On Tuesday, September 11, a furious armed mob attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi and set it on fire, reportedly in response to a crude American film which ridicules the Prophet Mohamed. Other sources suggest the attack was already planned and that the protests were just a cover up. US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other members of staff were killed during the assault. This tragic event has sent shockwaves of anger and sadness around the world as Americans and Libyans alike ask how such a catastrophic breach of security was allowed to happen in the symbolic heart of ‘free Libya’.
The interim Libyan president Mohamed Magarief apologised for the killings, offering condolences to the US and pledging to bring the perpetrators to justice. Across the Atlantic, President Obama called the attacks ‘outrageous and shocking’, and within hours security at the US embassy in Libya, as well as others across the region, had been increased. However both parties stressed that the incident would not damage the relationship between the two countries.
As the news broke in Libya, the overwhelming reaction was one of grief and frustration as social media pages were flooded with apologies, condolences and a call to action. Libyans want to show the world that they condemn these attacks and the tragic loss of life that followed. Many were insulted by the anti-Islam film but were desperate to make it clear that this was not justification for what happened. People took to the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi on Wednesday night holding banners with messages such as ‘Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans’ and ‘Sorry people of America. This is not the behaviour of Islam or our prophet’.
Libyans do not want Americans to tar them with the same brush as the thugs who committed this crime. Ordinary Libyans want to see the perpetrators brought to justice as much as everyone else. Perhaps if Libya were a more stable, less Islamic country, then the rest of the world would realise unaided that the majority of Libyans would not support such a senseless violent attack. As it is, Libyans are having to fight to ensure this message reaches the outside world. Some are concerned that the fallout from this tragic event will put Libya back at square one, and they are right to worry. Fears of Al Qaida infiltration, foreign targets and a perceived lack of stability could easily curb trade and investment in Libya and cause the international press to brand the country as another Iraq or Afghanistan.
For many Libyans the events of Tuesday night are a devastating illustration of the lack of security and rule of law in Libya, and frustration towards the government on this score is currently running high. Assailants were able to attack, destroy and loot the US consulate, as well as kill four people, without Libyan security forces being able to stop them. This comes in the wake of several recent attacks on Sufi shrines in Tripoli and other parts of Libya where the government seemed powerless to put a stop to the destruction, despite the incidents taking place in crowded areas in broad daylight. The Supreme Security Council (SSC) is the body responsible for internal security in Libya and is supposed to be controlled by the Interior Ministry. However recent events suggest that the SSC is acting in its own interests, not those of the government, and that the Interior Ministry has little influence over this body of former revolutionaries.
As I have mentioned before in these columns, Libya is still unstable and with so many weapons around it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are opportunists of all creeds hoping to take advantage of the fragile situation. However, while the government can’t yet be expected to stop every act of spontaneous violence, it must make more effort to regain the monopoly of force in Libya and remove power from the increasingly wayward SSC. If the attack in Benghazi was planned, then no doubt it was because the perpetrators assumed they could get away with it. This tragedy needs to mark a turning point for Libya. The newly elected Prime Minister Dr Mustafa Abushagur must ensure that these attacks are thoroughly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. He must be prepared to take the tough decisions to ensure rule of law returns to Libya, and he must do so with transparency, conviction and speed.