by Michel Stors
Sunday, September 30, 2012

Embarrassed by attack on US Consulate, Libyans want militias gone but acknowledge their role

Muhammad Imran grimaced as he pushed his thumb firmly into his chin. The discomfort did not seem to bother him though. Standing in front of the charred remains of the US Consulate in Benghazi in which four Americans died on September 11th, he felt a sense of embarrassment. “The United States did so much for us during our revolution,” he said shaking his head. “It’s not right that we pay them back like this. It’s just not right.”

Throughout Benghazi, residents alternate between feelings of shock and shame. They mourn the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens, an accessible diplomat who held court at local hotels. They are uneasy with all the negative attention their country is receiving after the international media showered it with praise during the 2011 revolution. But more than that, they seek answers about an attack that not even Washington can provide.

Hours after the consulate attacks, Libyans began grieving for Stevens. Many changed the lead picture on their Facebook pages to display American flags and photos of the slain ambassador. They posted messages expressing their outrage. “We want all the Americans to know that we cry with them,” Nusayba Himalik said on the corniche within ear shot of the Mediterranean Sea.

But Benghazi’s citizens did more than speak out. Last Friday, they organized a march to protest the killings and to condemn the militias that control the city and dole out arbitrary justice. Around 30,000 people poured into the streets carrying signs that read, “No to killing foreigners. No to groups outside the law.” Parents brought their children as the elderly slowly dragged their canes through the streets. “Libya belongs to us,” Ahmad Kikhia shouted as others clapped approvingly. “We won’t let the extremists control our country.”

Although the event’s organizers had merely planned a visible protest against the militias, the demonstrators had other ideas. Participants in the march descended on militias’ bases, torched buildings, chased fighters away and carted off their rifles. The main brigade the protesters targeted belonged to Ansar Al-Shari’a, the group believed to be behind the consulate attack. “These fanatics won’t scare us anymore!” screamed Imad Boughniyya as the flames engulfed the building behind him.

Benghazi is a small city with a tiny downtown area. Its 630,000 residents spend most of their time among their close knit families. Nightlife is limited to cruising down the city’s few boulevards and male-only parties on rural farms. A few colonnades and old domes are all that remains from the three decades during which Italian colonialists controlled the country. Benghazi is a sleepy town that no one here seems to mind.

The day after ‘Libya’s second revolution’ as people here call it, a leader of a large militia that was spared the violence of the night before took stock of events. “People want to blame us for a few rotten apples,” the man known as Abu Yahya, referring to rogue militias that have harassed Libyans, told The Media Line. Like many of the men who took up arms during the revolution, he was a civilian. “We fought to get rid of (Libyan leader) Mu’ammar Al-Qaddafi. We protected Libyans and now they want us gone.”

Disbanded is exactly what Jabir Hamid wants of the militias. He has grown tired of the nightly celebratory gun fire and the pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns rumbling through the city. “The war is over. They should go home,” he says as he stops to buy a pack of cigarettes. “We didn’t fight a revolution against Qaddafi and his cronies to have new warlords.”

But Abu Yahya scoffs at the belief that the militias can disband overnight. He asks, “Who will provide the security against Qaddafi supporters? And who will arrest the guys behind the consulate attack?” It is a dilemma many here have sought to avoid confronting. The security services are too weak and disorganized and are largely unable to carry out their tasks. And they are neither in a position to arrest those suspected of planning the consulate attack nor able to provide American investigators the necessary security to investigate it. “We promised Libyans we would create a new country they could be proud of,” a member of the former interim government told The Media Line. “But we haven’t changed anything and have nothing to tell Libyans.”

And answers are what they want most. But with American investigators unable to work in the consulate to piece together clues and other intelligence officers pulled for lack of security, it will be a long time before Libyans learn who exactly was behind the lethal attack that took the life of a man they admired for his love of their country.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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