2012 World News: Libya

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Libya Holds First Post-Qaddafi Election; Embassy Attack Becomes Political Issue in the U.S.

by Beth Rowen

Christopher Stevens

Christopher Stevens

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Libya continued its transition to democracy in July when the country held its first national election since Col. Muammar Qaddafi was ousted. The National Forces Alliance, a secular party led by Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-educated political scientist, prevailed over the Islamist parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the election to form a national congress. The win by the National Forces Alliance raised hopes that unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya was not trending toward Islamist rule. In August, the interim government, the Transitional National Council, handed power to the newly elected General National Congress. Mohammed Magarief, a longtime opposition leader and head of the National Front Party, was elected chairman of the Congress and thus became Libya's head of state. In September, Mustafa Abu Shagur, deputy prime minister, prevailed over Jibril in the second round of voting by Congress to become prime minister.

Four Americans Killed in a Terrorist Attack on U.S. Consulate

On Sept. 11, 2012, militants armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades fired on the American consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other embassy officials. Stevens was a widely praised diplomat and an advocate for the opposition in Libya, and had helped the new government in its transition to power. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.

The attack coincided with protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo over the release of a crude YouTube film, "Innocence of Muslims", that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and criticized Islam. U.S. officials initially claimed the attack was also in response to the video, but later said they believed that the militant group Ansar al-Shariah orchestrated the attack. The Obama administration was criticized for the lack of security at the consulate that left diplomats vulnerable and for not immediately acknowledging that it was a premeditated terrorist attack. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly accused Obama of releasing misleading statements to downplay the role terrorists played in the attack. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, was also drawn into the controversy. After the presidential election, Republicans in the U.S. Senate threatened to derail her potential nomination as secretary of state because, they claimed, in the days following the attack Rice said it was a spontaneous reaction to the release of "Innocence of Muslims", rather than a terrorist attack. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended Rice, saying she was relaying information she received from the CIA. However, Rice withdrew herself for consideration in December.

Clinton appointed an independent panel to investigate the attack, and in its highly critical report, the panel said the U.S. State Department failed to provide adequate security at the American Embassy in Tripoli and the consulate in Benghazi, overly relied on local militias for security, and did not fulfill requests for safety improvements at the compounds. It also cited "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels." The report listed 29 recommended actions and improvements, and Clinton said she would act on all of them. Several State Department officials resigned after the release of the report.

The Libyan government condemned the attack and vowed to track down the perpetrators, though it proved too weak and ineffectual to do so. Indeed, the attack proved how little control the government has over the country's disparate militias, which act as the country's police yet operate independently of each other and the government. Ten days after the attack, several thousand Libyan citizens descended upon several militia headquarters and demanded that the government break up the groups. In mid-October the Libyan government said Ansar al-Sharia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala organized the attack, but did not detain the suspect.

In October, the National Congress fired Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, citing its disapproval with the government he assembled. Ali Zidan, a career diplomat who served under Qaddafi before going into exile, was then elected prime minister. Zidan prevailed over an Islamist candidate. The political upheaval further illustrated the weakness of the fledgling government.

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