US fixation on Benghazi distracts from harsh reality of life in city
Published 24/10/2015 | 02:30
This week, Benghazi came to Washington in the form of yet another congressional hearing into the Obama administration's response to the 2012 attacks in the eastern Libyan city that claimed the lives of the US ambassador Chris Stevens and three compatriots.
Several inquiries, one by the State Department and others by congressional committees, into the fatal attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, have failed to come up with any real evidence that the Obama administration covered up what happened that day. The investigations found that the State Department did not provide the outpost with adequate security but they absolved then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US President Barack Obama of any personal responsibility.
That has not stopped Republicans from insisting there remain what they say are unanswered questions about the incident and using it to sully Ms Clinton's reputation as she prepares her campaign for the presidential elections next year. This week, Ms Clinton was grilled for almost 11 hours by the House committee on Benghazi. The three-year barrage of Republican messaging on the attacks, which sometimes included lurid and far-fetched conspiracy theories, have had an effect.
According to a poll released just before, 44pc of respondents were not satisfied with Ms Clinton's response to the 2012 attacks.
This week's congressional hearing did not result in any significant new revelations about what happened in Benghazi or Washington on the night of the attacks. Ms Clinton's adroit handling of the questions directed at her may go some way in quieting the storm over Benghazi. Her performance, just after vice president Joe Biden announced he would not seek the presidency, could bolster her standing when it comes to winning her party's nomination for next year.
But Republicans are unlikely to let the Benghazi controversy go and it will no doubt continue to be a central plank of their efforts to undermine the Democratic front-runner's 2016 campaign.
The fixation on Benghazi in the US, and the way it has been used in partisan politics there, feels utterly disconnected from the realities of the city. Few Libyans closely follow the Benghazi controversy in Washington. Many of those who do are puzzled, if not amused, at how the name of their country's second city has become such a hardy political meme.
Lost in the Benghazi brouhaha in the US is the sorry current state of the city that birthed the 2011 revolution which, with the help of a Nato-led intervention, brought Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year regime to an end. This week marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebel forces who had hunted him down to his hometown of Sirte. In those heady days, many hailed his ousting as a triumph of the uprisings and revolutions that collectively became known as the Arab Spring.
The Nato-led military intervention was broadly viewed as a success. Four years on, Libya has unravelled to an extent few there had expected. The country is divided, with two rival governments - one recognised, the other self-declared - two parliaments and two army chief of staffs competing with each other and backed by a myriad of armed factions. In between, Isil has found a foothold. Sirte, where Gaddafi met his bloody end, has become the main Isil stronghold in Libya, drawing both foreigners and Libyans to its ranks.
Benghazi has been wracked by fighting since last May when a renegade general named Khalifa Haftar, after unsuccessfully attempting a coup in Tripoli, declared war on militias there including Ansar al-Sharia, a hardline group whose members were accused of involvement in the 2012 attacks. Despite his bombast, General Haftar, appointed commander in chief by the recognised government earlier this year, shows little sign of being able to capture the entire city anytime soon. Several Benghazi neighbourhoods have been devastated, tens of thousands displaced and communities divided. Isil has entered the fray there too, leaving some locals wondering if General Haftar's purported 'war on terror' has in fact created an even bigger problem than existed before. General Haftar, meanwhile, shows all the signs of wanting to introduce military rule in Libya, though few believe he could control the vast desert nation.
It is all a far cry from the optimistic days of 2012 when Libya was taking its first tentative steps as a fledgling democracy, holding the country's first national elections in decades that July. The attacks of September 11 in Benghazi were a turning point. Some of Libya's international partners, particularly the US, became more cautious in their engagement with the country at a time when it needed it most. The consequences of that fateful night are felt far more keenly in Libya than in the corridors of Washington.