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For Libyans, Amb. Stevens was simply 'Chris'

US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed last month, made a rare and powerful difference as a US diplomat through his accessibility to Libyans.

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“He was one of our best diplomats, a very committed Arabist,” says David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and former US diplomat in several Arab countries, including Libya, who knew Stevens. “He had all the right instincts; selfless, dedicated – and smart.”

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Stevens first served in Libya as deputy chief of the US mission from 2007 to 2009. He returned via a Greek cargo ship in April 2011 as the US envoy to revolutionary leaders in Benghazi. 

Soon after arriving, he went to see Bani in the latter’s office. The two would meet there regularly to discuss Libya – and life. 

“He asked me about my life as an officer – how I joined the Air Force, and how I joined the revolution,” Bani recalls. 

Bani told Stevens about his plans in 1981 to train as a commercial pilot in the UK – plans thwarted by the Qaddafi regime, which forbade him from traveling and put him in the Air Force. Other times, Stevens would ask Bani’s assessment of NATO air strikes against regime forces, a question he also put to ordinary Libyans, Bani says.

In early summer 2011, Stevens and Lawgali met for the first time. Over the following year the two worked together to support the civil society that was flowering in Libya after years of repression.

For Lawgali, such cooperation trumps politics as the key to building relations, a conviction formed during 15 years studying and working in the US.

“In the Middle East, we concentrate on politics,” he says. “But when you live in the US and find that people there aren’t really different from people you know, you start rethinking politics and its importance.” 

In October 2011, the two men attended the opening of Hamza Tawassal, an NGO workspace in Benghazi launched by US charity Mercy Corps, with support from USAID and Libya’s culture ministry. 

“Mr. Stevens talked about how the US would help Libyans achieve democracy,” says Ms. Eljawhari, then working for Mercy Corps. “And he tried to talk with people in Arabic, even though he said he was just a beginner.” 

Stevens’ term as US envoy to Libya ended the following month, but he returned last May as ambassador. On Sept. 11 he was visiting Benghazi to open an American cultural center when protests erupted there over an anti-Islam film. An attack on the consulate left Stevens and three colleagues dead. US officials say they believe the attack was pre-planned; an investigation is ongoing.

In the following days, Libyans marched in the streets to condemn the film and the violence, and mourn the ambassador named on placards as “a friend of Libya.” 

Ms. Eljawhari helped organize demonstrations in Benghazi. Some passersby joined in; others questioned any sympathy for the US in light of the anti-Islam film.

On Sept. 21, thousands marched in the city, prompting a hardline Islamist militia accused of involvement in the consulate attack to withdraw peacefully from its base.

“I can’t tell you that all people love international support,” Eljawhari says. “But in general, most people who want to build a country open to the world welcome cooperation with the US and other countries.” 

That is where the US could play a helpful role, say Bani and Lawgali. They suggest training for state security forces, student exchange programs, and language teaching as potential avenues of support. 

America must also name a new ambassador. Lawgali hopes it will be someone like Stevens. 

“Just as Americans have a certain image of Arabs, Arabs have a certain image of Americans,” he says. “This guy came and presented a different, and positive, image.”

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