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Attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli: what now for Libya?

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Foreign companies and investors already unsure about returning to Libya will be further dissuaded by this targeting of a foreign embassy in the heart of Tripoli.

Rhiannon Smith
30 April 2013

On April 23, a car bomb exploded at 7am outside the French Embassy in Tripoli. The powerful explosion ripped through the outer walls of the embassy, as well as neighbouring houses, causing part of the building to collapse. Two French security guards were present when the bomb went off and one was seriously injured. Fortunately however most embassy staff were yet to arrive at the time of the blast so casualties were minimal. This was little consolation however for Tripoli's residents.

This was the first direct attack on a foreign embassy in Tripoli since Gaddafi was ousted from power and it has sent shockwaves through the capital. Although the overall security situation in Libya is far from stable especially in the eastern and southern parts of the country, life in Tripoli is relatively calm and peaceful.  Attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi back in September 2012 shocked and saddened the nation but few thought that such an attack could take place in Libya's capital, the seat of central government. The state has already been coming under fire in recent weeks for its perceived weakness and lack of control over powerful militias and unfortunately this bombing is likely to compound concerns that the Libyan government is failing in its attempts to maintain peace and stability.

At the date of writing, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the attack but there is speculation that it could have been orchestrated by AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in retaliation for French involvement in Mali. Another theory is that Gaddafi loyalists were behind the attack as it was France that spearheaded the NATO intervention which ultimately helped remove the old regime from power. A joint commission between Libya and France has been set up to investigate the attack, and Libya has announced that it will do everything in its power to bring the culprits to justice. However, various sources have claimed that Libyan security forces took up to 2 hours to arrive on the scene after the explosion, once more throwing doubt on the capacity of the Libyan authorities to actively manage law and order.

The mood in Tripoli after the attack was one of shock, depression and frustration. The French are popular across Libya for the role they played in supporting the rebels during the revolution. Libyans posting on social media were quick to condemn the attacks, expressing their condolences to those who were injured and question why Libyans would attack a nation whose support was vital to the success of the February 17 revolution. Others expressed their anger at the Libyan authorities for their apparent incapacity to rein in militias and Islamist groups.

Many feel that this attack was a taunt to the Libyan authorities as well as perhaps a warning to the French. The bomb was set off at 7am when few people would be around, yet the implication is that had they wanted to, the attackers could have set the bomb off in the middle of the day and caused a great deal more destruction and devastation. Many are pessimistic about the chances of catching those responsible. There have been demands for the Chief of Staff Yousef Mangoush to stand down given the inefficiency of the police and army, but so far these calls appear not to have been heeded.

For their part, the French seem determined not to let these attacks disrupt their work in Libya and both embassy staff and French companies currently operating in Libya have no plans to leave. The same applies to other foreigners living in Tripoli. Although the bombing was a shock, it is seen more as a regrettable incident rather than a sign that the overall security situation in Tripoli is deteriorating. Other embassies are upping their security but have no plans to suspend operations.

However, this attack will undoubtedly have a negative effect on Libya's economic and political progress. Foreign companies and investors already unsure about returning to Libya will be further dissuaded by this targeting of a foreign embassy in the heart of Tripoli. Companies in Libya will probably increase their security, limiting operations and increasing the perception that Libya is a country on the edge of anarchy.

Libyan authorities need to turn this attack to their advantage. If they can show the Libyan public and the international community that they are actively and efficiently pursuing the perpetrators and strengthening security around the city then this could be a turning point for the better for Libya. However if the government and security forces continue to display the lacklustre, ineffective approach that they have done in recent weeks and months then Libya's short term future will look a lot less secure.   

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