|Libyan civilians help an unconscious man, identified by witnesses as US ambassador Christopher Stevens,
in the consulate compound in Benghazi. (AFP)
Washington, Sept. 12: Where was Libya’s “interim” President when Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador, and three other American personnel were killed in Benghazi, coincidentally on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks?
Mohammed el Megarif had just returned from a visit to Bani Walid, a town with 100,000 people, 150km from the national capital of Tripoli. Bani Walid is still controlled by forces loyal to deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi. There, he successfully negotiated an agreement for the release of one of his men who had participated in the capture and execution of Gaddafi.
That el Megarif could safely go to this town, where Gaddafi’s pictures are displayed at weddings or his speeches blare from car stereos, and conduct negotiations for the release of someone who captured Gaddafi, whom Bani Walid’s residents still revere, tells its own story.
That it happened during a week when the American Ambassador to Tripoli’s new government is not safe even in his consulate compound in Benghazi, the cradle of the country’s anti-Gaddafi insurrection, illustrates the dramatic contrasts in Libya’s contemporary story.
It is a story of how messed up Washington’s Middle East policy is. That mess could degenerate into a catastrophe if the Western powers replicate in Syria what they did in Libya and use force to remove Bashar al Assad from power without a negotiated replacement.
The only country that is aligned to America that seems to understand the dangers inherent in Washington’s policy towards their region, Syria in particular, is Israel, howsoever an irony that may be.
A year and a half ago, almost to this day, India’s deputy permanent Representative in New York, Manjeev Singh Puri, told the Security Council why India could not vote for a resolution on Libya which the Western powers got the Council to adopt under false pretences and then proceeded to misuse their trust and the UN to launch an attack on Libya.
Re-reading Puri’s speech delivered on March 17 last year is like reading a prophecy. “We are very concerned with the welfare of the civilian population and foreigners in Libya,” the Indian deputy permanent representative told the Council then.
Puri regretted that in their haste to remove Gaddafi from power, “the resolution that the Council has adopted today authorises far-reaching measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter with relatively little credible information on the situation on the ground in Libya. We also do not have clarity about details of enforcement measures including who and with what assets will participate and how these measures will be exactly carried out”.
Chapter VII allows the Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression and…decide what measures shall be taken…to maintain or restore international peace and security” including military and non-military means.
As America mourns its first Ambassador to die in the course of duty in 24 years – the last was Arnold Raphel, envoy to Pakistan in 1988 – it does not help for India to say “we told you so.” Nor is this a time to gloat that New Delhi had the perspicacity to see the dangers ahead in the western misadventure in Libya.
Unlike in India, the reaction in Moscow today has been that the Benghazi violence vindicated Russia’s opposition to Western military intervention in Libya or Syria. True to diplomatic correctness, the Russian Foreign Ministry “resolutely condemn(ed) any attack on foreign diplomatic missions as a terrorist attack, which cannot be vindicated.”
But others linked to the government spoke without ambiguity. The New York Times quoted well-known Arabist Yevgeny Satanovsky as saying that “it is a tragedy to the family of the poor ambassador, but his blood is on the hands of Hillary Clinton personally and Barack Obama personally. You are trying to distribute democracy the way we tried to distribute socialism” during the Soviet era.
Crisis such as the killing of a high-profile diplomatic envoy prompts governments and others reluctant to face uncomfortable truths to look for scapegoats.
Therefore, it will probably come to be believed that ambassador Stevens died in the attack on the Benghazi consulate by those who were infuriated by a film made in the US that irresponsibly portrayed Prophet Mohammad in a poor light.
But even in Libya — or maybe especially in Libya where militias are well-organised — spontaneous popular protesters inflamed by religious passion do not go to demonstrations armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
File picture of Stevens in a hotel lobby in Benghazi. (AP)
Spontaneous protesters usually go unarmed or at the most lightly armed as they did in Cairo yesterday, also angry over the same film, Innocence of Muslims.
The worst that the Egyptian demonstrators did was to scale the US embassy’s compound walls somewhat like Tibetan protesters did at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi during a state visit from Beijing some years ago.
The Cairo demonstrators, as in other anti-American demonstrations which have become fairly routine in Muslim countries, brought down a US flag and replaced it with a black flag.
Those who killed the US ambassador in Libya also knew the precise moment when to use their heavy weaponry against the consulate in Benghazi. They used it to deadly effect when Stevens entered the building to personally supervise the evacuation of the post as it came under gradual pressure from demonstrators.
The view is growing here as authorities review yesterday’s events that a conspiracy may have been in the making for months. The visit by Libya’s interim President to a Gaddafi stronghold without incident also suggests that a reconciliation is under way in Libya, howsoever tenuous it may be, while Washington is left out in the cold.
Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Margelov took the bull by its horns. He told Interfax news agency in Moscow today that “the frequency of these outbursts, unfortunately, has been growing since the ‘Arab Spring’ brought to power political groups of Islamic orientation, either open or indirect” in many countries.
As the rebellion against Gaddafi was growing, both The New York Times and The Washington Post had reported the presence of al Qaida in the ranks of the Libyan rebellion.
Even a front page story about an anti-Gaddafi militia leader in Tripoli who was a prisoner in Guantanamo published in the Post did not cause any decision-makers in Washington to lose sleep over the Obama administration’s Libya policy, going by decisions that were made on the conflict.
When bits about the film that is now at the centre of anti-US protests began circulating on the Internet in July, there was no robust denunciation here of that enterprise unlike Israel’s response.
In Jerusalem, Israeli officials today went so far as to deny that the film-maker is an Israeli citizen although Sam Bacile has said that he is a dual citizen, an Israeli and an American Jew.
A 56-year-old California real-estate developer, he has now gone into hiding.