Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the Libya he leaves behind

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A couple of words about the Ambassador. Chris Stevens was a first class diplomat who represented his country admirably. He was excited about the opportunity to help a nation newly freed from decades of brutal dictatorship and he went about his work with enthusiasm and optimism. I learned this first-hand when I visited Libya last month and stayed overnight at his residence in Tripoli.

On my first night in Libya, I had the opportunity to join Ambassador Stevens for an Iftar dinner (as I was traveling during Ramadan) with a number of newly-elected Libyan parliamentarians. They were excited about building a democracy, creating a vibrant economy, and restoring fundamental human rights for the Libyan people. And Ambassador Stevens was as excited about those prospects as they were.

In Tripoli, I was able to meet with many of our American personnel. Their assignment, as we certainly now know, is a dangerous one in a troubled region but, like so many Americans throughout the world who serve in the Foreign Service, often away from their families for long periods of time, they approach their jobs with the utmost dedication, professionalism and patriotism. Sadly, they sometimes pay the ultimate price in the line of duty. And that is what happened in Benghazi. May our fellow Americans rest in peace.

The murderers who took the lives of Chris Stevens and his colleagues should take no pride in their cowardly acts. They have merely shown the world that their brand of senseless violence is reprehensible and should be condemned by all decent people.

So now, what? Is Libya lost? On the negative side, we face in Libya some of the same issues we have faced throughout the region. Islamist militants seeking to establish a stronghold will no doubt continue to try to take advantage of the post-revolution transition from the Qadafi era. When I met the transitional Prime Minister, Abdurrahim El-Keid (a former Professor of electrical engineering at the University of Alabama), he stressed that one of the biggest challenges facing today’s Libya is the disarming of the 100,000 or so militiamen who still remain in Libya, and finding constructive work for them to do now that the revolution is over. Particularly alarming are estimates of thousands of unaccounted for shoulder-fired missiles that could be in the hands of virtually anyone, including al-Qaeda connected individuals seeking to disrupt the transition to democracy in Libya. Libyans also face the difficult task of transitioning from an authoritarian-led economy where the public sector reigns supreme to a market economy that can provide a better life for the Libyan people.  At the time of the revolution, 75% of the population worked in the public sector.

On the positive side, we know from some of our discussions with nascent Libyan political leaders that there is a great hope among the newly-freed Libyan people for the future. The country recently held elections for its National Congress, and unlike Egypt and Tunisia where elections resulted in Islamists receiving a majority of the votes, Libyans chose a Congress in which secular, non-Jihadist candidates made up the majority. Issues that I discussed with the newly-elected legislators included tolerance for different religious beliefs, equal rights for women, and the fundamental rule of law.

Libya also has abundant energy resources and port facilities that can jumpstart a domestic economy that was so long controlled by a dictator. And a safe and stable Libya could become a magnet for tourism and investment.

And to its credit, the new Libyan government has condemned and apologized for the attack in Benghazi and has vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

So there is plenty reason for hope in Libya but we learned all too painfully this week that radical forces could potentially negate the gains made following the revolution. Good people who worked side by side with Libyan freedom activists lost their lives this week while they were working to make Libya a better place. Let us hope that their hard work will not be in vain.  Let us hope that the forces of democracy prevail.

Chabot is chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Foreign Affairs Committee