Libya Is Not Iraq
By: Manal Omar
This is the mantra I started repeating last week. It was the only way I could bear the calls, emails, and posts I was receiving from my Libyan friends. The news didn’t only shock me, but it had the potential to devastate me. After a year of traveling across Arab Spring countries, Libya had become my anchor amid the chaos. Despite the many challenges the country faced, I always left feeling hopeful and cautiously optimistic.
The attack on the U.S. consulate, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, threatened to stifle all hope within me. I could not bear the idea that Libya could dissolve into conflict led by violent religious extremism. I had spent the past year insisting that Libya would have its happily ever after. I was not blind to the enormous challenges that lay ahead, but I simply believed that Libya had all the right ingredients to overcome them.
First and foremost the Libyans despise extremism. Throughout the country, Libyans took the time to explain that they were religiously conservative, but equally modern and progressive. Second, the relatively small population coupled with a strong oil economy was a positive combination. – The recent political achievements positioned Libya to move in a direction of a country based on the rule of law. My optimism for Libya has not been from nativity. It was the result of clear benchmarks the Libyans had achieved in the transition process. It was crucial that these achievements not be lost because of the actions of a few.
Yet the developments of Sept. 11, 2012 could prove me wrong. I struggled to quell the feelings of pain, loss, and sorrow that were threatening to suffocate my optimism. That is when I developed my mantra. My sense of loss stems in part from my previous trauma of working in Iraq during its own initial days of post-war turmoil.
The attacks in Benghazi slashed open this old wound and revived my worst fears. In truth, I had once been optimistic about Iraq as well. During the early months of 2003, I had spent late nights in Baghdad’s coffee shops, walking around century old streets filled with art, literature, and music that inspired me. But, no sooner than I felt so positive, the horrors unfolding in that country shifted my optimism to dread so often that I had mental whiplash. The result was a hardened approach, where I developed a pragmatic and factual day to day approach. In short, I refused to hold high hopes for Iraq’s future.
That is until I arrived in Benghazi in April 2011. Benghazi was a city brimming with volunteerism and hospitality. I encountered Libyans who were brave to dream about a new future – one free from dictatorship. Most of them were ready to die for that dream. It was an honor to be witness to this new chapter in Libyan history. That year I celebrated Ramadan in Libya, and experienced the exhilaration of the fall of the Qaddafi regime. For that moment I witnessed Libya’s transformation of the dream into a reality.
I shared this moment with Ambassador Chris Stevens, with whom I had the privilege of working in Benghazi while he was the U.S. envoy. We shared the hopeful excitement watching Libya overcome decades of dictatorship.
Though I did not know Ambassador Stevens well, I was immediately struck at his accessibility, and his generosity with his knowledge and advice. It was not uncommon to walk into the lobby of Tebetsi and find him sitting in the lounge, chatting with various Libyans of all walks of life. Several times I would walk out of the hotel to the back alleyways of the hotel and find Ambassador Stevens strolling along unaccompanied. Despite the fact that the sound of gun shots still filled the air, I was impressed the he would go out without security. This spoke volumes of his character.
At the time I had been invited to join the Libya Stabilization Team, a Libyan-led initiative to plan for the day Qaddafi fell. As the only international, non-Libyan invited to the team, I had hesitated. It was Ambassador Stevens who encouraged to me to participate. If the Libyans are asking for your assistance, consider it an honor, and do not refuse, he had advised me.
It goes without saying that there were three other U.S. personnel killed. It should also go without saying that many Libyans died, some while bravely trying to save the Americans under attack. I mourn for them all.
My intense feeling of sorrow and loss was only matched for concern for Libya. For Libya to be a success it needs to have the international community’s continued support. I fear that the international community will respond to Ambassador Stevens’ murder with a knee-jerk response similar to when Sergio de Mello, top United Nations envoy in Iraq, was killed in August 2003. The violence perpetrated by a small radical group in Iraq led to that country’s isolation, and sparked rigid security procedures more suitable for an army of occupation rather than liberation.
Nevertheless, I still believe Libya will not be an Iraq. For one, there is no western military presence. For another, Libyans hate violent extremism, as confirmed by the immediate response from the Libyan government.
Most important was the response from Libya’s civil society. The afternoon after the attack, more than 200 Libyan civil society activists came together to protest the violence – even though such public expression could make them targets of these religious extremists. The demonstration served both as a testament to people’s passionate determination for a peaceful transition. Libyans recognize a new tyranny that could emerge is violent extremism in the name of Islam. Libyans at home and across the diaspora have expressed a firm dedication to not let that happen.
Last week, I kept daily contact with my friends in Benghazi. I fear for their safety. In fact, I begged them to keep a low profile. It is not a stretch of the imagination that those who targeted U.S. citizens would start targeting Libyan friends of U.S. organizations. One of my close Libyan colleagues from Benghazi pushed back strongly. She reminded me that as a lawyer she was one of the first people in Benghazi to sit in protest in front of the court house. She reminded me that the most frightening person to every Libyan had been Qaddafi. If the Libyan people could stand up to him, how could they not stand up to these extremists, she asked.
With that question I found a new reason to continue to hope.
Note: Originally posted on the U.S. Institute for Peace site. Reposted with permission of author, Manal Omar. Omar is Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa Programs at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Barefoot in Baghdad. Follow Omar on Twitter: @barefootinbaghdad.