TRIPOLI — The call to prayer sounded over a subdued Tripoli Thursday as residents of Libya’s capital tried to understand the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three diplomats during the storming of the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.
For many Libyans, the deaths late Tuesday night were shocking enough and apologies are thrust on Americans encountered on the streets. Libyan leaders also apologized, stressed their unity with Washington and vowed to track down the killers.
But beyond the condolences and apologies was a worry – worry that the United States and western nations might give up on Libya, possibly making their struggling government even weaker.
As the news circulated among Libyan activists that the U.S. embassy was evacuating, along with private U.S. assistance groups such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, fear mixed in with the shock.
“It is very bad,” said Ahlam Ben Tabon, who works at the domestic branch of a non-governmental organization (NGO), Foundation for the Future. “The government is not in control and this is a real calamity. We need the Americans.”
Two months ago, Libyans celebrated their first elections after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. They did so with joy mixed with relief. The elections had gone well, despite a disappointingly low turnout. Worst-case predictions that federalists in the east would derail the elections didn’t come to pass and violence was minimal. The general feeling was that Libya was on the path to stability.
Security challenges remain
But security challenges for the country have remained, including simmering ethnic disputes in the south, clashes between town-based militias and a series of assassinations of former Gadhafi military and intelligence officers. And in recent weeks, there has been a surge in violence by Islamist groups intent on ridding Libya of anything that does not fit ultra-conservative Muslim ideology. That would include Sufi mosques and shrines as well as university and school classes that mix genders.
The storming of the U.S. consulate and the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens has highlighted for many just how vulnerable and fragile Libya is right now.
The president of the newly installed General National Congress, Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf, lashed out at foes wanting to impede “our democratic experiment.
“We together with the United States government are on the same side, standing in a united front in the face of these murderous outlaws,” Magariaf said.
Magariaf also promised new measures to ensure the security of foreign diplomats and residents and all efforts would be made to track down the embassy attackers.
Who carried out attack?
But neither Magariaf nor the country’s outgoing prime minister, Abdurrahim Abdulhafiz El-Keib, can agree on the identity of the attackers: remnants of the Gadhafi regime or militant Salafists.
In recent weeks, Libyan leaders have reflexively blamed former Gadhafi officials – it is easier that way. But for Ahlam Ben Tabon, there is no doubt.
“The Benghazi attack wasn’t the work of Gadhafi people; it was Salafists,” she said. “And some in the government like to confuse the issue because some of them are linked in Islamist belief with the Salafists who carried out the attack.”
She is not the only one who thinks that. Political activists attending a rally in Algiers Square in downtown Tripoli Wednesday night to protest the Benghazi attack also dismissed the talk of old regime figures being to blame. The culprits for them are also ultraconservative Muslims.
Aimen, who wouldn’t give his family name for fear of Salafist retribution, said he believed there was “a hidden hand” behind the recent surge in Muslim extremism, arguing that “Saudi and Qatar are encouraging them through their preachers and through funding.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “they can exploit the lack of education here and the ignorance.”
The few activists at the rally to oppose what happened in Benghazi expressed their disappointment at the small turnout for the demonstration – only about 150 protested.
“I am here to express my condolences to the families of the Americans who died,” says Mohamed Asad Ellafy, a media coordinator for the Libyan youth NGO H2O. “It is a worry that the government is too weak to protect people and stop these attacks. This I hope would be a wake-up call. Libyans need to say loudly the guns have to be taken off the streets.”
But not everyone at the rally agreed with those sentiments.
A few in the crowd spoke less about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi than a movie that was said by many to have triggered the violence.
The movie, entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” appeared to insult the Prophet Mohammed and many Muslims considered it a clear provocation that deserved a response.
“The Americans insulted us and our Prophet,” said a bearded young man at the rally who gave his name as Abu Suleiman. “The movie was disgusting.”
One of the major differences between Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya is that in Egypt, pro-democracy groups can get their supporters out in large numbers to make their feelings known. In Libya, such groups do not have the weight of numbers and ordinary Libyans increasingly are too scared to protest against the militias and the Salafists.
Fowzi Omaar, an adviser to Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, who led a centrist alliance of groups to victory in the recent elections, said, “There is real disappointment that the young are not protesting on the streets at what has been going on in recent weeks. They should be out there every night to protect the revolution.”
The disappointment was written on the faces on those at Wednesday night’s rally.
“Most of our people are not extremists,” says 58-year-old Annaily al-Housh, a physician who says he was tortured for five days during the rebellion to unseat Gadhafi because of his opposition to the ousted dictator. “We want to be part of the world.”
US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens
*Served as U.S. ambassador to Libya since May
*Held two earlier postings in Libya
*Previous assignments in Israel, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia
*Worked as an international trade lawyer before joining the Foreign Service in 1991
*Taught English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1983 to 1985
Source: Voice of America