The Sept. 11 killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens is a disaster for Libya's post-Qaddafi transition. The perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi ruthlessly exploited Libya's fluid security situation and capitalized on the symbolism of 9/11, all to undermine the country's heretofore impressive steps towards democracy and endanger its burgeoning relationship with the United States.
I met Ambassador Stevens on a handful of occasions. He was a casual and approachable man who boasted an impressive personal touch. His killing is not only a tragedy for both Americans and Libyans -- it is an attack on the engagement efforts between the two countries that he symbolized. It is no small irony that Stevens was killed as he was in Benghazi to open up an American cultural center. The likely long-term effect of this tragedy is that the U.S. mission in Benghazi will be shut down indefinitely, and plans to open a full consulate will be shelved. This is terrible news for the new Libya: Benghazi needs the mission, the cultural center, and the consulate to help overcome its decades of isolation under Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Stevens worked tirelessly to support a free Libya. Since his untimely death, he has received well-deserved praise from all quarters for his work in the country. It seems only natural to ask, then, how he would handle the crisis that Libya currently finds itself in. As a staunch advocate of increased U.S. engagement in Libya, he frequently spoke about the nuts and bolts that would be needed to move the U.S.-Libyan relationship to the next level -- seemingly trivial things like deploying a full-time commercial officer to work in the U.S. Embassy and smoothing the visa hurdles that prevent more Libyan students from studying in the United States. He was especially a believer in giving the Libyans whatever technical expert they were clamoring for -- the last time I spoke with him, he told me that his Libyan counterparts wanted Americans with experience in integrating war veterans back into society. If he were still alive, Stevens would understand that cowering inside the embassy has the potential to make Libya more, not less, dangerous for U.S. personnel.
The murder of Stevens, as well as other American and Libyan personnel, has unsurprisingly overshadowed the country's recent positive developments. On July 7, free and fair elections were held in Libya and a non-Islamist majority was elected to the General National Congress (GNC). The new body, which assumed power on Aug. 8, had been taking steps to combat the low-level militia violence that has plagued the country since the fall of Qaddafi. That progress is now being called into question. Just like Egyptian terrorists who attack tourists at the pyramids or at Sinai's beaches, the Libyan militants struck at the very lifeblood of their country's economy. If the security situation deteriorates and foreign companies cut back on their investments, Libya's transition to democracy will have little chance of success, despite the goodwill of both the Libyan people and the international community.
Amid a week filled with tragedy, Libya took another step forward: On Sept. 12, the GNC convened to elect Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister, making him the first truly elected leader in the country's history. So joyous was this news that many Libyans resumed their habit of firing celebratory rounds into the night sky.