Why Benghazi should give us a lesson in humility

Why Benghazi should give us a lesson in humility

The violent events that shook the Libyan city of Benghazi must become an opportunity to rethink all that we took for granted since the rise of the “Arab Spring.” Indeed, even though nobody can regret the end of Moammar Gadhafi’s reign, the road toward peaceful perspectives remains long and shaky in Libya.

There is little doubt that a majority of Libyans stand against the attack that cost Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of the U.S. consulate their lives. The emotion that has been provoked by an anti-Islam film made in the U.S. does not mean that angry people support violence. In 2001, surveys showed that even though a majority of the Muslim world did not feel necessarily sorry for the World Trade Center attacks, they did not support al-Qaeda’s violent means.

The fact that some people felt offended by Sam Bacile’s film does not mean that they necessarily watched it. Nevertheless, the unrest that is spreading around the Arab world and beyond should come as an opportunity for us to understand what went wrong in our analysis of the region’s realities.

First, a lot of observers failed by stating that Libya’s “war of liberation” would necessarily benefit the image of the United States and their allies in both the country and the region. While Barack Obama benefits from a much better image compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush, America is still perceived as an arrogant player that uses the Muslim world in general, and the Arab world in particular for its own purposes. Oil-rich Libya may have benefited from NATO’s intervention, but the Syrian case is still pending. Other authoritarian regimes, starting with the Gulf countries, continue to be close allies of Washington, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still not solved and Iraq and Afghanistan are far from becoming stabilized. All these elements develop this feeling of a double-standard approach to the region’s issues.

Second, few people stood ready to acknowledge that Libya’s “war of liberation” was a global failure. The situation was not better off under Gadhafi. Nevertheless, while the so-called international community hastened the conditions for the creation of an anti-Gadhafi strategy, it was too quick on relying on self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” that proved to not be strong enough to handle a transition process. The result has been the creation of a situation similar to Iraq. Militias defy governmental security forces, tribes located on oil-rich areas want to negotiate usage on their own conditions, ideological disagreements (i.e. Islamists vs. non-Islamists) block political perspectives, floods of illegal migrants and arm-trafficking spread in the country and in the subregion, and radical elements find an easy way to settle in some parts of the territory, including Benghazi, the cradle of the “revolution.”

Third, believing that the “Arab Spring” holds a magic formula that can help solve the Middle East and North African region’s pending issues is nothing more than a Western myth. While a lot of Western countries and observers look at the Arab world the way Lawrence of Arabia observed the Arabian Peninsula from high dunes, reality is much more complex than they imagine. This is where Benghazi’s main lesson comes. The “Arab Spring” is more than welcome, but at the same time, it has opened Pandora ’s Box. In Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Syria and possibly Bahrain, elections and political representativeness are and will not be enough to bring durable solutions. Decades of authoritarianism may have frustrated people. But citizens of the region are also looking for better socioeconomic perspectives, a brighter future, a serious increasing of their average standard of living, less interference from the outside, and more respect for their culture and beliefs.

Anyone who believed that the “Arab Spring” would allow the Arab world to turn into an oasis of peace proved to be wrong. Benghazi’s attack is neither a precedent, nor a serious trigger. It is rather a revelator for how much we exaggerated Libya’s “success story.” International interference in Libyan affairs in 2011 had put an end to the “Arab Spring’s” natural evolution. And even those who expected the so-called international community to come and hasten the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria will have to lower their expectations from now on.

Dr Barah Mikaïl is a senior researcher on the Middle East and North Africa at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think tank for global action that provides analysis of key debates in international relations.