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.

Mohammad Hannon/AP/File
Libyans and Americans stand with wreaths, a poster, and a photo of US Ambassador Chris Stevens on it as they gather in front of the US consulate gate to pay their respect to the victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate, in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 17.

To Ahmed Bani, US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was simply “Chris,” as he was to people throughout Benghazi.

“When he passed in the street, the young men would call out, ‘Hello, Chris!’ They knew his face,” he says. “And he would laugh and say hello. This is the right way to deal with people here.” 

Mr. Stevens was newly arrived in Benghazi as the US envoy to anti-Qaddafi rebels when Mr. Bani, an Air Force colonel turned rebel spokesman, first met him. “Work for your country, not yourself,” Stevens advised him at their first meeting in spring 2011. “Work as a Libyan, not as Ahmed Bani.” 

Stevens always put his country first, Bani says. Yet according to Libyans who knew him, he shone as an advocate for America in large part simply by being himself: friendly, modest, and interested in the lives of ordinary people. His death last month during an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was met with shock and sadness in Libya – feelings that are a rare achievement of sorts in a region inclined to distrust American power. 

“We’d never seen an American ambassador who walks in the streets, visits shops and sits down with people – a down-to-earth person,” says Atia Lawgali, deputy minister of culture and civil society, who knew Stevens. “In this regard, he was unique.”

Stevens’ habits contrast with those of many US diplomats in unstable countries like Libya. Security concerns keep many within the walls of fortified embassies, while security details during trips outside can make it hard to get friendly with locals. While his exposure has been questioned in light of his death, the risks of his outreach helped advance America's image. 

Winning Arab trust is no easy task. While Arabs often say they respect Americans as individuals, many also cite decades of American military ventures – notably wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and support for Israel as grounds for distrusting the US government.

Just 21 percent of people in four Arab countries, plus Pakistan and Turkey, believe the US supports democracy abroad, according to a July poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington. Libya isn’t among the countries polled, but skepticism of US foreign policy is echoed here. Many Arab autocrats, including Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, have spent years portraying the US as their peoples’ enemy.

“In every speech he made on TV, he had to say something bad about the US or Israel,” says Salmin Eljawhari, a dental student and civil society activist in Benghazi. “I think there’s a generation who started to hate Israel and the US.”

Stevens, by all accounts, was fascinated by the Arab world. Tall, with a broad smile and shock of blond hair, he served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, studied Arabic, and entered the foreign service at age 31 after a brief career as an international trade lawyer.

“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.”

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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