By Yusra Tekbali
Friday 21 September was the UN International Day of Peace. Libyans, still reeling from the aftermath of the tragic death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens during an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, marked the occasion with a peace march to show the world that the vast majority of them reject violence. For me, participating in the march provided an occasion to reflect on my country’s future and consider how we can move forward after this violence.
Throughout the revolution, Libyans had hoped to create a democratic country free of violence that would play a positive role in the international community, and would be inclusive of all its citizens. Today, it is more important than ever that ordinary Libyans and the government both work towards this goal.
I last saw Ambassador Stevens at the Tripoli International Airport as he was waiting to catch a flight to Benghazi. We spoke about America and Libya. I asked him why he was travelling to Benghazi and he responded by saying “I love Benghazi. I spent eight months there during the revolution and have many friends there.”
The fact that he did have many friends made his death, which the United States and Libya both denounced as an act of terrorism carried out by a violent minority, all the more tragic. Soon after he died, some videos were released showing Libyans trying to save him.
In Benghazi, and all over Libya, Stevens’ friends – from all walks of life and political affiliations – came together to mourn his death. They laid wreaths in remembrance and cleaned up the US consulate. They also called for a day of protest against violence and demanded the government reel in armed militias in an effort to end Libya’s lawlessness.
Libya is now struggling to move forward. The fact that Libya’s General National Congress held elections for Prime Minister as planned helped show Libyans and the world that Libya is committed to democracy and will continue to trudge ahead on this path.
In the aftermath of the US consulate attack, there has also been a tremendous popular outcry against the presence of militias in the country. Last week, Libyans held a massive demonstration in Benghazi to push the government to do more to reign in these groups. The government has responded by calling on militias, including the one responsible for the attack, to disband.
As Libya moves forward, it is also important that it steps into the international community. There is debate about the United States’ role in Libya and whether it was beneficial or not – but we should not forget that many Libyans have a positive view of the United States. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur rightly pointed out that, according to an August 2012 Gallup poll, the majority of Libyans approve of the United States’ role in Libya, which was part of an international coalition that included Arab countries.
Libya is witnessing the rebirth of its political culture after the revolution. It will take many years to get it right as laws will be written and rewritten, the constitution must be decided on and the government must deal with militias operating outside the law. Libyans must also take steps to reconcile internal division, especially between those who supported the Gaddafi regime and those who fought against it, and between those who have returned after living in exile and those who stayed in the country.
Sometimes, the voices of those who struggled in the revolution are barely audible amidst the cacophony of a new country being born. One of those voices, Mohammed Nabbous, a journalist who was killed during the revolution by Gaddafi forces and whose life inspired a generation, said, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”
I remembered these words this past week as Libyans lit candles in honour of Ambassador Stevens – both literally, and metaphorically, by standing up for peace and harmony.
Let us hope that the ideals of those who struggled in the revolution for freedom and dignity in Libya are not only remembered but also realised, just as Ambassador Stevens’s strength and service to democracy should be.
Yusra Tekbali is a freelance journalist and civil society advocate currently based in Tripoli.