and therefore a poor proxy for legitimacy. The problem with mercenaries or peacekeepers isn’t their foreignness – it’s their service to dictatorship or empire.
Of course it is possible to reject all forms of “foreign” involvement, in the form of either mercenaries or peacekeepers. The intuitive appeal of the idea that “we” must allow Libyans/Bahrainis/etc. to sort things out for ourselves without foreigners propping up their oppressors or even helping revolutionaries is undeniable. But the obvious question of “who speaks for the people?” is further complicated here by the diversity which race-talk both feeds off of and seeks to collapse. In places such as Libya and Bahrain – to say nothing of other Gulf states that many look to in hopeful anticipation for stirrings of dissent – foreigners are a significant part of the population. Indeed, foreigners have literally helped build these countries. Should they not have some role in shaping their own destinies? And do they not present immense possible strategic value in any revolutionary campaign?
The role of foreign residents is only part of a broader challenge before us. In thinking critically and constructively about solidarity – that which is premised on a relation of not being the proper subject of political action – we need to develop better principles and criteria if we are to get beyond our sterile discussions about race, no fly zones, Twitter, and so on. As usual, Palestine has led the way in forcing us to consider these questions, thanks to the ambiguous roles played by self-proclaimed allies and the challenges for solidarity movements posed by the collapsing legitimacy of Palestinian national institutions.
The world has yet to learn all the lessons that the revolutionaries of Egypt and Tunisia have to teach us. Beyond the ability to organize and sustain pressure, to resist co-optation and attrition, and to create self-organized communities that terrified regimes with the prospect of sheer irrelevance we should also seek lessons for a renewed politics of solidarity. The discussions about race, intervention, and technology prompted by this season of revolution each, in their own limited ways, point to a deeper question: how do we make real the supposition that our own freedom is tied to the freedom of others?