Uncomfortable reminder of how far Libya has to travel
Many militias behind the deposing of Gadafy are still armed. Controlling them is a big challenge, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
YESTERDAY WAS supposed to mark another milestone along Libya’s path from dictatorship to democracy, with the selection of a new prime minister by the country’s recently elected national congress. Instead, Libya found itself making international headlines for all the wrong reasons after it emerged the US ambassador and three of his staff had been killed during an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the eastern city that acted as a cradle for last year’s revolution.
The exact circumstances of the deaths have not been confirmed, though it appears the ambassador, Chris Stevens, may have died as a result of smoke inhalation as armed men laid siege to the consulate on Tuesday night.
Reports from Benghazi suggested the incident, which involved clashes between armed protesters and Libyan security forces that resulted in the deaths of a number of the latter, was sparked after hardliners learned of an obscure film made by
an Israeli-American which ridicules Islam and the prophet Muhammad. The film, which can be seen on YouTube, also prompted violent protests outside the US embassy in Cairo.
But for most Libyans, the attack, which claimed the life of an ambassador highly respected in Libya for his role as the Obama administration’s liaison with the rebel government during last year’s uprising, was an uncomfortable reminder of how far their country has to travel, particularly when it comes to establishing the rule of law.
Benghazi, which had a long history of Islamist-tinged opposition to Muammar Gadafy, has witnessed a number of other attacks on foreign targets this year, including a rocket strike on the British ambassador’s convoy.
In two other incidents, a grenade was hurled at the International Red Cross offices in the city and handmade explosives were thrown at the US consulate.
Libya’s interim government, which has tended to blame such attacks on Gadafy loyalists, has struggled to impose its authority on the country since the dislodging of the regime last year.
Dozens of the militias that sprang up during the revolution have resisted calls to disarm and integrate into the national security forces. Some of these adhere to the ultra-conservative Salafist strain of Islam.
Libya’s Salafists have become increasingly assertive in recent months, destroying historically important shrines and mosques belonging to the Sufi tradition they consider heretical. Some act like self-appointed morality police, with cafes in Tripoli recently raided by Salafists opposed to unrelated men and women socialising together.
Others have distributed leaflets at universities and schools calling for segregated education.
The US consulate killings, and the disclosure that Libyan security forces that had arrived on the scene later withdrew due to the ferocity of the attack, reinforced a growing sense of disquiet over the inability of the authorities to enforce order.
After the recent demolition of a number of Sufi shrines, Libya’s interior minister Fawzi Abdelali was quoted as saying he did not want to not risk the lives of his personnel to apprehend those responsible.
Many Libyans interpreted his remarks as an admission that the government is powerless in the face of armed militias.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the killings “should
be a wake-up call to the Libyan government on the need to rein in armed groups that have been defying the law in Libya”.
The killings sent shockwaves across Libya and demonstrations have been planned in several cities in protest. “We are all devastated. He was a wonderful example of a diplomat,” one Benghazi resident who knew Mr Stevens told The Irish Times.
A prominent Islamist in the city also condemned the attack. “It is a black day for Libya,” he said. “Is our country becoming one which cannot be ruled except by force?
I sincerely hope not, but it seems that some brigades will simply have to be dealt with by force.”