Death in Benghazi: The Dark Side of the Citizens’ Revolt in Libya

09.12.12

Death in Benghazi: The Dark Side of the Citizens’ Revolt in Libya

09.12.12
U.S. Dept of StateU.S. Dept of State

By Binoy Kampmark for The Conversation

The American delegation in Benghazi has been left reeling by the deaths of four of its staff, amongst them Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The deaths occurred in an effort to evacuate the consulate, which came under attack from a heavily armed mob.

History is tinged with irony. It was only last year that President Barack Obama, along with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saw Benghazi as a place of promise against a vengeful Gaddafi regime. Having been seduced by the humanistic garble of philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a military intervention began to save the rebels from imminent slaughter. The rebels, in time, came to form what is now a rickety, patchwork democracy. The language itself suggests the problem US missions tend to have – their purpose is always promoted as messianic. The US presence in Libya is there, not for self-interest, but for Libya. That has not proven to be the easiest sell for Washington.

Liberation narratives are always awkward and rarely accurate. Those who assist in toppling dictators tend to leave the ground fresh for another insurrection. The flipside of the Arab Spring is fundamentalist usurpation. Chatter about democracy is meaningless when the institutional will is absent. The new Libyan regime has been supported by Western governments, but it lives precariously. All that mob violence generally requires is a vague pretext to bolster a lynching. What that pretext was in the Benghazi killings is not entirely clear. Was it the noxious video “Innocence of Muslims,” made by a real-estate developer and promoted by Koran-burning preacher Terry Jones? Or was mob violence a gift on the anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks, orchestrated with devastating effect?

US officials have taken it upon themselves to investigate what motivated the attacks. It will not require the gifted and the intelligent to discern some of the causes. “Innocence of Muslims” is merely a sideshow to both the way American power is projected and the Muslim world’s own problems, though it provides a pungent distraction for troubled communities. It also shows that mobilised groups of revolt can be formed rapidly, bypassing official channels and imperilling stability.

President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivers a statement regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivers a statement regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Lawrence Jackson)

Islamophobia in the US, trumpeted by Jones and backed by such figures as the Egyptian-American lawyer Morris Sadek, provides one side of the equation. The counter is provided by such organised efforts as seen in Benghazi. Both sides nourish each other’s assertions of intolerance. The power of these unofficial protests has reached such a level that General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joints Chief of Staff, personally called Jones to demand that he stop promoting the film.

The violent reactions here have the hallmarks of organised protest against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that were published in Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. What is notable there was that, while the cartoons did initially cause a flutter amongst the Danish Muslim community, it would take months before its embassies would be attacked. Notables among the Danish Muslim community were keen to globalise a local issue and publicise perceived abuses against Muslims in Denmark. And there is nothing more relieving to troubled regimes saddled with problems to marshal angst against a foe.

Questions will also be asked about the film’s distribution via a medium that continues to be used with enormous effect. Citizen journalists have embraced YouTube with avid enthusiasm. Abuses, atrocities and incidents are being captured and streamed with near uncensored relish. But countries and authorities have also exerted their prerogative to target them. Ken Doctor, a veteran analyst of the newspaper industry, suggests that it would be a mistake to see such technology as “neutral.” YouTube “can be cynically used. There are forces of darkness in the world that will rapidly use them, as well as forces for good.”

YouTube itself has decided to temporarily restrict access to the film in Egypt and Libya. The question now being put to the distributors is whether they should remove it altogether. This is a fine line, and one that vanishes when the not-so-thick skinned believe that burning down a consulate on the basis of a religious insult is worthwhile. Ironically, these protesters would be aghast if YouTube was to ban revealing material against their enemies. Censorship of such platforms as YouTube would itself be contrary to the spirit of openness and embrace the very limitations that tyrants would wish them to have. The reasons for Stevens’ death and those of his colleagues, lie elsewhere.

one comment
2 comments
Patrick Hall
Patrick Hall

The video’s trailer was released online on 1 July 2012 and no one seemed to notice. The video was aired on Egyptian television at the beginning of the month, but action was not taken by the protestors for a week or more.  North Africa and the Middle East have seen its share of anti-Western protestors, the deaths in Libya – by eye witness accounts – are looking more like an all-out assault and not a protest gone awry, and the newly elected Somali President had to hide away due to a failed assassination attempt.

I tend not to be one that enmeshes himself in conspiracy theories, but I cannot seem to wrap my mind around the timeline of events that led to the violence. The situations all seem to point towards a haphazard coordinated effort from…somewhere.

Why did the Egyptian media air the video when it knew the potential for unrest? Why did it take the protestors so long to find their outrage? Why were the first acts of violence in the weak democratic outcroppings in North Africa? Why was Somalia and Yemen – two states with weak centralized government and similar violent non-state organizations – the next dominos to fall?

Yes, it may all be happenstance; individuals beset on anti-American or anti-government fervor have decided now is the time to act out their anger towards state leaders. Perhaps, however, this is a coordinated effort from individuals that are using social media for the opposite ends – the anti-Arab Spring, if you will.

Patrick Hall
Patrick Hall

The video’s trailer was released online on 1 July 2012 and no one seemed to notice. The video was aired on Egyptian television at the beginning of the month, but action was not taken by the protestors for a week or more. North Africa and the Middle East have seen its share of anti-Western protestors, the deaths in Libya – by eye witness accounts – are looking more like an all-out assault and not a protest gone awry, and the newly elected Somali President had to hide away due to a failed assassination attempt. I tend not to be one that enmeshes himself in conspiracy theories, but I cannot seem to wrap my mind around the timeline of events that led to the violence. The situations all seem to point towards a haphazard coordinated effort from…somewhere. Why did the Egyptian media air the video when it knew the potential for unrest? Why did it take the protestors so long to find their outrage? Why were the first acts of violence in the weak democratic outcroppings in North Africa? Why was Somalia and Yemen – two states with weak centralized government and similar violent non-state organizations – the next dominos to fall? Yes, it may all be happenstance; individuals beset on anti-American or anti-government fervor have decided now is the time to act out their anger towards state leaders. Perhaps, however, this is a coordinated effort from individuals that are using social media for the opposite ends – the anti-Arab Spring, if you will.

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