In the pre-dawn blackness of September 12, I hurtled toward Tunis Carthage airport en route to Tripoli. I was looking forward to seeing my friend Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who had invited all nine members in our delegation representing the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Canadian government to his home for a Saturday night reception to talk about Libya’s turbulent transition.
The high-speed Tunisian taxi driver, who doubles as a freelance currency trader, told me, "More Libyans are coming every day. I’m making lots of money. It’s getting worse." I thought for a minute about his unscientific sample and wondered, "How bad is it?" At Tunisian customs, I was all alone. The immigration official spent too much time half-heartedly scrutinizing my passport, then looked up and said, "You came in yesterday?" "Yes," I replied. "It was not a good day for you."
"Why?" I asked. He hesitated, then mumbled, eyes downcast, "It was 11 September." He glanced up and returned my passport with a wince. Something was up, but I did not know what.
It was only when I arrived at Tripoli International Airport that I finally learned about the consequences of the attack on the U.S. consulate. I later learned that Chris had gasped his last breath just two or three hours before I had arisen, with Dr. Ziad Bouzaid at Benghazi Medical Center trying valiantly to revive him for 45 minutes. A few hours later his body would be lifted onto its last flight to Frankfurt amidst an outpouring of grief and disbelief on both sides of the Atlantic.
I had known Chris Stevens since we served together in the Peace Corps in Morocco, and I had served under him as chargé d’affaires in Tripoli. Both of our careers were dedicated to understanding the Maghreb and the Arab world, and we both doggedly went back to Libya again and again through the 2000s. In his case, he spent so much time there as a diplomat and had so much success understanding the country and integrating with its people that they almost had to make him ambassador.
The killing of Chris Stevens and of his three fellow Americans, is a stark reminder of Libya’s challenges, but it also recalls for foreign policy professionals why we do what we do, and how we ought to do it. Yes, we need more security, but not hunkered down in fortress embassies with early curfews and not at the expense of connecting with people from all walks of life.
It should also serve as a wake-up call. The tragic killings should not lead us to abandon Libya or to misunderstand what is really happening there. Yes, Libya is a country awash with weapons and beset by armed conflict, where armed groups freely roam. But Libya’s is also one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected. At our workshop in Tripoli, a Libyan academic paraphrasing a NASA astronaut quipped, "Libyans don’t know where they’re going, but they are going to get there faster than everyone else."
Libya’s salvation depends on the knowledge that its armed groups are still much more likely to be making and keeping the peace than getting into mischief and mayhem. Over lunch Friday, an NGO country director told me that she had spoken to a Libyan who was driving by the Benghazi consulate when it came under attack. He had recounted to her, "I ran back to my car to get my AK-47 and then returned to the consulate to see if I could help." Her contact volunteered to help retake the consulate, but was too late to save Chris.
There are two ways to interpret the AK-47-in-the-car anecdote. One is that it is an incredible shame that so many Libyans are driving around with AK-47’s in their cars, a sign that the country is on a steady descent into chaos. But the other view is that those same Libyans in large numbers are keeping weapons, and not turning them in, to try to secure their country, their revolution, and their future.
After tens of thousands Libyans demonstrated Saturday in the "Save Benghazi" rally against Islamist militias, hundreds of citizens rushed the headquarters of the Ansar al-Sharia and Rafallah Sahati brigades, members of which were blamed for the consular attacks, sacrificing life and limb to overwhelm and evict their militant Islamist occupants. Eleven people died, and several dozen were injured. President of the new General National Assembly, Mohamed Yussef Magariaf, announced that all unauthorized militias would be shut down, and Ansar al-Sharia of Benghazi and two other militias in Derna announced they would close up shop.
With this news, I thought back to our conversations with several dozen other Libyans in Tripoli during the week following Chris’s death. Most saw the killing of the ambassador and his three colleagues not only an attack on a foreign envoy whom Libyans had a sacred duty to protect, but as an attack on their own February 17 revolution. When asked about the incident, which began with the protest against an anti-Islamic film, a prominent Salafist leader from Benghazi was emotional and emphatic: "We must condemn the film … and we must condemn the killing of the ambassador … He was an innocent man."
The main problem in Libya is that it still lacks a fully functioning state, a state that Qaddafi tried very hard to dismantle. The army and police are dilapidated. So why hasn’t Libya descended into chaos? Our ICG report "Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts," which we were in Libya to discuss with Chris Stephens and others, attempts to provide some answers. Based on nearly a year of research with hundreds of international and local stakeholders, many of whom were just average citizens swept up in liberating and securing the country, we discovered that the country has avoided the worst because those same volunteers have consistently brought the country back from the brink, both during their revolution and after, by imposing ceasefires, mediating disputes, and keeping the peace. Themselves. With negligible international assistance and no foreign boots on the ground.
Qaddafi’s bloody end and the collapse of his regime left in its wake an armed population pent up with 42 years of grievances. Qaddafi’s Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategies set communities, political allies, and even his sons against each other, all vying for a share of the resources and the leader’s favor. Some grew wealthier than others, most suffered. Once the lid came off, there was every reason to fear a free-for-all, as armed groups that proliferated during and after the revolution sought material advantage, political position, or revenge. Tensions and resentments long simmering came to a boil. However, most of the post-revolution conflicts were, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short."
The conflicts were short-lived because local leaders, revolutionary brigades, and other civilians stepped into the breach and took on the responsibility of keeping Libya united. To be sure, the armed groups in Libya are creating as many problems as they are solving. But it would be wrong to see the vast majority of these forces as acting against the wishes of the state or the state generally in conflict with militias. The armed groups simply are the people, armed. And for the most part, nearly all armed groups are already authorized and encouraged to take part in the stabilization of the country, serving as auxiliary forces for a state that is not ready to defend itself, let alone Libya’s vast territory.
When attacks occur, including the one that took Chris’s life, local notables and armed groups voluntarily step in and physically keep the shooting parties apart. Sometimes they are in a position to pursue those who have perpetrated the catalyzing criminal acts. To make peace, these local leaders appeal to the higher ideals of Libyan identity and Islam, along with exerting social pressure and deploying traditional concepts of customary law. Volunteers, using whatever tools they have at their disposal, have stepped in where the government could not.
However successful, these are unsustainable solutions. Ceasefires are temporary, and conflicts are frozen in place. But volunteer peacekeepers and mediators cannot decide who is a criminal and who isn’t, whose property this is and whose it isn’t, and who is a Libyan and who isn’t. Armed groups hailing from faraway villages, towns, and urban neighborhoods cannot come in and play police, judge, and jury. They cannot implement the ceasefire agreements and solve issues of property, power, and patronage. Without effective government, the ceasefires cannot hold.
With the July elections, the selection of a new prime minister, and the formation of a new government, there is much to celebrate in post-Qaddafi Libya. Even in the quasi-pro-Qaddafi town of Bani Walid, where Saif al-Islam Qaddafi made his last stand and where my colleague and I observed the elections, Libyans voted out of civic duty and without the hoopla and emotional outpouring that I witnessed observing the historic Tunisian elections (although there was some post-vote fanfare, firecrackers, and high-speed cruising along Tripoli’s Mediterranean corniche.)
Nearly every young adult I asked who he or she had voted for told me Mahmoud Jibril, who lost the prime ministership in parliament by two votes while we were in Tripoli, after several of his supporters were disqualified. But Jibril, an early defector from the Qaddafi regime whose party won twice as many votes as any other (of the 40 percent of seats reserved for party lists), graciously accepted his defeat to the more centrist, consensus candidate Mustafa Abu Shagur, who was more acceptable to Islamic conservatives and rallied independents.
Despite differences of opinion, virtually all Libyans feel a duty to secure and defend their country. They are generally performing their civic duties in a low key, cooperative manner. Many international stakeholders, who like Chris Stevens are personally invested in Libya’s success, believe the international community has a duty to remain engaged with them.
In the mayhem of evacuating Tripoli last Monday, following a one-day strike which shut down the airport and doubled the number of people trying to get out, passengers shouted and cursed at airline representatives as they determined which Sunday passengers and which Monday passengers would get the first boarding cards. Just when it looked like sharp invective would lead to fisticuffs in the long line at the Royal Air Maroc counter, and again later at the Austrian Air counter, Libyan volunteer peacemakers calmly stepped in with jokes and lighthearted words to help reform the line and try to keep a semblance of order so that all could get where they were going. One frustrated gentleman at the window with an expensive designer carry-on bag exclaimed, "I’m a diplomat," sparking another pushing and shoving match, but a young man in smart glasses thrust himself between the passengers and said, "We’re all diplomats!" and regained control of the situation. Since there was little visible security and organization at the airport, that voluntary collective and self-imposed order was about all we had to count on.
When I finally got my boarding pass, it had nothing printed on it and little scrawled on it but a date, certainly not a flight number or a seat number. I asked why, and the airline representative replied smiling, "Libya hurra!" or "Libya’s free!" So, now free to sit or go wherever I pleased, I charged through customs, quickly bypassing the chairs in the waiting area, and soon joined the mad dash to the aircraft. I was right to hustle — it seems that four too many people found their way onto the open seating flight and were kindly escorted off and presumably asked to wait for the next plane, at which point these ambitious Libyans would surely try again to get there faster than everyone else.
In my haste to secure a seat, I inadvertently exported, packed into my pockets, much too many Libyan dinars, a non-convertible currency, still emblazoned with the former brother leader’s regal grin, his hand to his face in an "Oh my" gesture. Of course, I now have the mobile number of a reliable informal currency trader who will willingly change back the currency for me at a reasonable price next time I get to Tunis. But I won’t need it. I am hanging on to all of this currency, in Chris’s honor, for my next trip to Tripoli.
William Lawrence directs the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group.