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Stanford scholar comments on ambassador’s death in Libya

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A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya is seen in flames
Photo credit: 
REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

On the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, protestors stormed the American embassies in Egypt and Libya. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in attacks in Benghazi. The violence is a turning point in U.S.-Arab relations and a backlash against American involvement in the democratic transitions happening in Arab Spring countries. Pointing to the work of Arab Islamic extremists - or Salafists - Lina Khatib, head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at FSI's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, discusses how the threat of democratic gains may have emboldened Islamic radical groups across the larger Arab world.

What provoked the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya?

The claimed cause of the attacks is popular anger at a U.S.-produced film that is allegedly disrespectful of the Prophet Mohammad. However, the timing of the attacks, coinciding with the anniversary of September 11, 2001, is not accidental. Beyond the film, the attacks were provoked by the shifting political landscape in the Arab world — particularly in Libya — where the popularity of Salafists has been declining. At the same time, the weakness of the National Transitional Council in Libya and its having reached out to the Salafists in the first place in order to maintain stability in Libya have been exploited by the Salafists, giving them confidence that they could engage in such action with few repercussions.

What motivated the Salafists to attack the U.S. embassy?

In Libya, the Salafists have faced a double challenge: First, losing the support of Muammar Qaddafi, who, despite having fought them on many levels, still cooperated with and co-opted Islamist militias, and even threatened to unleash them in the wake of the February 17 revolution. Second, losing popular support, since the Libyan elections that took place in July saw a non-Islamist party claiming the majority of the seats. Salafists have felt marginalized and threatened. Like in Egypt, they have played on anti-American sentiments to appeal to the population. The production of the U.S. film provided them with a way to orchestrate a high-profile action with several aims: sending a message of defiance to seculars and to the West; appealing to the local population; and proving that while they may have lost politically, they are still a force to be reckoned with militarily.

What is the significance of the U.S. diplomat's death in Libya?

The death of Ambassador Stevens is a highly controversial event; no U.S. envoy had been killed in the Middle East since Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr. in 1976 (in Lebanon). The death signifies the grave challenges facing the United States as well as transitional and sitting governments in the Arab world regarding Islamist extremists. Although the Arab world is witnessing the beginning of a new era carrying much optimism, we must never forget that because democratic gains are a loss for radical groups, they are likely to go to extreme measures to jeopardize democratic transition and reassert their power.

How will these events impact U.S. foreign policy towards Libya's new government and the larger Arab world?

The death of Ambassador Stevens presents a serious challenge to President Obama as he tries to negotiate a tough stance against terrorism as well as maintaining good relationships with Arab allies, particularly during this critical period ahead of the presidential election. The United States must not lose sight of the larger goal: supporting a stable, democratic Arab world. In an oblique way, the embassy attacks also raise alarm bells about the way the U.S. has been handling the crisis in Syria as well, with radical Islamist groups there growing in strength and popularity as they take advantage of the chaos of the civil war—a situation enabled by the lack of strong, effective measures against the Assad regime by the West in general and the United States in particular.

How would you describe Ambassador Stevens' legacy?

Ambassador Stevens had served in Libya for two years. He knew the country well and had also served in the Middle East before. He was a well-respected diplomat with a reputation for not being afraid to get his hands dirty and engaging with a variety of stakeholders in the countries he served in. Last year he was the U.S. envoy to the Libyan rebels and the National Transitional Council during a difficult period in the life of the Libyan revolution.