The Social Dynamics post-Libyan's Mayor Assassination: A Social Constructivist View

By Andy B. Anderson


Based on the social constructivist framework, the assassination of Libyan mayor from the city of Misrata represents a pivotal event in the modern history because it may reignite the Libyan multi-layered civil war, empower transnational terrorist networks, and further complicate the ongoing European Union (EU)’s refugee crisis. First, the civil war may get restarted due to the process of strategic social construction between Government of National Accord (GNA)’s opponents and proponents; the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s commander pursuit of eventual legitimacy through political ascension; the failure of the United Nations (UN)-backed GNA to facilitate an efficient life cycle of norms throughout the state; and the violent transboundary mobilization that further complicates the group dynamics of the Libyan insurgency. Second, transnational terrorist networks can get strengthened because of their potential victory in the hegemonic competition between the LNA and the terrorist groups, the transformation of moderate local Islamists into hardened jihadists due to identity change, and the addition of the new foreign recruits through successful socialization. Lastly, the current EU’s refugee crisis can get more complicated due to the uneven reception of refugees based on identity divergence among the EU states; challenges of refugee integration due to negative social discourses; and human security issues based on cultural differences among refugees and host populations of European societies.

Social constructivism is regarded as one of the leading theories of International Relations (IR) that can provide alternative reasons for change and stability in global affairs. The dominant theories of IR, such as neoliberal institutionalism and neorealism, for both theoretical and empirical reasons, hold mostly similar views about materialism and individualism. However, the proponents of social constructivism believe that social forces, such as ideas, norms, knowledge, and rules shape not only the identities and behavior of state and non-state actors but also the composition of global politics. Idealism, as one of the cornerstones of the theory, emphasizes social consciousness in providing ideas and interpretation to construct meanings and material reality (Barnett, 2017). Social constructivists also comprehend the world as being socially constructed through the relationship between agents (states, non-state actors, and individuals) and the holistic structures of broader environments, which are further defined by social norms or discourses (Cherkel, 2011).

Social constructivism is vital to explain global transformations and their consequences. This research article employs various social constructivist approaches to describe and identify the social dynamics post-assassination of Libyan mayor Mohammed Estewi from the city of Misrata on December 17, 2017. This day was the nominal date for the expiration of the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of 2015 where the Government of National Accord (GNA) was to become null and void. An early supporter of the GNA, Estewi was opposed by both jihadist Misratan Islamist groups and the LNA. The assassination of this individual, a key powerbroker in the Libyan reconciliation process, is very important since it eliminated a key moderating voice and dampened the hopes for a stable security settlement in Libya (Libya Herald, 2017). Such drastic event in the Libyan politics further polarizes the Libyan political arena and increases the risk of escalation of civil war.  

Possible Escalation of Civil War post Assassination

The Libyan civil war, post-assassination, may escalate to an open conflict due to the process of strategic social construction between GNA’s opponents and proponents; the LNA commander’s pursuit of eventual legitimacy through political ascension; the failure of the United Nations (UN)-backed GNA to facilitate an efficient life cycle of norms throughout the state; and the violent transboundary mobilization that further complicates the group dynamics of the Libyan insurgency. The current multi-layered civil war involves formal government units, armed groups, militias, tribes, and influential individuals from different geographic regions. The legal government units include the Government of National Accord (GNA), the General National Congress, and the House of Representatives (HOR). The LNA commander Khalifa Haftar is the central figure on the HOR’s side. The most prominent jihadist groups are represented through Ansar al-Sharia (connected to Al-Qaeda) and the Islamic State-Libya (ISIL). Local councils, tribes, external actors (notably, the United States and France) – all play critical roles as central actors in the conflict (McQuaid, Knoll, Faber, Thurston & Schroden, 2016). The social constructivist concept of strategic social construction explains the first reason for the possible escalation of Libyan civil war.

Strategic Social Construction between GNA’s Opponents and Proponents

After the mayor’s assassination, the LNA and its opponents rapidly engaged in strategic social construction. The actors chose to challenge the norms that consequently lead and comprise the current Libyan identity and interests (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). For instance, LNA’s commander asserted that the mandate of GNA and the associated institutions fully expired on December 17, 2017. Haftar’s supporters and allies immediately mobilized their forces to expand control over the electoral commission officers and election centers in the eastern part of Libya. As a show of force and relevance, they also held military graduation ceremonies. LNA’s allies also appeared in massive rallies in the east and the northwest of Libya where the support for the LNA is slowly growing.  The LNA’s opponents, primarily pro-GNA supporters, such as the Nawasi brigade, broke up a pro-LNA rally in Tripoli. In Misrata, the GNA-allied militias sent military reinforcements to Sirte district due to LNA’s mobilization in that territory (Estelle, 2017). Such warning signs of armed mobilization by various groups foretell the potential abandonment of the Libyan peace process and return to a full-scale civil war. The rules of war and peace in this context are not static but instead being revised by actors who decide through arguments, practice, and reflection how they can be applied to the new circumstances (Barnett, 2017). The engagement of factions, especially the LNA, in strategic social construction is also closely related to the second reason for the possible acceleration of civil war due to the LNA’s commander pursuit of eventual legitimacy through political ascension.  

LNA Commander’s Pursuit of Eventual Legitimacy through Political Ascension

LNA commander’s pursuit of eventual legitimacy through political ascension, especially after Estewi’s death, will galvanize his allies and adversaries. Social constructivist theorists claim that actors strive for identity and interest through legitimacy, the concept of acting according to and seeking the values of the global community. The sooner the actors obtain significant legitimacy, the easier it would be to convince the global community to cooperate with their policies (Barnett, 2017). For example, on December 17, 2017, Haftar vehemently rejected the LPA and its institutional network. His stance provides an early indication that he will run for Libyan presidency in 2018. Haftar wants to use public frustration about the peace process not only to secure his power on the national level but also to legitimize the LNA (Estelle, 2017). Although the LNA commander rejected the framework supported by the broader international community in the short-term, his actions show his confidence that his foreign and local supporters will eventually help him attain legitimacy in the long-term. Unfortunately, Haftar’s rejection of UN-backed solution and his search for legitimacy lead to further divergence within the Libyan politics. Moreover, the weak GNA’s sponsorship of the proper process of the life cycle of norms represents the third reason for the escalation of Libyan civil war.   

Failure of Weak UN-backed GNA to Support Effective Life Cycle of Norms  

The weak UN-backed GNA, especially post-assassination, fails to facilitate an effective life cycle of norms throughout the state. Life cycle of norms defines the evolution of norms through three stages, such as norms emergency, cascade, and internalization (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). Constructivists view institutions as community builders and creators of social reality by fixing meanings to adjust actions and form boundaries for legitimate behavior (Cherkel, 2011).The civilized states are expected to follow norms, such as the models of appropriate behavior for actors with a specific identity, to avoid military conflicts to resolve their internal differences (Barnett, 2017). For example, although currently, the GNA has support of the powerful international organization and other states, it lacks credibility among the local population. A few of the marginalized regions, such the Fezzan region, are also not included as equal Libyan stakeholders in this government (Estelle, 2017). Thus, such weak transitional governance structure not only fails to maintain consensus building but also prevents the successful life cycle of norms throughout Libya, therefore, inevitably leading to more war.  Lastly, the open military conflict in Libya can occur due to the violent transboundary mobilization that entangles the group dynamics of Libyan insurgency.

Violent Transboundary Mobilization Complicates Group Dynamics of Libyan Insurgency

Although the IR theorists usually focus on the local causes of civil wars, Salehan (2009) believes that current domestic wars span across the states’ boundaries due to the mobilization of transnational insurgent groups. Ballie (2011) agrees that due to multi-factionalism and fragmentation the contemporary civil wars possess transnational characteristics. For instance, the vast scale of foreign mercenaries involved in the opposing insurgent groups, including the LNA, distinguishes the Libyan civil war from the other regional civil wars. The Syrian conflict has involved lone fighters in the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, the Libyan civil war entices the whole military units and terrorist groups who might one day expect future assistance in their regional military conflicts (Hammond, 2018). This violent transnational mobilization represents a social construction, which changes the identity and brings the global context into the Libyan civil war. Although social constructivists usually focus on the positive side of politics, it is essential to recognize that the group dynamics not only result in cohesion but also lead to violence (Cherkel, 2011). In the Libyan case, the transnational mercenary mobilization causes the complication of group dynamics of the insurgency. The aforementioned four reasons present arguments for escalation of civil war. Social constructivist approaches can also explain that the assassination of key peace powerbroker can strengthen transnational terrorist groups.

Empowerment of Transnational Terrorist Groups post Assassination

The possibility of resurgent civil war, post-assassination, can empower transnational terrorist groups due to their potential victory in the hegemonic competition between the LNA and the terrorist groups; the transformation of moderate local Islamists into hardened jihadists due to identity change; and the addition of new foreign recruits through successful socialization. Since terrorism represents a social fact, the “constructivist approach brings us closer to the heart of terrorism than conventional ones” (Hulsse & Spencer, 2008). The social constructivist approach of hegemonic competition clarifies the first reason for the empowerment of transboundary terrorist groups.

 Potential Victory in Hegemonic Competition between the LNA and Terrorist Groups

The socially constructed hegemonic competition between the LNA and global terrorist networks prompts internal moderate Islamist groups to support the warfare of the transnational jihadist groups against the LNA. The model of hegemonic competition, proposed by Pampinella (2011), is based on Contentious Politics, the social constructivist method that studies the formation of political identities and movement mobilization. Pampinella (2011) explores the social construction of Iraq’s counterinsurgency and counterinsurgency by using the causal mechanisms of brokerage, diffusion, reflexive self-restraint, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Such model can be used to analyze the Libyan case as well. For example, Haftar is a polarizing person in the Libyan politics. The LNA commander and his allies rebuff any deliberations with moderate Islamist factions, including those from Misrata who comprise a powerful political bloc in the western region (Estelle, 2017). Transnational jihadist organizations can follow the aforementioned social mechanisms to establish their permanent hegemony in Libya.  First, the terrorist networks will build strong relationships with the moderate Islamists to broker new ideological worldviews that detail the threat of the LNA’s rise in power. Second, the diffusion of new ideas through existing relationships will socialize the rest of the moderate Islamists to adopt such worldviews. Third, transnational terrorists will create situations, which lead to the negative self-fulfilling prophesies about the interactions between the LNA and the proponents of moderate Islam. By the way, the LNA must not reflexively realize that it is doing its part in the continuous production of negative relations with the moderate Islamists so the positive feedback loop about self-fulfilling prophecies continues to be generated. Therefore, the reflexive transnational terrorist groups will gain hegemony in claiming violence and garnering support in defense of all Islamic community in Libya. Closely related to the first reason, the identity change of moderate local Islamists into hardened jihadists represents the second reason for strengthening transnational terrorist factions.

Identity Change Transforms Moderate Local Islamists into Hardened Jihadists  

The transformation of moderate local Islamist into Salafi-jihadists due to their identity change can increase the membership of the transnational terrorist groups in Libya. Social constructivism claims that all actors are created using their cultural environments, which shapes their identities. Subsequently, modified identities change the actors’ interests (Barnett, 2017). Civil-war researchers, such as Kalyvas (2008) also assert that the actors’ identities can soften or harden in the civil war. For instance, the ceasefire brokered by the French permits counterterrorism operations in Libya. Haftar, a powerful anti-Islamist commander with a loyal military force, categorizes all political Islamists as terrorists. His quest to eliminate political Islam in Libya antagonizes the moderate Islamists and leads them to cooperate with the transnational Salafi-jihadists groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL. Moreover, the LNA’s association with the senior officers from the Qaddafi regime angers the population and works well for local Jihadist recruitment strategy (Estelle, 2017). Therefore, the polarizing social environment created by the consequences of the cease-fire hardens the identities and changes interests of the moderate Islamists. The hard-line transnational terrorist groups are well –positioned to capture significant support from the moderate local Islamist factions and individuals in their fight for survival. The new increase in the foreign recruits due to successful socialization represents the third reason for strengthening transboundary terrorist factions.

Addition of New Foreign Recruits due to Successful Socialization         

Successful socialization produced by social influence and persuasion may lead to recruitment of new foreign militants ready for the Global Jihad in Libya on behalf of transnational terrorist groups. These groups see themselves in the global struggle to establish new cultural and social norms for all Muslims in contrast to the ones formed by the corrupt Western civilization and its marionettes in the Islamic countries (Shafar, 2018). Social dynamics in such groups are paramount for the social construction of new jihadists. Social influence, for instance, takes place when actors seek higher status inside an existing group whereas persuasion shapes the individuals’ interests and identities. The acts of persuasion are especially influential in the groups with strong ideological missions (Cherkel, 2011). For example, transnational terrorist groups, such as ISIL, have continuously inundated various media channels with persuasive messages for recruitment of global jihadists for Libya. Libya currently has the fourth-largest foreign militant mobilization in transnational jihadist history. Also, there is also the first time in history when West and East Africans have decided to raise their status in the global jihadist community by disengaging from the local terrorist activities in favor of foreign fighting (Zelin, 2018). Therefore, successful socialization can continue to affect the recruitment of more foreign martyrs for the Global Jihad in Libya. Transnational terrorist groups are skillful not only in expanding jihadist activism but also in constructing a global Islamic identity. Using the unstable social context in Libya post assassination, these growing groups can continue portraying themselves as equal adversaries to the great powers that support the LNA and GNA.The aforementioned three reasons present arguments for the empowerment of transnational terrorist organizations. Social constructivist approaches can also explain the possible impact of Estewi’s assassination on the ongoing EU’s refugee crisis.

Complication of the Ongoing European Union’s Refugee Crisis post Assassination

The ongoing EU’s refugee crisis post-assassination of the Libyan mayor can get more complicated due to the uneven reception of refugees based on divergence in the states identities of EU countries; challenges of refugee integration due to negative social discourses; and human security issues based on cultural differences between refugees and host populations of European societies. The remarkable surge in numbers of refugees that entered the European Union in 2015 has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. The Syrian civil war especially sparked “one of the world’s greatest forced migrations in the last century” (Bartlett, 2017). The consequences of Estewi’s assassination may also present another setback in finding a peaceful resolution in the ongoing conflict, increase the risk of open conflict, and cause more Libyan citizens to become refugees. The social constructivist concept of identity divergence clarifies the first reason for the complication of the refugee crisis. 

Uneven Refugee Reception based on Identity Divergence among EU’s Countries 

The uneven reception of refugees based on identity divergence among the EU’s countries may worsen with the influx of new refugees from Libya. Since the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, the member-states showed variance in their state identities through contrasting national policies and perceptions about refugees despite the assumed commonality of the EU’s collective identity that incorporates the values of solidarity, tolerance, and human rights (Buyuktanir, 2016). State identity represents the main component of culture and norm depository. According to Wendt (1994), a state identity can be shaped by the culture of the interstate community. However, the current situation reveals that the anti-refugee states are going through identity divergence, which is defined as a mechanism when the domestic coalitions defy the European norms and rules and construct the national communities in contrast to specific European values that are considered illegitimate in the domestic sphere (Subotic, 2011). For instance, Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban defends a tough anti-refugee position by presenting refugees as the threat to his country’s and European Christian identities (Noack, 2015). In contrast, despite criticism over handling the refugee crisis, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel still defends her country’s position to open the doors to refugees for humanitarian reasons (Stone, 2017). Therefore, the divergence in attitudes about refugees between nationalistic Hungary and liberal Germany reveals not only the difference between their state identities but also the weaknesses in the EU’s collective identity. Whereas Merkel believes in the possibility of successful integration of refugees into Germany and EU, Orban warns about the negative consequences of the refugee crisis on the fabric of Hungary’s and EU’s societies. Closely related to the first argument, the existence of the negative social discourses towards refugees represents the second reason for the complication of this humanitarian crisis. 

Challenges of Refugee Integration due to Negative Social Discourses

Negative social discourse represents of one the factors that have impeded the refugee integration in the EU and may exacerbate the situation for the Libyan refugees. A refugee is a social construction; therefore, a “social fact produced in discourse” (Hulsse & Spencer, 2008, p. 147). The significance of ideas, such as language, symbols, knowledge, and rules, is crucial in global politics (Bartlett, 2017). The interpretive constructivism examines the function of language, both negative and positive, in constructing and mediating social reality (Cherlel, 2011). Thus, the interpretation of adverse social discourses is useful for analyzing the challenges in the EU’s response to this enormous humanitarian crisis. For example, the negative representations of refugees by politicians and media not only hurt the arriving individuals but also impaired the refugee integration efforts into various European states, especially the ones that lacked the experience of integration of large numbers of culturally different foreigners (Techau, 2015). Not only right-wing politicians, such as Hungary’s Orban, tried to create a distorted social reality but also Great Britain’s Cameron used inflammatory language to compare the influx of refugees to the bee’s swarm (Elgot, 2016). The images of chaos at European borders and camps also built a negative social construction of refugees that led to the intensification of the EU’s citizens’ fears (Sunderland, 2016). Thus, there is a direct relationship between the anti-Muslim/xenophobic social discourses and the climate of intolerance in some European states that, subsequently, impedes refugee integration into host societies. More refugees may arrive at the EU’s borders due to the instability in Libya post-assassination. However, the negative social discourses will continue cause problems for successful refugee integration in the EU. Such problems, as human security issues based on the cultural differences between refugees and EU’s host populations, constitute the third reason for the complication of the refugee crisis.

Cultural Differences between Refugees and Host Populations Cause Human Security Issues

Human security issues due to cultural differences between refugees and host populations of European societies have surfaced during the current refugee crisis. Undoubtedly, the problems may continue with the arrival of new Libyan refugees. Koser (2011) asserts that during this humanitarian debacle “the threat of human security is far more real than any threat to national security” (p. 1). The paradigm of human security encompasses seven dimensions, such as personal, environmental, economic, political, community, health, and food security (UNDP, 1994, p. 24-25). Leading social constructivists, such as Wendt, have not focused extensively on the concept of human security since they concur with realists on placing a state in the primary role within discussions about global security (Barnett, 2017). However, the application of the social constructivists’ views is still possible for the reinterpretation of the concept of human security. Tsai (2009), for example, uses the Katzenstein’s view on cultural identity to conclude that human security represents a function of the culture that can be constructed through national, religious, ethnic and other networks (Baylis, 2017). Thus, consequently, the refugees’ human security issues, especially, in the dimensions of personal and community security, can be constructed and explained through cultural differences. For instance, the arrivals of thousands of refugees on a daily basis in Greece led to a humanitarian crisis (Sunderland, 2016). Despite the strong opposition from the UNHCR in 2016, more than twenty camps were opened in northern Greece that lack acceptable living conditions, legal aid, and lack of protection. Women, girls, and unaccompanied minors had their personal security threatened by other refugees and some Greek citizens (Sorensen, Kleist, & Lucht, 2017). The community security of refugees has been threatened by the violent outbursts from Greek’s nationalist parties, such as Crypteia and neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party (Carassava, 2017). Therefore, these examples present the evidence that a social constructivist approach can reasonably explain the human security issues as the function of cultural differences between refugees and host populations of European countries. Moreover, the EU member states that decided to place refugees in the isolated camp environments have threatened the refugees’ human security, especially its personal and community areas. Unfortunately, in such circumstances, the refugees’ struggles may not be internally-contained. The human security issues of refugees may not only cause further social tensions but also affect the domestic stability of host societies and the human security of their citizens. The aforementioned three reasons explain the possible complications of the ongoing refugee crisis post-Estewi’s assassination.  


The analysis of social dynamics post-Libyan mayor’s assassination demonstrates the possibility of using social constructivist-based approaches to explain the possible escalation of Libyan civil war, empowerment of transnational terrorist networks, and continuing complication of the ongoing European Union (EU)’s refugee crisis. Social constructivism provides fresh insights on the role of agency, institutions, power relations, and a variety of group processes (Cherkel, 2011) that can be applied to transformations in both local and global politics.

However, the examination of possible consequences of this pivotal event in the modern history has its deficiencies as well. Such weaknesses are potential problems in the application of social constructivism to the real world situations; the possibility of peace process versus escalation of the Libyan civil war post-assassination; limitations in the reasons of empowerment of transnational terrorist groups, and possible rebuttal of the overwhelming effect of negative social discourse on the continuing refugee crisis.

First, the application of social constructivism can be problematic in the real world situations. Social constructivism represents a social theory that is helpful in the investigation of social transformations but not a substantive IR theory that can offer specific predictions about regularities in global politics (Barnett, 2017). Fiaz (2014) explains that “in placing one foot in the rationalist camp and the other in the reflectivist tradition, constructivism has exposed itself to attack from both quarters (p. 494). Social constructivists are successful in describing changes in ideational factors, but they are inconclusive in theorizing about the material and institutional circumstances, which are responsible for the emergence of consensus about novel ideas and values (Snyder, 2009). Thus, the integration of thoughts from the substantive IR theories into the presented social constructivist approaches can offer new opportunities to build a robust theoretical framework for both investigations of causal factors and prescriptions for creative resolutions to the problems as a result of the vital event in the Libyan politics.

Second, the analysis of the potential reasons for Libyan civil war’s escalation deserves further study due to the possibility of the alternative turn of events in the Libyan political arena. Peace process may resume post-assassination of the critical peace broker in Libya. Wendt (1995) asserts that the permanence of social structures causes impossibility of transformation. However, other optimistic social constructivists believe that the construction of social structures can help develop interactive processes and policies that can lead to cooperation as opposed to open conflict. These scholars point to the transformation of ideas introduced by Gorbachev that created the shared knowledge about stopping the cold war. Once both opposing sides, such as the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, accepted the end of the conflict, the cold war was finished (Baylis, 2017). Such turn of events can possibly happen in Libya as well when all principal actors can derive tangible benefits from the peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict.

Third, the presentation of reasons for the empowerment of the transboundary terrorist groups has limitations and needs an additional exploration of the social constructivist approaches. For example, substantial research into the change of perceptions of Libyan citizens about the conflict due to the terrorists’ interactive strategies is required to test the argument about the hegemonic competition between the LNA and the transnational terrorist groups. Moreover, the transformation of the moderate local Islamists into the hardened jihadists can happen not only due to identity change but also due to adaptation based on material incentives or coercion (Cherkel, 2011). The exploration of the foreign recruitment into these terrorist networks can also benefit from disaggregation of the concept of socialization to understand all conditions for its successes and failures. Therefore, it is useful to create appropriate mechanisms to measure the effects of social dynamics on the recruitment of both local and foreign fighters.

Lastly, the assertion about the continuing challenges of refugees due to negative social discourses can be refuted due to the existence of positive rhetoric that can offset the effects of the negative social discourse and ease the burden on EU’s humanitarian refugee crisis. Thus, the responsible language from politicians and media can reshape and improve the social construction of refugees in the minds of host populations of the EU countries.

Regardless of the presented shortcomings in this research article, the analysis of social dynamics post- assassination of Libyan mayor from the city of Misrata does illustrate the promise of using social constructivist approaches to reflect about a wide variety of issues, such as civil war, transnational terrorism, and refugee crisis. Both conventional and interpretive variants of constructivism are helpful in devising the alternative ways of thinking about social forces that can influence not only the identities and interests of various actors but also the structure of the global political system.   


Andy B. Anderson attends Norwich University where he pursues a Master of Art in International Relations and a concentration in International Security.


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