Reading the Benghazi Embassy Attack

This morning’s attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi by a Muslim extremist group should not be misinterpreted. Amidst our natural outrage at the tragic death of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya (who was visiting Benghazi) and three other Americans, we should stop to consider the context. The incident by no means represents the general feeling to the US among Libyans—or even the feeling of a substantial minority. While Libyans are vastly more religious than Americans, they showed in the July 7th election that they reject even the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of an Islamic state. Rather, the attack is a sign of the way the current lawlessness in Libya is allowing a largely passive population to be tyrannized by a tiny, violent minority. That minority may be small indeed.

Yesterday, waiting in an endless line at Tripoli Airport for my flight to London, I made the acquaintance of a Libyan-British man from Benghazi, Ibrahim Isbag. Dressed in Salafi clothes and sporting a long beard, he had traveled around Libya during the revolutionary period. It turned out that he had been in Derna a little before my visit this September. We discussed the armed bands of al-Qaeda loyalists who have been a constant threat there. Some of them blew up the Sufi shrine in Derna’s central mosque during Ramadan. Isbag said he had visited the training camp of one such group, who disavowed the attack. He said there were only a tiny number of jihadis there—definitely fewer than twenty. Nothing too scary—if only there were government security forces.

We have violent extremists groups in the US, of course—but we have police and soldiers to keep them from showing their true colors very often. When they do commit an attack, they are usually quickly captured, jailed, and eventually tried. In Libya, however, most of the Qaddafi-era police have not returned to work, the new internal security forces are still embryonic, and there is effectively no Libyan army at the moment.

On my three-week trip to Libya this August and September, I heard countless complaints from Libyans about the lack of security. It has come to pervade the post-revolutionary society. Few dare to speak up any more as their rights are eroded by extremists: I saw fewer than 70 people protesting another shrine destruction in Tripoli on August 26th. Why so few? To some extent, because Libyans do not respect their own history. But mainly, for the same reason the Interior Minister provided when asked by the new National Assembly that day why his forces did not intervene: fear of a bloody clash with the extremists with what he believed an unacceptable loss of life. Few Libyans want to appear on TV cameras where they can be identified by armed bands.

There is also the problem presented by the nature of Libyan society. Libya is like one big small town in many ways, and Libyans are loath to confront other Libyans. Many people I spoke with favored talking with the al-Qaeda groups now pushed out of Derna to the mountains, and bringing them back to the city. No one said they needed to be killed if they didn’t lay down their weapons. This is a country with no history of democracy, really, and, after 42 years of Qaddafi, no sense of the government’s monopoly on violence being a good thing.

I’m optimistic that Libyans will regard this attack as a wake-up call to defend their emerging democracy. They had better, if they want to be part of the larger world. All those dozens of people who have asked me how they can get an American visa so they or their children can study in or visit the US will have to exert pressure on their neighbors to wipe out the extremists. The vast majority of Libyans showed in the July 7th elections that they knew where their interests as citizens lie. Now is the time for them to step up to the plate again. Chris Stevens, a kind man who spoke good Arabic, supported the revolution in Benghazi last year. If his death leads to a turn in the right direction in Libya, it will have meaning for both countries he served.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English


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