The wide cement walkway that separates Lafayette Park from the front lawn of the White House is the unofficial no man’s land of Washington, D.C. Just north of it lies the rarified sphere of the West Wing; to the south of it, the banalities of life in a sedate city. The Wednesday evening after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a flag waved at half-staff in remembrance of the four Americans left dead, among them Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens—the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979. A Secret Service agent did a sweep of the front lawn with his dog a little before 7 p.m. as haggard West Wing staffers made private phone calls and tourists noodled back and forth happily on Segways.
Greetings of “kaifik?”—how are you?—and “salam”—peace and hello—peppered the air. A group speaking both Arabic and English gathered, pushing long, slender candles through Styrofoam cups to protect flames from the breeze. Earlier in the day, a Libyan American social association sent out a notice about its plans for a candlelight vigil in front of the White House, and word seemed to have spread fast through the tight-knit Libyan community of Northern Virginia.
“We’re shocked, because we loved Mr. Stevens,” says Ahmed Nabbus, a native of Benghazi who’s lived in the U.S. for the past 32 years. “He was a really down-to-earth person. We met him a few times. He really wanted to help Libya come out of those 42 years of hell under Gadhafi.”
Many of the Libyan Americans who gathered for the vigil have traveled to the country since the revolution and overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi began early last year. Hanaa El Mahjoub was in Benghazi only two days ago. She wore a U.S. flag tied around her neck, the red and white stripes coordinated with the blue hijab framing her face. She worried about what the attacks meant for the stability and security of Libya, and like anyone in the crowd who’s been to Benghazi lately, El Mahjoub sees the organized and armed groups of men roaming the city as a threat to the country’s democracy, still in its infancy.
“It’s not safe right now,” she says. “There are a lot of Gadhafi guys there. Al-Qaeda. Salafis.” Through a translator, she talks about her recent interaction with law enforcement in Benghazi in a mix of Arabic and English: After a near-fatal collision with a car making an illegal turn, she went to a police officer and asked him to pursue the reckless driver. The officer, who was unarmed, refused because he worried that the driver might have a weapon.
This lack of faith in the ability of public servants to perform their duties effectively goes hand in hand with worries about the general weakness of civic society in Libya after decades of totalitarian rule. Aly Abuzakuk, an independent activist who lived in America for decades after fleeing the Gadhafi regime, returned to Libya in May 2011 with a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, intending to help rebuild the country's stunted civic society. Since then, he’s held 20 Workshops on Effective Citizenship around the country. His classes cover the “ABCs of democracy,” he says—everything from basic constitutional and human-rights principles to how to establish political parties and run effective elections. Workshop attendees have included physicians, lawyers, activists, and teachers.
Speaking by phone Wednesday afternoon, Abuzakuk expressed shock at the attack on the consulate in Benghazi but said that it is crucial for the Libyan government to pursue justice against the attackers within the confines of the country’s court system. He finds that the democratic values that are the most difficult to translate into Libyan society, which was marked by tribalism under Gadhafi and remains wary and suspicious post-revolution, are those of freedom of expression and unified rule of law.
“Citizenship is not just duties. It’s obligations,” Abuzakuk says. “Citizenship means that you are respectful of the law of the land, that you do not take into your hands things that you do not like. You use only the civil discourse to criticize or to propagate your ideas. Nobody should curtail your ideas, but if it goes from using ideas to using violence, I think the government has to stop it. It’s not freedom of expression anymore. It’s terrorism.”
A few minutes before the start of the vigil, Khalid Sanaalla, a Benghazi-native visiting the U.S., repeated the refrain that echoed throughout the night: The people who perpetrated the attack on the consulate are out of the mainstream. He thinks they did it in an effort to hurt relations with the United States and returns a question in kind: Will America continue its solidarity with Libya?
Standing quietly next to Sanaalla is Mohammed Gawas, who has come to America from Tripoli for medical treatment for burns sustained during the February 2011 protests in Tripoli, where he was a civil-engineering student, that have badly disfigured his face. Does he think that the Libyan authorities will be able to apprehend the perpetrators of the attack and bring them to justice?
“Inshallah,” Gawas says. The men standing around him laugh wryly.